On June 2, 2021, Georgia Aquarium officially stated that it would no longer receive any beluga whales (including cetacean populations in the wild) for its marine exhibits. Additionally, on that same day, Georgia Aquarium issued a news release, entitled Beluga Importance. The release includes details on how the animals were obtained and why the acquisition was being stopped. Both of these announcements came directly from the Georgia Aquarium’s Facebook page.
In a letter sent to Georgia Aquarium by P. 11, dated June 8, 2021, Jessica Grigsby, the director of business and marketing for the Georgia Aquarium stated that all of the whales previously owned by the Georgia Aquarium had been “captured” and taken to the Pleasure Island Marine Science Center in Augusta. The exact nature of these captured whales is currently unknown. Grigsby went onto explain that she was not authorized to release these animals into the wild nor was she aware of their medical conditions or how they had been caught. She also emphasized that the animals were “freed” only after their veterinarians had determined that they were not suffering from life-threatening conditions.
There are two questions that arise from this news. One is why the belugas were being kept in captivity when it was obvious that they were suffering from stress and would likely suffer from premature death if returned to the wild? The second question is whether the animals were subjected to any invasive procedure prior to their capture. Georgia Aquarium states that all procedures undergone by the belugas prior to their capture were “ancillary” to the main procedure that took place at the Pleasure Island Marine Science Center. Additionally, the release continues that all procedures were performed according to federal and state laws and “care of a licensed veterinarian.”
It seems that the answer to the first question is not entirely clear. The belugas were clearly over stressed and needed long-term care. This could have been treated using procedures now available and would have been cost-effective. Some argue that allowing the whales to return to their natural habitats would be detrimental to their health. Others argue that even if the situation was resolved, there is no guarantee that the whales will remain healthy in their new environment.
The second question that arises from this tragic story is why the Georgia Aquarium and SSEC allow such a facility to be opened with only a half dozen or so belugas? They have yet to make a final decision despite multiple calls for an immediate investigation and review of the facility’s operations. Even still, the Aquarium has only released information about the “capture and humane disposition” of the 18 whales. There is no mention of whether these whales will be put up for public display or sent to a rehabilitation facility. What is known is that the whales remain captive and are undergoing treatment and care.
There is hope for the whales. Georgia Aquarium and SSEC are reviewing the circumstances regarding the opening of the Beluga whales’ exhibit. It appears that there was an administrative error when analyzing the license renewal and it was subsequently allowed to stand. NoAA has also passed a resolution to no longer apply any of the animal trapping or removal fees associated with the license to the Georgia Aquarium and SSEC. This noaa resolution was later adopted by the Board of Directors of the Georgia Aquarium and SSEC as a way to ensure that all licensees adhere to the new no-trespass rule which took effect on December 1st of 2021.
NoAA rescues beluga whales | whale | whales | rescue | captivity | situation} Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the beluga whales could have been saved had someone taken the time to properly research the situation. We can only speculate that they would still be alive today had someone considered the possibility of marine mammal rescue before the opening of the exhibit. NoAA has done a lot for the whales and their situation, but the ultimate responsibility still lies with those who chose to bring the whales in for exhibit. The result of their negligence is what has become of these incredible animals. It is hoped that no whales will ever suffer from the no-respass rule again.