ATLANTA -- A 2-foot-thick glass panel separates Beethoven and Maris from their admirers. The pair swim back and forth in their tank, every once in a while pausing in front of the crowd of about 30 people who have stopped to take in the sight of them.
Some children point at the creatures and whisper to their parents, while other people ask questions, wondering where they originally came from and what they eat for dinner.
It's no wonder. Beethoven and Maris are two of only 31 beluga whales currently living in captivity in the United States. This spot in downtown Atlanta is one of only six places in the country where the animals can be seen.
If the Georgia Aquarium has its way, that number will increase by nearly 60 percent with the importation of 18 belugas, which are known for their expressive faces, from Russia. The creatures, native to Arctic regions of the world, are not considered endangered.
But the future of that proposal is up in the air. In August, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rejected the aquarium's permit application to import the whales. Its reasons included concerns over how the removal of the whales affected the native population in Russia and the possibility that the whales were still nursing when they were captured.
"This decision is not a statement by NOAA Fisheries against the applicant, public display or the live-capture of animals for the purpose of public display," the agency noted in its decision. "The [Marine Mammal Protection Act] provides specific exemptions for public display, provided specific criteria are met. NOAA Fisheries determined that for this application, not all of those criteria were met."
The Marine Mammal Protection Act doesn't provide for an appeals process within the agency, so the aquarium was left with two options, said Scott Higley, the aquarium's vice president of communications and external affairs, as he sat near the exhibit one afternoon last month.
"We could walk away," he said. "But we're not prepared to do that, because we all believe so deeply and we're so committed to this project on behalf of these guys."
The aquarium's remaining option: Go to court. The institution on Sept. 30 filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. NMFS has 60 days from that date to respond -- an end-of-November deadline that isn't affected by the government shutdown.
An agency spokeswoman declined to comment because the case is pending.
The ongoing dispute over the import of the creatures -- which began when the aquarium filed its application last year and included a heated public hearing -- is representative of a struggle that has long existed between zoos and aquariums that keep animals in captivity and animal rights groups that say keeping animals locked up is inhumane.
For the Georgia Aquarium -- a nonprofit organization that has brought in 19 million visitors since it opened in 2005 -- one of the main missions in importing the beluga whales is to improve the species's genetic diversity for breeding purposes.
Under the proposal, the whales would be divided among the institutions that are currently home to beluga whales: the Georgia Aquarium; the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut; and the three SeaWorld parks in California, Texas and Florida. There, they would be seen by millions of visitors and be bred to ensure the continuation of the population.
Higley -- who is not a scientist by trade and came to the aquarium after working in commercial real estate -- said experts in the zoological community had determined that the population was reaching a critical point. There were too many young whales, too many old whales and a disproportionate amount of males to females, numbers that were not ideal for breeding.
Of the 31 belugas in the United States, 18 were bred in human captivity, he said. In order to sustain the population, aquariums needed new blood.
"We support the Georgia Aquarium in their efforts for education opportunities and to present these animals so we can conserve the species," said Andy Wood, vice president of marketing and public affairs at Mystic.
The other reason for the import is more abstract. The institutions that play home to these whales have an obligation to educate the public about the animals and their roles in the global ecosystem. To Higley, the best way to do that is to give visitors the chance to see and even interact with the animals.
"It's human nature that you only care about and only work to conserve and protect the things you think are important," he said. "This is a way to create that bond."
Opponents question captivity
Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, is among the vocal opponents to the import and disagreed with that premise. She referenced the passion children develop for dinosaurs, which they've never seen.
Rose, who was previously with the Humane Society of the United States, contends that the collection of whales is inhumane. In the pending case, the belugas in question were captured by Russian scientists in 2006, 2010 and 2011.
"In order to capture whales in any setting, you have to restrain them, remove them from the water," she said. "It's traumatic and stressful, and some will die from it."
She believes that beluga breeding in captivity also should end and the captivity of the whales in general should be phased out; the 31 animals currently on display around the country should not be replaced, either from breeding or imports, when they die, she said.
