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.