Zoological partner backs out, abandoning the beluga whales in Russia

Our accredited partner, Ocean Park Hong Kong, backed out early in the project due to extremist activist pressure. This was within days of the beluga whales being scheduled to be transferred from the temporary facilities at Utrish Marine Station. The decision by them to withdraw from the project meant the beluga whales would now be staying at Utrish much longer than anticipated.

With this change in plans, and the animals’ wellbeing the highest priority, Georgia Aquarium invested approximately $6.5 million dollars providing for their care, not including legal fees. This investment included building larger pools, food and animal care staff, veterinary medicine and supplies, enrichment toys and our zoological experts and veterinarians visiting the station at least twice per year to monitor their care, and provide feedback to the Russian team. We maintained regular contact with the Russian team throughout the process.

We fought to bring them to the U.S where they would receive the highest standard of care.

NOAA Fisheries violated their longstanding interpretation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which specifically stresses the importance of caring for animals at zoos and aquariums in order to not only advance science, but to encourage conservation and awareness in the millions of guests who visit these organizations. We feel strongly we were doing what was right and lawful. However, at each point in the legal process, and as we fought their wrongful decision we had to determine whether or not to continue with our appeal. Especially as the animals were being kept longer in what was supposed to only be a temporary location, we were at a crossroads.

Concern for the animals’ welfare in Russia

As the legal battle dragged on, we learned of some health issues affecting a few of the beluga whales selected for potential import to the U.S. Between 2013 – 2015, there were four unfortunate losses from a variety of causes; including complications of ingesting marine debris and infection that quickly became serious. As a couple of the animals became ill we believe their health was further compromised by long term management at a temporary facility. These cases were made challenging as the Russian team did not have contemporary resources found at accredited facilities which would have allowed for timely response to health issues as well as easy separation of animals for medical purposes.

The belugas needed a permanent home in state-of-the-art facilities

After two years of court deliberation, and although we felt strongly we were in the right, we realized any further legal action would be fruitless. It wasn’t in the best interest of the 15 remaining animals to be in limbo for another year or more of litigation. We made the difficult choice to not appeal the decision, and we accepted the fact that these belugas would never be allowed to live within an accredited facility here in the United States.