July 28, 2016
Pasha Feinberg

Wild belugas are one step closer to protection from exploitation by U.S. aquariums

Last fall, we told you about a court case in which the U.S. took a strong stand against exploiting wild-caught beluga whales by upholding the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) decision to deny the Georgia Aquarium a permit to import 18 wild-caught belugas from a population in trouble. It was an important verdict because it sent a message that the U.S. can and will put limits on the legal trade of animals if it appears the wild population is in danger.

NMFS recently took another step forward for the same population of beluga whales at issue in that case. The agency proposed a rule to designate these belugas as “depleted,” a simple word that can make a big difference. If the proposal is finalized, this rule would grant the belugas an additional layer of protection, making it illegal to import any of them for display in marine parks or aquariums.

The Tale of the Sakhalin-Nikolaya-Amur Belugas

Belugas live in close-knit pods, ranging from a few individuals to up to several thousand whales. These groups spend the winter offshore, but congregate in shallow water in the summer, often in bays or the mouths of streams and estuaries. These summer sites are important, especially to female whales, who return to the same site year after year—usually the same summer site visited by their mother. Because of this, belugas that share summering sites can be genetically distinct from whales at other summering sites. This genetic distinction is important – NMFS uses it to designate different groups of belugas, called “stocks.” Each stock may have different needs, or face different threats, so acknowledging the differences can help officials better confront those problems for each group.

There are several stocks of belugas that summer in the Sea of Okhotsk in western Russia. The proposed NMFS rule would protect the Sakhalin-Nikolaya-Amur stock, which gets its name from the three places in which it lives: Sakhalin Bay, Nikolaya Bay, and Amur River estuary.

Calculations from historic hunting data have led researchers to believe that there were once at least 13,000-15,100 Sakhalin-Nikolaya-Amur belugas. Decades of whaling caused a serious decline, but these beleaguered belugas still face many ongoing threats, including boat strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, pollution, and climate change. Rapid increase in gas and oil development in the Sea of Okhotsk will only exacerbate many of these hazards. And on top of all of this, these belugas are captured to be bought, sold, or traded into aquariums around the world.

Today, there are fewer than 4,000 whales left in this group. Even using the most optimistic numbers, the Sakhalin-Nikolaya-Amur belugas are at just 30.5% of what they used to be. “Depletion” is an understatement.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and the International Whaling Commission calculate that the Sakhalin-Nikolaya-Amur belugas cannot afford to lose more than 29 or 30 whales to human activities. Anything more is simply unsustainable.

Demand for Public Display Drives Captures Up

Beluga whales are one of the few species of whale displayed in aquariums and marine parks. Aquariums have had little success breeding belugas in captivity, so when they need more, they turn to those still in the wild. Historically, belugas were captured for display in Canada, but when that practice was outlawed in the early 1990s, aquariums and marine parks turned to a less regulated source: Russia.

Live-capture removals have been ongoing in the Sakhalin-Nikolaya-Amur region for some time, but there is little hard data available. Researchers were able to observe some of the 2013 live-capture operations in the Sakhalin Bay, and the numbers were grim. More than 120 belugas were captured and removed, of which 81 were transported to temporary holding facilities, 7 are known to have died in holding, and at least 34 more died during capture operations. To make matters worse, these live-capture deaths are probably an underestimate; researchers also found evidence of attempts to conceal slain belugas. Nine beluga whale carcasses washed to shore, including one where a sand bag had been tied to the tail in a failed attempt to sink the dead whale.

The Sakhalin-Nikolaya-Amur belugas need any protection they can get. Interest in wild-caught belugas is on the rise, mostly fueled by growing demand in China. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of applications to export belugas caught in Sakhalin Bay more than doubled. The Ministry of Agriculture of the Russian Federation has not put any meaningful limits on exports of these belugas. In 2014, the Ministry set the total allowable captures for scientific research and cultural display for Sakhalin Bay at 150 belugas—five times what the Sakhalin-Nikolaya-Amur belugas can support.

Not Our Belugas – But Still Our Concern

Since these belugas don’t live in the U.S., we can’t put strict regulations in place to protect them like we can with our own native species, such as the endangered Cook Inlet beluga. But we can take steps to decrease the demand for these animals here. That’s what this proposed rule could achieve. When a stock is designated as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, no animal from that stock can be imported into the U.S. for public display.

Since the Sakhalin-Nikolaya-Amur belugas live entirely outside of U.S. waters, this would be a first. NMFS has never designated an entirely foreign stock of marine mammals as depleted. However, since U.S. demand for these animals helps fund their capture, it’s an important step to take and a good precedent to set. Defenders, along with the Humane Society of the United States, commented in support of this proposed rule, highlighting additional science and findings to support a depleted finding.

On June 22nd—perhaps reading the writing on the wall—Georgia Aquarium announced that it would no longer take any whales or dolphins from the wild. NMFS is expected to announce its final decision in October, and we hope that it will make the “depleted” designation for the Sakhalin-Nikolaya-Amur belugas official. Even though these belugas are far from U.S. shores, we still have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t play a part in their continued decline.


Pasha Feinberg headshot

Pasha Feinberg

Policy Analyst, Renewable Energy and Wildlife
Pasha Feinberg is a policy analyst on the Renewable Energy & Wildlife team, currently focusing on wind-wildlife interactions and solar energy in the Mojave Desert.

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