"Georgia Aquarium does not meet the two primary burdens of proof under permitting criteria for harm to the species in the wild," said Courtney Vail over the aquarium's recent permit application to import 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia.
Vail, the Campaigns and Programs Manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) was representing one of several conservation groups who told the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that if the permit was granted to Georgia Aquarium (GAq), it would set a dangerous precedent for all future beluga populations.
"The Georgia Aquarium’s decision to seek wild belugas from Russia" Vail told NOAA, "is at best regressive and at worst irresponsible in contributing to the continuing international trade in belugas, which undermines the conservation and welfare of this species worldwide."
Furthermore, Vail explained:
"The demand for wild-caught belugas is increasing. The United States was one of the first countries in the world to display captive cetaceans and now has one of the largest public display industries in the world. US aquaria must assume responsibility for shaping the nature of the public display of cetaceans around the world."
The Campaign Manager's testimony at the meeting mainly focused on revealing the weaknesses of an IUCN study review of field research presented by the aquarium, as evidence of sustainability in wild populations. Digital Journal caught up with Vail to seek her overall impressions of the event itself and how it went.
During the day, various individuals spoke either in support of or against the permit application. The aquarium itself rolled out several educators, including teachers who claimed their students found themselves inspired by school visits to the Atlanta, Georgia facility.
"None of them acknowledged the cost of that inspiration," Vail told me, "not one of them contemplated how to inspire without ripping apart beluga families in the wild. There are so many other ways to inspire, and to truly educate, that do not rely upon the capture, imprisonment and the death of sentient and innocent animals. What an outdated and archaic way of thinking, that we must destroy or sacrifice nature in order to protect it."
At one point during the meeting, Billy Hurley GAq's Chief Animal Officer and Senior Vice President astounded the crowd when he said in a very brief statement that 90% of the public supports captivity. Ironically, Vail said, "countless individuals stood up and told Georgia Aquarium that we don’t support this import, and we don’t support captivity."
Hurley's statement was "blatantly and patently false," Vail added, "and the representation in the meeting itself proved him wrong. Of 28 speakers, 15 spoke against the permit, and 13 spoke for it."
But many anti-captivity people believe it's less about the public supporting captivity and more about a wealthy industry pushing their agenda. Vail explained:
If anything, the public is confused, as it has been misled by the indoctrination and enculturation since birth, especially in the United States that these facilities are the best and only place to see these animals, and that they are institutions of research, education and supreme animal care.
In reality Vail added, "these facilities have very effectively exploited our natural love and affinity for whales and dolphins, stripping these social animals of their choices and their dignity, and telling the public it is good science and education."
With awareness advancing in the public sector, Vail did imply that there is great hope for the world's marine mammals in the future:
It is becoming increasingly clear that it is no longer counter-culture to question SeaWorld and similar facilities, and to hold them accountable. The personal testimony of those now disenchanted with captivity, understanding the cost to the animals, and the cost to humanity, stood loud and clear in the room on Friday.
Two of those personal testimonies came from colleagues at Save Misty the Dolphin – Sandy McElhaney and Martha Brock.
McElhaney's plea was a passionate one that clearly came from the heart:
There is NOTHING humane about the process of being netted and hoisted from the sea, from one’s home, from one’s family, from one’s life. There is no humanity in this process and there is certainly no dignity afforded to those souls who will spend the rest of their lives in captivity.
Brock, an environmental attorney gave a more pragmatic response. "In the not quite seven years that the Georgia Aquarium has been open to the public, it has detained, held in "detention," nine beluga whales" she said. "Four of them are now dead."
"The mythology that the captivity industry is spreading has clouded their (GAq) very reasoning," Vail added. "How could contributing to the international trade in belugas by capturing them and transporting them from the wild, resulting in the potential decimation of these populations in the wild, ever be called conservation?" she said.
According to permitting regulations Vail explained, the aquarium must demonstrate that the proposed activity by itself, or in combination with other activities, will not likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock, and will not likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit. Simply put, Vail says, "The Georgia Aquarium does not meet the two primary burdens of proof under permitting criteria for harm to the species in the wild."
After Digital Journal received a report that Georgia Aquarium had used paid 'line-sitters' at the NOAA meeting to take up spots, we asked the Campaign Manager for her observations on the matter. Vail said that while originally she believed they were just reserving spaces for the industry in a potentially controversial public meeting, she said "It soon turned into a full-blown and all-too-obvious attempt to squeeze potential opposition out of the room:"
As the line-sitters started to enter the meeting room and actually take seats, some of them changing into more formal clothes before our eyes as they returned from the restrooms, it was clear that this was more about thwarting opposing opinion than holding a spot in line. You have to hand it to them, though. They certainly know how to exploit the system.
Even so Vail added, "There is something unseemly about hijacking the public process, and attempting to stack the deck by filling up spaces with uninterested bystanders who were there just to fill up spaces. More of them means less of us."
Coming away from the meeting, Vail said she was struck by the arrogance of the marine mammal industry:
David Kimmel, president of Georgia Aquarium, stated that this meeting wasn’t a referendum on public display, that the congress and MMPA decided in 1972 that education was a legitimate goal under the act, and that public display has a special status. He said that dissenters should target congress and to focus on changing the law (of course we do and we keep trying). But this reveals the highest levels of entitlement from the industry that truly reveals their arrogant disregard for the permitting process and accountability to the American public.
"I remind NMFS (with great emphasis)" said Vail in her testimony, "that according to the permitting regulations, it is the Applicant, not the public, and not the regulatory agencies (NMFS; National Marine Fisheries Service), that must prove or demonstrate that these criteria are being met."
The GAq's beluga import permit request has become one of the most contested permits in over a decade. This indicates times are changing Vail said:
It is a new day, a new age, and I guarantee the public is not in the same place as it was 40 years ago. From my perspective, this ‘special’ status is a reminder that because they are specially exempted from the ‘take’ provisions of the MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act), captivity is a privilege, not a right or entitlement, and the public display industry must be held to a higher standard, bear the burden of proof to justify their actions rather than pushing it onto NMFS or animal protection groups, and be accountable to the public who is entitled to the protection and care of these animals.
Vail added that aquaria need to move on from menageries to true education:
It is time for a new way of thinking, and a new attitude of inspiring and educating without destroying animals and ecosystems, and sacrificing the lives of these animal 'ambassadors', as the industry calls them. These facilities can truly educate without competing for nature, and rather, utilize innovative ways to inspire, such as interactive and virtual displays, and other exhibits.