To Rose, the Georgia Aquarium's position that people should be able to see the whales does not constitute a right.
"You can say that this is my opinion and that is their opinion," she said. "But I believe that it's a privilege, not a right, to be able to see these animals. And it should not be at the cost of their welfare."
Leslie Cornick, an associate professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University, takes a less extreme view of the situation. Cornick has worked with captive belugas at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut to conduct research, and she sees value in keeping some whales in captivity.
But she raised concerns about the import of animals from the wild and about Georgia Aquarium's application, in particular. Cornick said she believes the animals were not aged correctly and some may have been nursing when they were captured. The importation of such animals is forbidden under the MMPA and is one of the reasons the permit was denied.
Higley contends that none of the whales was spotted with its mother, which would indicate that a young whale was still nursing. Additionally, the belugas were reportedly all eating solid food when they were captured, another sign they were no longer nursing.
Both Rose and Cornick were among a group of 29 marine mammal scientists who sent a statement to NMFS in opposition to the Georgia Aquarium permit application, expressing doubts about the transport and confinement of the animals. Their statement arrived at the agency along with nearly 9,000 comments from the public last year, many of which expressed negative views of the import.
"I am writing to ask that you deny the Georgia Aquarium a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia for captive breeding and exhibition at marine parks and aquariums," reads one comment containing language drafted by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Beluga breeding programs in the United States have been largely unsuccessful, and there is no compelling evidence that these programs create interest in, educate visitors on, or change people's attitudes about conservation."
The aquarium read all the comments and wrote detailed responses, which also were sent to NMFS.
"175 million guests visit aquariums and zoos annually. ... Studies show that seeing and learning about belugas in person increases understanding of the species as well as the potential impact of changes in our oceans," one response from the aquarium read.
Now, as the legal process goes forward, Rose said she thinks the court will find that the agency correctly followed MMPA.
For its part, the aquarium plans to continue to push the same message of education and conservation, something that has been backed by others in the zoological community. Steve Feldman of the Association for Zoos and Aquariums said there's value in keeping animals in captivity.
"There are some things that you can learn from human care, and there are some things that can only be done in an animal's natural habitat," he said. "The most effective way to save the whales is a combination of both."
Whales in limbo
As the legal battle over the whales goes on, the whales continue to live in the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia.
The whales, which were all born in the wild, were caught in the Sea of Okhotsk: two in 2006, 11 in 2010 and five in 2011. The application details how they were captured, examined by veterinarians working for the Utrish Dolphinarium and then transferred to facilities on the Russian coast of the Black Sea.
According to the Georgia Aquarium's application, the center is meant to be a temporary home, even though they have all been there for years.
The center is operated by the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, which was established by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Photos submitted by the aquarium show the research station tank and sea pens where the animals live, displaying clean facilities and water. According to the application, the largest holding area connects to a natural lake and measures about 121 feet wide, 157 feet long and 59 feet deep. Three smaller holding pens also are located on-site.
Little information is provided on the dolphinarium that captured the belugas. According to Moscow's official website, the city branch of the dolphinarium is "one of the most popular and visited places of the Russian capital." The animals residing in those facilities, which include bottle-nosed dolphins, walruses and sea lions, take part in entertainment acts. Visitors also can pay to swim with the dolphins.
But animal rights groups have criticized Utrish for its captures. One online petition says, "The tragedy is going on in the Utrish dolphinarium in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Six dolphins ... are incarcerated in a tiny swimming pool used by Soviet sportsmen in the past."
Requests for comment from the Severtsov Institute have not been returned.
And information about what would happen to the whales if they are not imported to the United States is not available. The Georgia Aquarium did not comment on the whales' current living situation but said it remained committed to its efforts to bring them to the United States.
"They are not yet our whales, and we have no say in what happens to them if we are unsuccessful in our efforts to bring them here," Higley said in an email. "However, I can assure you that in that event, we would do everything in our power to ensure that the whales will be given homes with caregivers who espouse the same values and offer high-quality care for the animals."
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