Conn. aquarium, animal advocates squabble over beluga whale importation

Patrick Whittle
Associated Press

A proposal to import five whales to Connecticut has sparked a standoff between animal welfare groups and an aquarium that says the animals will contribute to its research.

Mystic Aquarium wants to import the captive-born beluga whales from Marineland of Canada in Niagara Falls, Ontario. The Connecticut aquarium, where belugas have been a popular attraction for generations, says the acquisition of the whales would enable research that helps protect the species.

Trainer Lynn Marcoux works with Naku, a beluga whale, on Oct. 20, 2004,  at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn.

Animal Welfare Institute and other animal advocates disagree. They said the stress of importation would be too much for the whales, and it would make more sense for the scientists to come to the animals.

“From a stress standpoint, from a welfare standpoint for the whales, I think it just makes more sense to do it there,” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with Animal Welfare Institute. “The research can be done at Marineland.”

The importation of the whales would require a federal permit, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is taking comments on the permit application until Dec. 2. The agency also held an Nov. 18 hearing about the proposal and has received more than 6,500 comments – both for and against – via an online portal.

Belugas are white, cold-water whales that can weight up to about 3,500 pounds and are often displayed in captivity. Some subpopulations of the whales are endangered, and they face threats such as pollution and climate change.

The aquarium holds that the transfer for the whales “is about research, plain and simple,” said Dale Wolbrink, a spokesperson for the facility. The aquarium has three belugas right now and is home to the largest outdoor beluga habitat in the world, Wolbrink said.

“Our five full-time researchers conduct conservation studies to increase our understanding of marine mammals. Nearly everything that’s known about belugas was learned in aquariums, and the only way we can protect them in the ocean is through these non-invasive studies,” Wolbrink said.

NOAA plans to “consider relevant, substantive comments received during the public comment period” before it makes a decision, said Jennie Lyons, an agency spokeswoman.

The agency has received 10 applications to import beluga whales since 2000 and issued eight, Lyons said. One of the 10 applications is the pending Mystic request.