Marine expert (opinion): One beluga died at Mystic Aquarium. Another is sick. How did this happen?

A beluga whale at Mystic Seaport Aquarium, in Mystic, Conn., in 2015.

A beluga whale at Mystic Seaport Aquarium, in Mystic, Conn., in 2015.

Gregory Payan / Associated Press

I have been working for at least three decades to end the live trade in cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), and their subsequent exploitation in circus-like shows and tourist interactions in concrete tanks and small sea pens. In the United States, I have mostly targeted those facilities that are more amusement park than aquarium, where cetacean performances have little, if any, educational value, animals are bred to supply juveniles for sale to other facilities, and minimal research takes place (if at all), despite the hype that it does.

Mystic Aquarium wasn’t one of those facilities. Mystic, a nonprofit organization, did legitimate research. Certainly, they were included in my general campaign against the captive display of these species, but I rarely had cause to call them out by name. They didn’t get involved in the more controversial aspects of their industry, such as displaying orcas (far too large to maintain humanely in concrete tanks), overcrowding, exporting surplus cetaceans to foreign facilities with poorer welfare standards, or capturing cetaceans from the wild.

Until now. On Tuesday, just three weeks after Havok, a young male beluga whale imported from Marineland in Canada, died at Mystic, the aquarium announced that a second, female beluga from that same import is “gravely” ill. Yet at the time of Havok’s death, Mystic assured the public that the remaining four belugas from Marineland were in good health.

Mystic began planning to import captive-born beluga whales at least two years ago. The laws and treaties that govern the live cetacean trade are relatively weak when it comes to captive-born individuals — such individuals are typically a “rubber-stamp” situation, a simple matter of filling out the paperwork and off they go. From the law’s point of view, these individuals were born in captivity, so what’s the worry from a conservation standpoint? I don’t think that’s how it should be, and I am constantly working to have laws and regulations address not only conservation but also welfare issues raised by these cross-border transports. At present, however, it’s virtually impossible to stop an import of captive-born cetaceans into the United States for public display or research. Sometimes I don’t even write in opposition to such proposed imports because they are virtually always approved.

Unless they are descendants of wild-caught cetaceans from a “depleted” stock. A depleted stock is one that is at 60 percent or less of its original population size. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Marineland purchased more than two dozen wild-caught belugas who came from a Russian stock that has since been declared depleted under U.S. law. U.S. law prohibits the import of any whales or their progeny from a depleted stock for the purpose of public display. This provision is meant to discourage further captures from, or trade in, a depleted stock. There is an exemption for research.

This is why Mystic’s proposal was to import five whales — all descendants of this depleted Russian stock of belugas — for research. But they would also be on public display. So my colleagues and I fought hard to keep the United States from becoming a market for these depleted whales and their progeny. We specifically told the U.S. government that if they allowed this import despite our protests, then they should prohibit Mystic from training these whales for performance or breeding them — to prevent the offspring from someday transitioning into display animals when the research ended. We were unhappy when the permit was issued, but the conditions we demanded were included, so we stood down.

Now Mystic, Marineland, and the agencies on both sides of the border must face the consequences of this import. Havok is dead. Another whale is seriously ill. How did this happen? How did those responsible for these whales’ welfare fail to note the precarious health status of these two whales? How did the animals’ paperwork pass muster at the border? And what if it’s not just those two but the other three whales as well? I am horrified to think that maybe there’s something going on at Marineland that means no whales there are healthy enough for transport.

It is imperative that authorities in Canada and the United States thoroughly investigate how two (and possibly more) whales who never should have been moved at all were brought to Mystic. I was angry and saddened by Havok’s death. He should never have been subjected to the stress of transport. I am appalled at the announcement that another whale is dangerously close to dying. No entity involved in this import is blameless. These whales deserved better.

Dr. Naomi Rose is the marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.