ORLANDO, Fla. — For the first time in many years, a consortium of U.S. marine-park and aquarium owners — including SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment — is attempting to import whales that have been captured from the wild specifically for public display.
The consortium, which also includes the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, wants to import 18 beluga whales that were taken from Sakhalin Bay in the Sea of Okhotsk off the eastern coast of Russia.
The application for the import permit was submitted by the Georgia Aquarium, which would own all 18 whales. But Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks, the largest marine-park operator in the world, may gain the most: Records show that 11 of the 18 whales could be sent to SeaWorld marine parks through “breeding-loan agreements,” including six to San Antonio, three to San Diego and two to Orlando.
Efforts to capture whales for display in North America are exceedingly rare. SeaWorld and other aquarium owners, wary of negative publicity and the risk of a consumer backlash, have for many years preferred to take in rescued marine mammals deemed unfit for release, import ones already held in overseas aquariums or breed from their existing collections.
Officials in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, which must decide whether to grant the import permit, said they could not recall the last time a U.S. facility tried to import a marine mammal directly from the wild. Anti-captivity activists say it has not happened since 1993.
Representatives for the Georgia Aquarium would not publicly discuss their permit application. But in the application, the 7-year-old facility said the whales would add genetic diversity to the current population of captive beluga whales in North America.
The purpose of importing the whales is “to enhance the North American beluga breeding cooperative by increasing the population base of captive belugas to a self-sustaining level and to promote conservation and education,” the facility wrote.