Plan to move beluga whales from Canada to U.S. aquarium sparks controversy | Science

Efforts by aquaria in the United States to import beluga whales for display and research have catalyzed controversy.

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Originally published by E&E News

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will decide soon on whether to approve a controversial plan to import five Canadian beluga whales for research at a Connecticut aquarium.

Before the plan can be finalized under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NOAA must first grant a permit to import the captive-born whales and send them to Mystic Aquarium.

In a last-minute bid to block the plan, animal rights advocates have asked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to recuse himself from the case.

They alleged that Ross, who oversees NOAA, and other political appointees were unduly influenced by lobbyists in 2017, a year before the Stonington, Connecticut, aquarium applied for the permit and two years before the public was given a chance to comment on it.

Naomi Rose, a scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said a review of hundreds of government documents and emails obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act points “to a corrupted process where lower-level employees could be pressured to approve this application despite what is best for these whales and permissible under the law.”

“Such an intense level of lobbying for a captive marine mammal permit under the MMPA is unprecedented,” Rose said yesterday.

NOAA declined to comment this morning.

The plan calls for the beluga whales to be shipped to the United States from Marineland in Canada. A decision is expected soon, since the agency already hosted a public hearing on the proposal in November 2019.

While Mystic officials await a decision from NOAA, the proposal has also drawn attention from Connecticut lawmakers. Democratic state Representative David Michel introduced a bill that would prohibit the sale and breeding “of certain cetaceans,” saying it would lead to fewer belugas being held captive.

At a recent hearing, Paul Anderson, a research scientist at Mystic Aquarium, said the bill would include a prohibition on artificial insemination and on the import or export of semen. He said the legislation was driven by “an emotionally based but misguided assumption that breeding cetaceans in aquaria is somehow bad for them.”

NOAA said earlier that the proposed research would include investigations on techniques to assess the health of free-ranging and stranded whales, such as the “neuroimmunological response to environmental and anthropogenic stressors,” diving physiology and behavior and reproduction, among other things.

“The tests that Mystic Aquarium are developing are becoming increasingly important tools in the toolbox for the conservation of wild beluga populations, which are under increasing stress as sea ice loss progresses, making it easier for humans to inhabit coastal areas of water bodies inhabited by them,” Anderson said.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2020. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net

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