Despite Public Opposition, NOAA Fisheries Approves A Permit To Import 5 Beluga Whales To Mystic Aquarium But Imposes Restrictions On Breeding, Public Interaction & Training For Performances

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) is among many other animal and environmental protection groups applauding the decision by the Department of Commerce to prohibit Mystic Aquarium from breeding five captive-born beluga whales from Canada as part of an import permit issued Friday. The permit also precludes Mystic from training the whales for performances.

Marjorie Fishman of AWI explained to WAN the significance of the decision, as this is the first time the federal government has placed restrictions on breeding captive mammals under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

As previously reported by WAN, the Connecticut Aquarium applied for a permit last year to import the belugas from Marineland Canada, a oceanarium/amusement park in Niagara Falls for the purpose of scientific research. Among other research projects, Mystic proposed behavioral and reproduction studies, including breeding and research on pregnant females and their progeny, raising concerns that the real purpose of the import was to perpetuate the captive beluga population for public display in the United States.

Moreover, under a partnership between Mystic and Georgia Aquarium, three of the whales could eventually be transferred to Atlanta. The conditions of the permit clarify that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) must approve any decision to transfer the animals to another state.

In issuing the permit, NMFS authorized seven of Mystic’s eight research projects; it did not authorize the study related to reproduction. The permit conditions prohibit the aquariums from breeding the whales, using them in public interactive programs, such as for photo opportunities, or training them for performance.

The permit restrictions come after a group of animal and environmental protection organizations submitted comments in December of last year opposing the permit, outlining their substantive legal and policy objections under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. These groups urged the inclusion of the no-breeding and no-performance clauses in a permit if one was issued, as well as the clarification that the National Marine Fisheries Service, not the permit holder, make any decisions regarding the disposition of the whales.

NMFS’s decision is indicative of a broader global movement in recent years to end the unsustainable and inhumane cetacean trade and public display. The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” had an enormous impact on the public’s view of captive orcas. That same year, NMFS denied a request by Georgia Aquarium to import wild-caught Russian belugas for public display. In 2016, SeaWorld ended orca breeding at its parks, and, last year, Canada passed a law to phase out the keeping of cetaceans in captivity in the country.

“This latest decision marks another step on the path to phasing out cetacean captivity, an industry built on immense animal suffering,” Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI’s marine mammal scientist, shared in a statement sent to WAN.

Before Mystic can import the belugas, the facility must provide NMFS with a detailed contraception plan to prevent breeding, and Canada must issue a permit to export the whales from Marineland.

Canada is currently developing regulatory procedures for issuing export permits for captive cetaceans under its new law and is calling for public submissions; animal advocates support strong and clear requirements in such permits to prohibit breeding and performances. Many countries do not have comparable laws to the MMPA, and Canada must ensure that any captive cetaceans exported from the country continue to be covered by Canada’s powerful legislative protections.

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