Following the results of the Sea of Okhotsk population abundance study, the partnership felt ready to move forward with plans to acquire beluga whales, confident that this acquisition would have no detrimental impact on the population.
We identified Utrish Marine Station as a viable temporary care facility for the whales. The station had a lagoon with sea pens, a rectangular pool and a knowledgeable animal care team. The plan was to house the beluga whales there for a few months before moving them to more contemporary facilities at our accredited partner facility in Asia while we awaited approval to import them to the United States.
There is a notably flawed procedural process, with which Georgia Aquarium was required to comply: before an importation permit can be filed for review (and approval or denial), the animals must first be collected and individually identified. As part of that process, NOAA Fisheries notes the process abide by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act and other set guidelines to ensure the whales are collected in a humane manner approved by NOAA. We fully complied as required.
After intense pressure from animal extremists, our partner facility Ocean Park Hong Kong, backed out of the agreement just days before the planned relocation. With this unfortunate change in plans, we decided to increase infrastructure at Utrish Marine Station, investing to have additional pools installed, which greatly enhanced the animal management options and provided an appropriate amount of space to manage the group of whales during the permit process. Georgia Aquarium experts also established a schedule of routine visits to the station to monitor the animals’ well-being and provide feedback to the Russian team.
Georgia Aquarium never owned any animals at Utrish Marine Station.
The aquarium collaborated with Utrish Marine Station to care for the 18 beluga whales identified for potential importation to the United States, but did not own the animals, nor have any influence related to any other animals managed or cared for at the marine station. There were other marine mammals there for a variety of purposes and they were kept separate from the beluga whales identified for import to the U.S. During our visits to the station activities related to other animals housed there were kept discrete as they involved other affiliates of Utrish unrelated to Georgia Aquarium.
What was meant to be a few weeks turned into years.