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    Wednesday, May 31, 2023

    Organization sues to stop Mystic Aquarium from importing 5 belugas

    Visitors interact with the beluga whales on July 16, 2012, at Mystic Aquarium. An animal protection nonprofit headquartered in Darien has filed a lawsuit to stop the aquarium from importing five beluga whales from a facility in Canada. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    An animal protection nonprofit headquartered in Darien has filed a lawsuit to stop Mystic Aquarium from importing five beluga whales from a facility in Canada.

    Friends of Animals announced Thursday that it has filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut against the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last week, the aquarium announced that NOAA had approved a permit application to import the whales from Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario. They would join the three currently in the Alaskan Coast exhibit at Mystic Aquarium, which typically sees 800,000 visitors a year.

    “You would think after all these years of already doing research on their belugas — Kela, 29, Natasha, 29, and Juno, 18 — scientists at Mystic (Aquarium) would understand what belugas need to thrive — lots of open ocean space and socialization, which they are robbed of in captivity,” Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit. “Beluga whales are extremely social — their pods range from a few fellow belugas to hundreds of individuals.”

    “They’re known to dive to 1,000-meter depths for periods of up to 25 minutes. The deepest record dive was to 3,300 feet, something they can’t do in shallow aquarium tanks,” she added.

    The lawsuit claims that the permit violates the Marine Mammal Protection and National Environmental Protection acts because the five whales the aquarium is seeking to import were born in captivity to parents that had been caught in the wild.

    “They were born to belugas ripped from the wild in the early 2000s from what is now a depleted population of belugas off the coast of Russia. Not only is it unprecedented for the government to issue a permit to import members of a depleted species of belugas for purported research, it is illegal,” Stephen Hernick, an attorney for Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program, said in the news release.

    The Friends of Animals also argues that the government didn’t adequately address the harms, including social and psychological trauma, that moving the whales might inflict on them.

    “It is well-documented that belugas are highly social animals who form lifelong bonds with other belugas. For the government to completely fail to acknowledge the social and behavioral harms that this permit would inflict on the belugas in its Environmental Assessment is indefensible,” Hernick said.

    Mystic Aquarium, which boasts the largest outdoor beluga habitat in the country, has argued that Marineland has more than 50 of the whales and faces an overcrowding problem. Studying whales in captivity is much more feasible than in the wild, aquarium officials have said, though some of the aquarium's research has been conducted in Alaska and the Arctic. Dr. Allison Tuttle, the aquarium's senior vice president of zoological operations, also has said that scientists use the data collected from whales in captivity, "where we know the background of the animals and where they are all under the same conditions to minimize variability," as a baseline to help them interpret data from wild whales.

    But, citing technological improvements, the Friends of Animals argues that any research to benefit belugas’ survival can be done in the wild.

    “Perhaps Mystic (Aquarium) has become more motivated by its own survival than by conservation. It ran a deficit of $2.5 million in 2017, according to its last publicly available tax filing,” Feral said. “And the aquarium knows how popular its beluga exhibit is. But a photo op is not research or conservation unless you are researching how to make more money.”

    A Mystic Aquarium spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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