By Jason Garcia Orlando Sentinel
---- — 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.
A spokesman for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, which generated more than $1.3 billion in revenue last year, said the whales would also support “educational presentation.” The company’s 10 parks, which include non-marine parks such as Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, drew a combined 23.6 million visitors last year.
“Importantly, these animals will be viewed by tens of millions of guests every year, and they’ll provide an invaluable resource to scientists and conservationists,” SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs said.
But the effort has outraged the anti-captivity movement, which fears that the permit could establish a precedent leading to a new era of U.S. facilities taking healthy whales from the wild. More than 4,000 public comments — the majority in opposition — have been submitted to the Fisheries Service; that’s more than the agency has received for any permit in at least a decade.
“This really represents the first time since 1993 to deliberately bring in (to the U.S.) wild-caught cetaceans specifically for public display,” said Courtney Vail, campaigns and programs manager for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. “It’s a flagrant violation of the public trust. The reason there hasn’t been captures since 1993 is because of public opposition.”
The Fisheries Service, which typically allows 30 days for public comment on import applications, has extended the comment period in this case to 60 days — until Oct. 29. The agency has also scheduled an Oct. 12 public hearing on the application at NOAA’s headquarters just outside Washington, D.C.
A final decision isn’t likely until late January or early February, said Jennifer Skidmore, NOAA’s fishery-management specialist.
One factor the Fisheries Service must weigh is whether the capture of the whales would harm the wild population. In its application, Georgia Aquarium cites research conducted from 2007 to 2010 that concluded the beluga population in Russia’s Sakhalin Bay totals at least 3,000 and can sustain the annual removal of 29 whales without declining.
Records show that research was paid for by SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium, along with three other marine-park owners: Ocean Park Corp. of Hong Kong; Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn.; and Kamogawa Sea World of Japan.
NOAA must also decide whether both the capture and transport of the whales was or will be “humane.”
According to Georgia Aquarium’s application, the 18 beluga whales were captured by having two 45-foot-long boats known as “baidars” surround the animals with a net while up to a dozen smaller boats circled around the perimeter watching for entanglements. Once the net was closed, one of the baidars beached itself and the collection team then pulled the net to shore by hand.
Of the 18 whales, two were captured in 2006, 11 were captured in 2010 and five were captured last year. All are currently being held at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the Russian coast of the Black Sea.
Georgia Aquarium currently has four beluga whales in its collection, according to the permit application. SeaWorld has 17 belugas spread across its three namesake parks, including four in the “Wild Arctic” attraction at SeaWorld Orlando, where the park also sells “beluga interaction” packages that begin at $119 a person.
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Activists accuse the Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld of ignoring other alternatives, such as acquiring belugas already in captivity.
For example, there are nearly 40 beluga whales at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario. But SeaWorld has a fractious relationship with that facility; the two sides just went through a nasty court battle after Marineland refused to return a killer whale that SeaWorld had sent it through a breeding-loan agreement (in which SeaWorld received four beluga whales).
In its application, the Georgia Aquarium states that it had “numerous discussions” with Marineland about acquiring some of its belugas, but the result was “an incompatible relationship, both financially and philosophically.”
“Just because SeaWorld and Georgia Aquarium might not be able to get along with (Marineland owner) John Holer and Marineland,” said Vail, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, “that doesn’t justify them going directly to the wild.”
(c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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