SeaWorld faces public criticism over efforts to import beluga whales

SAN DIEGO - SeaWorld is caught up in a controversial decision involving beluga whales.

The marine park is among a group of aquariums that has applied to bring beluga whales captured in the wild to the U.S., specifically for public display.

Beluga whales help draw big crowds to aquariums around the country. SeaWorld, which made more than $1.3 billion last year, now wants to import beluga whales taken from the Sakhalin Bay, off the coast of Russia. The group wants to bring over 18 in all -- three of which could end up at SeaWorld San Diego.

"It's basically being stripped away from your family," said Sue Rocca, lead marine biologist for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), a group that opposes captivity.

"They are very intelligent. They have culture, they pass on information from generation to generation," Rocca added.

SeaWorld officials say captive beluga whales need the genetic diversity wild belugas will bring for breeding.

In a statement, SeaWorld said, in part, "They, like all animals in accredited zoological facilities, will make critical contributions to species conservation, research and education."

The WDC disagrees, and Rocca said, "Nothing that you learn there is actually applicable to the wild. It's not the natural world."

SeaWorld is part of a consortium of marine parks led by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta applying to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service for a permit to import the whales.

NOAA Fisheries says they have not seen an application like this since 1988.
 
"There are strict guidelines to follow, environmental assessment has to be done," said Connie Barclay, director of NOAA Fisheries Public Affairs.

NOAA Fisheries says it extended the public comment period from 30 to 60 days because of the intense interest.

Officials will now determine how humane moving the whales would be and how that would impact the species.

The WDC says their scientists already know.

"They live about 50 to 60 years in the wild. In captivity, frequently they pass at 25 years of age," said Rocca.

In the past, SeaWorld has relied on rescuing beluga whales, breeding them or getting them from overseas aquariums.

The public comment period ends Oct. 29. By Friday, NOAA Fisheries had received more than 5,000 comments.

A decision on the matter should come in early 2013.

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