Georgia Aquarium applies to import 18 wild-caught belugas–who would be first to reach the U.S. in 20 years

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2012:

Georgia Aquarium applies to import 18 wild-caught belugas–who would be first to reach the U.S. in 20 years

ATLANTA-The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has applied for a federal permit to import 18 beluga whales from the Sea of Okhotsk in eastern Russia. They could be the first belugas to be captured in the wild and brought to the U.S. for exhibition since 1992, when the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago imported four from the vicinity of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

Reported Bo Emerson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “The Georgia Aquarium application is part of a five-year, multimillion-dollar conservation program to improve the genetic diversity of captive belugas in the U.S.”

The belugas to be imported under the Georgia Aquarium permit, if the National Marine Fisheries Service issues the permit, would be distributed among several aquariums around the country.

Georgia Aquarium chief zoological officer William Hurley told Emerson that many of the 34 belugas in U.S. captivity are past prime breeding and calf-bearing age.

Opened in November 2005, the Georgia Aquarium already has four belugas–and has had three beluga deaths, one in 2007 from a bone disease, one in 2008 from an unidentified cause, and a calf born at the aquarium in May 2012, who survived just a few days.

“I’m on it!” responded Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry to ANIMAL PEOPLE. “We are working hard to organize huge opposition,” O’Barry said. “It’s such a bad idea that we think we can stop it dead in its tracks. The bastards are wrong and they know it.”

Population study

“The aquarium has spent about $2 million on research missions [to the Sea of Okhotsk] over the last five years to do population counts and epidemiological studies,” Emerson wrote. Some of the research was done under the auspices of the Species Survival Commission, a project of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The Species Survival Commission study was produced by a consortium including the Georgia Aquarium, Sea World Parks & Entertainment, the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration, Kamogawa Sea World of Japan, and the Ocean Park Corporation of Hong Kong.

Four of the five partners already exhibited belugas. Ocean Park in 2005 announced plans to import six belugas from the Sea of Okhotsk in 2005, to stock a “Polar Adventure” attraction that debuted on July 13, 2012. The Species Survival Commission study was reportedly completed in July 2010, but the findings were not

immediately released. The Hong Kong SPCA, Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, Animals Asia Foundation and Humane Society International meanwhile campaigned against the beluga acquisition.

Ocean Park chair Allan Zeman on August 29, 2011 announced that the belugas acquired for “Polar Adventure” would not be imported and exhibited after all. But those belugas, plus seven others, had already been captured in the Okhotsk Sea, and had reportedly been held for more than a year in anticipation of the transfer to Ocean Park.

What became of those 13 belugas is unclear. They may be among the 18 whom the George Aquarium proposes to import.

The focal concern of the Species Survival Commission was whether the Okhotsk Sea beluga population could withstand more captures for exhibition than are already occurring.

The researchers found that belugas were killed commercially on the Okhotsk Sea beginning in about 1917 in the Amur region, and in about 1925 in Sakhalinsky Bay. “Hundreds to thousands of belugas were taken each year,” the Species Survival Commission report recounted, “with a break between 1918 and 1925. The reported catch reached a peak of more than 2,800 in 1933 and declined to hundreds per year hereafter. Large-scale commercial exploitation of belugas in the southern and western Sea of Okhotsk had ended by about 1963 because there were few left to catch.”

A 23-year respite followed, but “A beluga live-capture operation for oceanaria was initiated in the Sakhalin-Amur region by Nikolay Marchenko for the Pacific Scientific Research Fisheries Centre in Vladivostok) in 1986,” the Species Survival Commission researchers continued. Since 1992, when Canada stopped live-capturing and exporting belugas, Russia has been the sole regular supplier of belugas to the oceanarium industry,” selling an average of 20 belugas per year to buyers in Japan, Canada, and elsewhere.

“In 1999,” the Species Survival Commission report noted, “fisheries officials in Russia issued a permit for 200 belugas to be hunted in the Okhotsk Sea. Thirty-one were taken, and their meat was exported to Japan for human consumption, before the Russian authorities withdrew the hunting permit and the export permit.”

The Species Survival Commission considered the risk that increased captures might send the Okhotsk beluga population into a decline parallel to those afflicting the isolated beluga populations of the Cook Inlet in Alaska and the junction of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers in Quebec. The Cook Inlet beluga population was believed to be about 1,300 in the late 1970s, but crashed for officially unknown reasons. Native hunters continued to be allowed to kill Cook Inlet belugas until 1995. The Cook Inlet belugas were listed as endangered in 2008. Just 340 were left in June 2010–and only 284 in June 2011.

The St. Lawrence/Saguenay beluga population has dwindled from circa 10,000 in 1885 to under 1,000 now, according to the Department of Fisheries & Oceans Canada.

The Arctic Circle beluga population, scattered among waters claimed by Russia, the U.S., Canada, and Greenland is believed to be about 30,000.

