The Georgia Aquarium’s controversial plan to move 18 wild beluga whales into captivity has met with fierce opposition. Opponents state that their capture was inhumane, and could be potentially destructive to a beluga clan.
This idea, that whales should be seen in cultural terms, rather than grouped genetically, is new but supported by science. The aquarium defends the capture as unthreatening to the survival of the belugas in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk, but it’s possible that a smaller, unique group was damaged.
This could affect the aquarium’s request for federal endorsement of the plan, which is needed before it can go forward. “They may be risking whole matrilines,” said neurobiologist Lori Marino of Emory University, referring to the female-led family groups that are a basic beluga social unit. “There is some basis for saying the population won’t be impacted, but we just don’t have adequate data to say that specific matrilines are not being affected. We just don’t know.”
Belugas, like other cetacean species, are self-aware, emotional, and ill-suited for captivity. The noise of water pumps and filters could act like strobe lights to the belugas, which have very sensitive hearing.
The aquarium insists that captivity doesn’t harm belugas, although evidence shows that captive belugas don’t outlive wild belugas. The aquarium states that the removal of the 18 individuals from the Sakhalin Bay, in the western Sea of Okhotsk, didn’t jeopardize the region’s stock.
There are roughly 3,000 belugas in the Sakhalin Bay, more than enough to withstand the removal of 18 individual over several years, states a report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Those 3,000 belugas are genetically similar, but research on whales and dolphins shows that these individuals have a culture that is distinct from others. Each of them lives different lives, with different habits, social customs and vocal dialects, which is why they are being compared to human tribes. This is how orcas in the Pacific Northwest are treated.
The essential unit of beluga groups, ranging from 10 to a few hundred in size, is the matriline and it fits this demographical mold. Extended families of up to several dozen individuals are led by older females. This is also a repository of knowledge and relationships that can’t be easily replaced. For some smaller groups, the loss of one matriline could be enough to destroy its culture.
The belugas from Sakhalin Bay aren’t from one uniform stock. They’re composed of many different groups, which congregate in winter but return each summer to their own home areas.
To avoid recurrent capture or removal from the same site, which could have an effect on the local community, it is advised that the captures be made at different times of the year, in different areas. That’s not how the removal of the Georgia Aquarium’s belugas was done. The belugas were captured between 2005 and 2011 in three roundups that occurred during the summer, near the mid-point of Baydukova Island. An estimated 360 belugas summer around this particular island. Whether this number represents multiple smaller groups or one large one is unknown.
If the same group was targeted each time, it’s possible that this affected the local population more severely. Beluga females have offspring once every three years and they have rarely more than one offspring. The fact that six of the captured belugas were females of reproductive age may make group recovery difficult.