Here’s the set-up:
Controversy is brewing over the Georgia Aquarium’s plan to import 18 beluga whales captured off the coast of Russia. If the U.S. government approves the plan, it will mark the first time in nearly two decades that wild-caught cetaceans have been imported into an aquarium in the United States.
According to the aquarium, the whales are needed for research and education. According to animal welfare advocates, that doesn’t justify the trauma inflicted on intelligent, emotional creatures that suffer in captivity.
“If we let them in, it means we’re going to have this issue all the time. It will open up the floodgates,” said Lori Marino, a neurobiologist at Emory University and prominent cetacean rights activist.
Georgia Aquarium trots out the shopworn argument that the belugas will be ambassadors for their species, which is the core rationale marine parks use to justify keeping marine mammals in captivity.
But it’s an analogy that has some problems, I think. Most important, ambassadors are not normally forced into service. My father was an ambassador and he was sent abroad because the United States wanted a representative in the countries he served. In contrast, ambassador to the human world is not a choice any belugas are making. It is a choice humans (profit-seeking humans, I might add) are making FOR the belugas.
The Russian Belugas in Ambassador School
Now, you could say belugas need ambassadors because humans are trashing the oceans, and putting the future of wild beluga populations at risk. I think that belugas in the wild do need protection, but there’s a sort of “destroy the village to save it” logic involved in taking animals out of the wild population to “save” the wild population.
If we are trashing the oceans and endangering the wild populations then let’s just deal with that head on. I don’t think you need belugas in an aquarium doing cute tricks to make that point (and I don’t even think the aquariums in fact try to make that point).
If helping wild populations thrive really is the rationale for bringing beluga “ambassadors” into captivity FROM the wild, then how about putting ALL the profits that accrue from those captive belugas back into wild beluga conservation? Yes, SeaWorld and other aquariums devote token amounts of their profits to conservation causes, but the emphasis is on the word token.
When you get down to it the whole model of “educational display” by for-profit institutions is fatally compromised and really doesn’t achieve the goals envisioned by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The way it is used now is taking on an Orwellian quality.
So, forty years on, it’s past time to move beyond the MMPA to a new model of marine mammal protection and education–one that starts with the idea that protecting marine mammals starts with the simple act of leaving them in the oceans, and goes on from there.