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Animal rights group trying to stop export of five beluga whales to Mystic Aquarium

Mystic — A California-based animal rights group is urging Canada's minister of fisheries and oceans to not issue the export permit that Mystic Aquarium needs to acquire five beluga whales from Marineland of Canada in Niagara Falls.

While the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, has approved a permit for the aquarium to import the whales with a five-year ban on breeding them, the aquarium needs Bernadette Jordan to issue the export permit from Canada. 

The organization Last Chance for Animals is asking Jordan to deny the permit because the group says the transfer would not only endanger the whales but violate the intent of a 2019 Canadian law aimed at phasing out the captivity of whales, dolphins and other cetaceans as well as prohibiting them from being used for breeding or entertainment purposes. It also restricts their import and export but the minister of fisheries and oceans can approve permits for research purposes if it is in the best interests of the cetacean.

The law is designed to eventually end the captivity of cetaceans in Canada by banning their breeding. Facilities that have animals now can keep the ones they have and visitors can still go and see them. 

"This plan will send them somewhere to do what is illegal in Canada," said Miranda Desa, LCA's Canadian attorney about the proposed transfer. "That's not the intent of the Act."

She added that the approval of the transfer could set a dangerous precedent in which cetaceans could be shipped to other locations, thereby circumventing the law.

"We want to keep the whales here to have the benefit of Canadian law," she said.

Desa said her reading of the U.S. import permit indicates that once the permit expires in 2025, breeding of the five whales and other prohibited activities, such as some type of public demonstrations, could take place. The permit does state that it may be extended by NMFS and if the aquarium wants to continue research with the whales at the end of the permit, it should apply for a new permit one year prior to this permit's expiration.

Daniel Pesquera, from the aquarium's Boston-based public relations firm of Regan Communications, acknowledged that there is no clarity about what would happen when the permit expires. He said NMFA and the aquarium could review the permit and come up with new regulations or the restrictions and requirements in the permit could end.

Kate Goggin, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries spokesperson, said Friday that the question of whether Mystic Aquarium can breed the whales or have them engage in other demonstrations after the permit expires in 2025 will be determined by the office director depending on the circumstances at that time. The National Marine Fisheries Services is a division of NOAA. 

She added that should Mystic Aquarium choose at that time to continue research under a new permit, the new application would be published in the Federal Register for public comment.

LCA maintains the 10-hour transfer of the whales by flatbed truck and jet from Niagara Falls to Mystic is not only dangerous and stressful for the animals but will break the social bonds they have with the 50 other belugas at Marineland of Canada. 

The aquarium, though, maintains the whales will be moved from a facility where they live in overcrowded conditions to one where they will have top-level care by the aquarium's veterinary and animal care staff. According to media reports, Marineland has been the subject of complaints and investigations about its care of animals, and numerous orcas have died there. 

"We're moving the whales here so they can receive the best care possible," Mystic Aquarium spokesman Cassandra Giovanni said.

In addition, she pointed to the aquarium's 45-year history of safely transporting animals.

"Mystic Aquarium's reason for doing this is to help these animals as well as animals in the wild," Giovanni said. "A core component of who we are as an institution is our research and advancing beluga survival in the wild." 

She stressed that participation in the aquarium's various beluga research studies designed to improve the health and viability of belugas in the wild, is voluntary for the whales and they are not forced to do so. The U.S. permit outlines in great detail the aquarium's various research efforts and protocols and cites the objective of the permit as contributing to the knowledge of belugas and aid the recovery of  endangered populations in the wild.

Among the research studies are the whales' neuroimmunological response to stressors caused by environmental change, hearing and physiological responses to noise created by humans, diving physiology and testing of telemetry and imaging devices before they are deployed on wild belugas.

Desa said LCA also opposes research on captive belugas, describing them as sentient creatures who have not agreed to participate in these studies. She said there are also questions about how accurately the research done on captive whales translates to those in the wild.

"We want to end the exploitation of animals in all ways," she said.

The permit allows public display of the whales as part of an educational program about the research, the whales themselves and their endangered and depleted status. They cannot be trained for performance or included in any interactive program with the public but can be part of public demonstrations in which they demonstrate husbandry, medical, research or natural behaviors.        

It is unknown when Jordan, who has told LCA she had requested more information on the proposed transfer, will make her decision. Her office did not respond to questions and Giovanni said she did not know what information Jordan requested. LCA could appeal Jordan's ruling as well as a U.S. federal court decision in March that upheld the issuing of the import permit, which is valid through Aug. 31, 2025. Darien-based Friends of Animals had filed a lawsuit to try and stop the import permit from being issued.  

"We're looking to challenge this on multiple fronts," Desa said. 

Mystic Aquarium currently has three belugas residing in its 750,000-gallon Arctic Coast exhibit. They are Kela and Natasha, two 40-year-old females, and Juno, a 19-year-old male. The aquarium has never successfully bred its whales. 

The whales the aquarium wants to acquire from Marineland — four females and one male, all between 5 and 6 years old — were all born in captivity.   

Asked if Marineland is giving the whales to the aquarium or if the aquarium is purchasing them, Giovanni said she could not discuss the specifics of the agreement with Marineland. She said aquarium President Stephen Coan was not available to discuss the transfer.    

Getting the whales here 

Asked about the logistics of how the transfer would take place, Giovanni said she could not discuss them in detail because she said the complicated logistics and timing are still being finalized. She also declined to discuss the cost of the proposed transfer and how it was being funded.

But the import permit application states there would be two flights aboard a pressurized Airbus 300 cargo jet or similar aircraft. The whales would be placed in cradles partially filled with water and then loaded on a flatbed truck for the one-hour drive from Marineland to the John C. Munro Hamilton (Ontario) International Airport.

There, they would be placed on the plane and flown two hours to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks. There, they would be unloaded, put on another truck and driven one hour and 15 minutes to the aquarium, where they will be placed in the exhibit's pools. A veterinarian and other animal care staff will accompany the belugas. The temperature of the plane will be kept between 50 and 60 degrees, the whales' backs will be kept moist and aquarium staff will have water and ice to cool the whales, as well as sedatives if needed.   

Breeding restrictions

In a December 2020 memo to the aquarium, Donna Wieting, director of NOAA's Office of Protected Resources, wrote to Coan, saying she had approved the breeding prevention plan submitted by the aquarium.

Under terms of that plan, the aquarium will use ultrasound and, if appropriate, other sampling to determine the belugas' reproductive cycles during the January through June breeding season. When an ultrasound confirms the ovarian cycle is complete, the four Marineland females can rejoin the social group containing any reproductive males. The Arctic Coast 's exhibit includes side pools where animals can be segregated.    

The male being transferred from Marineland must be physically separated from any reproductively viable females at the aquarium beginning at age 8 or when he is determined to be sexually mature.

Wieting wrote that while NOAA expects the breeding prevention plan will be effective, "in the unlikely event that the plan should fail" and any of the imported beluga whales breed, it would be a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. She warned it could subject Mystic Aquarium to civil and criminal penalties, seizure and forfeiture of the imported beluga whales and their offspring and the modification, suspension or revocation of the aquarium's import permit.  

At the end of the five-year permit, the whales could continue to live at the Mystic or Georgia aquariums or another accredited facility.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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