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U.S. commerce secretary sued in effort to stop move of whales from Marineland

An animals rights group is suing in U.S. federal court to stop a Connecticut aquarium from acquiring five more beluga whales for research, saying they would be harmed by the trip from Niagara Falls and by being torn from long-term relationships with others of their species.

Friends of Animals say officials didn't address the potential harm to the belugas of being moved

In this 2004 photo, a trainer works with Naku, a beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. The aquarium wants to import the captive-born beluga whales from Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont. The aquarium, where belugas have been a popular attraction for generations, says the acquisition of the whales would enable research that helps protect the species. (Jessica Hill/AP Photo)

An animals rights group is suing in federal court to stop a Connecticut aquarium from acquiring five more beluga whales for research, saying they would be harmed by the trip from Canada and by being torn from long-term relationships with others of their species.

Friends of Animals, based in Darien, Connecticut, filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which approved the research permit that allows Mystic Aquarium to import the belugas from Marineland in Niagara Falls.

Mystic Aquarium is already home to three beluga whales, which are known for their white colour and vocal sounds. In Mystic, they live in a 750,000-gallon outdoor habitat that the aquarium calls the largest in the United States. The five whales in Canada were born in captivity.

Aquarium officials say the permit is the first of its kind and will allow them to conduct noninvasive research that is vital to help boost endangered and depleted beluga whale populations.

Friends of Animals is suing over the granting of the research permit, which the group claims violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Protection Act because government officials did not adequately address the potential harm to the belugas of being moved to Mystic.

"Moving these belugas inflicts two distinct traumas on them," the group said in a statement. "It tears them away from deep familial and social relationships that they have formed with the dozens of other belugas at Marineland, and the long and foreign voyage on trucks and airplanes emotionally and psychologically scars them."

The move to Mystic, Conn. is illegal, lawyer says

Stephen Hernick, a lawyer for Friends of Animals, added, "Not only is it unprecedented for the government to issue a permit to import members of a depleted species of belugas for purported research, it is illegal."

Friends of Animals says research on belugas can be done in the wild, which is happening in waters off Alaska, where the population is critically endangered. That research is being led by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The NOAA is overseen by the Commerce Department.

A Mystic Aquarium spokeswoman, Dale Wolbrink, referred questions about the lawsuit to the NOAA and to information about beluga research on the aquarium website. NOAA spokeswoman Kate Goggin said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

On the website, the aquarium defends the research and says the beluga habitat there will provide a safe, healthy and spacious environment for the five new whales. It also says they will be transported safely. It says having a larger group of belugas will advance knowledge quicker on information vital to their survival, including reproductive systems, behaviour, stress response and immune system capabilities.

"The non-invasive research we will be able to do as a result of this permit is pivotal to stemming the tide of extinction for endangered belugas and to ensuring the sustainability of beluga populations in a rapidly changing environment," Tracy Romano, chief scientist at the aquarium, said in a statement last week.

Aquarium officials did not say in the announcement when the five belugas would be moved to Mystic.

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