A Whale of an Argument

A beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium

It’s hard not to like a beluga whale.

They look kind of like big long marshmallows with fins.

And their faces look as if they’re constantly grinning.

“They’re my favorite in the whole aquarium,” said a girl who was visiting the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, in an interview with Atlanta TV station WXIA.

But right now, the aquarium finds itself in the middle of a controversy – a controversy that centers on the beluga.

The aquarium wants to import 18 new belugas from Russia, to figure out “the secrets these animals hold,” as aquarium senior vice president William Hurley told the New York Times.

But a lot of animal advocates don’t want that to happen.

“There is no scientific purpose,” said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and whale expert at Emory University in Atlanta, in an interview with the Times.

“Their lives are ruined in captivity,” she added, in an interview with WXIA.  “They will be in a socially deprived situation where their autonomy is taken away.”

(A neuroscientist is someone who studies the nervous system that’s inside the bodies of all animals – including us humans.  And “autonomy” is another word for “freedom” or “independence.”)

Marino and thousands of other people have launched a campaign to get the National Marine Fisheries Service to reject the aquarium’s beluga plan.

“You are breaking (up) family groups,” said Canadian biologist Robert Michaud, in an interview with the Times.  “(And) the (aquarium) will never be the open ocean.”

Right now, the Georgia Aquarium has four belugas, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Hurley says he wants to import more belugas to maintain the “genetic diversity” of the whales at the aquarium.

(“Genetic diversity” means bringing in unrelated whales to mate with the whales that are already there.  When two related animals mate, they’re at a greater risk for having babies with birth defects and other health problems.)

“If you want to have enough of the right gender of animals, enough ages of animals to keep the population going, then you’re going to have to recruit in some new genetics,” Hurley told WXIA reporter Rebecca Lindstrom.

Some of the new belugas would join the current pod of whales at the Georgia Aquarium.

(A pod is like a herd or a flock.)

The rest would go to five other marine mammal parks in the United States.

But to Marino and the rest of the plan’s opponents, the genetic diversity argument misses the point.

According to them, it’s cruel and inhumane to capture wild belugas in the first place.

“They are intensely social animals with complex and lengthy migrations.  And they use a whole bunch of different habitats in different times of the year,” said Hal Whitehead, a marine mammal expert at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in an interview with the Times.  “There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that.”

Beluga whales usually spent the warmer months of the year in the cold waters of the Arctic.

When ice starts to cover the water’s surface, they migrate south to areas where the water does not ice over.

The 18 belugas at the center of the current controversy were captured in the Sea of Okhotsk – a body of water on Russia’s east coast that’s connected to the Pacific Ocean.

According to published reports, the whales are being kept in Russia right now, while U.S. officials decide whether to let them into the country.

The beluga population off the Russian coast is not considered endangered right now, according to the Times.

But with global warming becoming more and more evident in the Arctic, Hurley and other aquarium officials say it’s important to study belugas in captivity, to help protect the animals from climate change.

Many of the aquarium’s visitors agree.

“If we don’t figure out how to preserve their environment, this is a lost world,” said one of those visitors, Christine Marwick, in an interview with WXIA.  “I see (the belugas) kind of as an advertisement for trying to preserve (their) environments.”

Marino and the other opponents don’t buy that argument either.

“Although the Georgia Aquarium would like the public to think that there is a conservation purpose behind their capturing and importing these beluga whales, there’s absolutely no scientific evidence for it,” she told WXIA.  “This is about ticket sales.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to rule on the beluga plan early next year.

According to U.S. law, animals such as belugas are usually allowed into this country if they’ll serve an educational purpose.

Aquarium officials say the new belugas will do just that, by making people aware of the environmental challenges that Arctic animals are facing right now.

But according to the opponents, belugas belong in the ocean — not in aquariums.

“These mammals can’t thrive in captivity,” Marino told the Journal-Constitution.

What do you think?