Shedd captures

At least 29 organizations campaigned against the Shedd beluga captures. Even the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans questioned the initial Shedd strategy of trying to capture belugas in 1989, two years in advance of completion of the new oceanarium that was to house them, then keeping them until needed in a relatively small tank at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. That arrangement insured that the belugas would be available for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and the TV cameras, but doubled their transport and readjustment stress.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans eventually limited the Shedd to capturing only two belugas in 1989. Those captures made the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium the focus of protests for three years, until the two belugas were moved to the Shedd. The Shedd then roused further outrage with the alleged rough captures of six more belugas who were chased to exhaustion and cornered with speedboats, then wrestled into submission as two different activist groups videotaped and tried to disrupt the procedures.

Two belugas, considered unhealthy, were released at the capture site. The remaining four were flown to Chicago on August 18, 1992-but on September 22, scarcely a month later, a pair died from overdoses of deworming medicine. The treatment was medically necessary, and at least one beluga among the four might have died without it.

However, a subsequent investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discovered that then-Shedd veterinarian Jeffrey Boehm, now heading the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, was not properly licensed in the state of Illinois. In December 1993, the Shedd paid a $2,510 fine as part of a settlement agreement involving nonadmission of guilt.

Nine days later–while denying any direct connection between the events–then-Canadian fisheries minister John Crosbie cut off Shedd access to wild-caught belugas to replace those who died by announcing that his government would “no longer consider the live capture of belugas for export.”

Puiji, the longest survivor of the Shedd’s first two belugas, died on October 27, 2011. “The Shedd had planned that Puiji and Immiayuk would be the core of its beluga breeding plans,” recalled Chicago Tribune reporter William Mullen. “Just five months before her death in 1999, Immiayuk gave birth to a female, Kayavak. Puiji gave birth to a female, Bella, in 2006, and a male, Nunavik, in 2009. The Shedd now has six remaining belugas, three of them the calves of Puiji and Immiayuk.”

Another beluga, a male, was born at the Shedd in December 2009, but lived for only a few hours.

The Shedd in October 2011 returned a 25-year-old male beluga named Naluark to the Mystic Aquarium “as part of a new strategy to impregnate one of the aquarium’s two 30-year-old females, Kela and Naku,” reported Joe Wojtas of the New London Day. “Also in the aquarium’s Arctic Coast exhibit is Juno, an 8-year-old male on loan from Sea World.”

Breeding failures

Said Mystic Aquarium senior vice president of research and zoological operations Tracy Romano, “The thought is that having some male competition might help spur some breeding activity.” Neither of the Mystic Aquarium’s two female belugas, Kela and Naku, have borne calves. Naluark, who has sired three calves, was previously housed

with Kela and Naku on breeding loan in 2001-2003, and in 2008-2009 was among nine Shedd belugas who were temporarily kept at the Mystic Aquarium while the Shedd facilities were renovated. The Mystic formerly had a second male beluga, Inuk, who died in February 2010 at age 28.

Belugas, among the most popular marine mammals in captivity, have not bred well in captivity. SeaWorld San Antonio, opened in 1988, has had the most success. Nineteen adult belugas kept there at various times, some on loan from other aquariums, have reportedly birthed 12 offspring.

The first captive-born baby beluga, Tuaq, was born to Kavna, who was pregnant when captured, at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1977. Tuaq died from a bacterial infection four months later. Her short life inspired the 1980 song “Baby Beluga” by the folksinger Raffi Cavoukian.

The Vancouver Aquarium tried for more than 30 years to breed belugas, without success. “Tiqa, born in June 2008, died on September 16, 2011,” recalled Lifeforce founder Peter Hamilton in an October 2011 letter to ANIMAL PEOPLE. “There have been three such beluga deaths in the past six years,” Hamilton continued. “Two were three years old; one was just a year old. Tiqa was the 37th known dolphin death at the Vancouver Aquarium. The aquarium breeding programs have failed. The only two male belugas have now been sent to Sea World for breeding,” Hamilton concluded.

With captive-bred baby belugas few and far between, and the application to import 18 adult belugas pending, “Marine mammal specialists from across the country descended on the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward to help care for a baby beluga who became separated from his mother shortly after birth,” reported Mark Thiessen of Associated Press.

The Seward beluga was “believed to be the first baby beluga rescue in the U.S., at least since federal record keeping began in 1972,” Thiessen recounted. “Other attempts at rescue resulted in calf deaths, or in one case, the calf being returned to the pod” among whom the calf was born. Georgia Aquarium’s director of animal training Dennis Christen arrived in Seward within 29 hours after the baby beluga was picked up on June 18, 2012 near South Naknek, on Bristol Bay, Thiessen wrote. Representatives of the Shedd and SeaWorld in San Diego were also soon on hand. But despite all efforts made to save him, the Seward baby beluga died on the morning of July 9, 2012.

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