UPDATED: Canada approves permit to export beluga whales to Mystic Aquarium

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May 12—MYSTIC — The Canadian government has approved a permit to export five beluga whales from Marineland Canada to Mystic Aquarium.

Aquarium President Stephen Coan said Tuesday afternoon that aquarium staff members were at Marineland of Canada in Niagara Falls and the 10-hour transport of the whales to Mystic would occur "relatively soon." He declined to give a specific timeline due to logistics, animal safety and security concerns.

According to several animal rights organizations that had petitioned Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans to reconsider issuing the export permit request, the transfer is imminent. The groups say the move violates the intent of a 2019 Canadian law meant to phase out the captivity of cetaceans by banning their breeding.

Officials and attorneys for Last Chance for Animals and the Animal Welfare Institute said they received confirmation Tuesday from a spokesman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada that the permit had been issued.

The agency could not immediately provide information about the permit.

Coan stressed Tuesday afternoon that the well-being of the whales, which now live in crowded conditions at Marineland, is the reason they are being brought to Mystic, as well as to conduct research.

"The validity of what we are doing has been affirmed over and over by multiple agencies in the U.S. and Canada. People should take solace in that," he said. "This is in the best interest of the whales and the research we will do will help conserve the wild population. The urgency of that has never been greater, as this species is headed towards extinction. We have to move fast to save them."

The aquarium, which already has received an import permit from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, has conducted extensive research on belugas both in the wild and its own collection for decades. The import permit outlines various research projects the five whales could be involved in at the aquarium.

The groups trying to block the export permits were not happy with the news.

"We are concerned that this export is apparently occurring without the Canadian agencies officially confirming that their export permit prohibits breeding or commercial display of the animals. And we are alarmed that this transfer is moving forward amid so much uncertainty over the health of these belugas," said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute.

She said her information is that two of the whales may not be able to make the trip, as the aquarium is "awaiting confirmation that they are in good health." She added going ahead with the transfer "is not smart on anyone's part." On Tuesday night, AWI said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had confirmed to one of its coalition partners that all five whales have been approved for export.

Coan said the aquarium intends to make sure the whales are all healthy and transfer all five at the same approximate time.

Rose said a coalition of animal rights groups has requested to see the export permit and said it appears the Canadian government is making up the rules and restrictions for the transfer after it issues the permit. While Rose said her organization is pleased the permit bans breeding the whales and including them in public performances, she said it does not want any trade in the whales. She said this could encourage Russia, which now is observing a moratorium on capturing wild belugas from a depleted population, to resume the capture of those whales if it sees there is a market for the animals.

The import permit does allow public display of the whales as part of an educational program about the research, the whales themselves and their endangered and depleted status.

Miranda Desa, a Canadian attorney for Last Chance for Animals, called the approval of the export permit "incredibly disappointing and frustrating."

Meanwhile, Chris DeRose, the group's president, was more critical in his statement.

"It is outrageous that the (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau government is sending these Canadian Beluga whales to spend the rest of their lives in an American whale prison. The Minister must rescind her order and protect the whales instead. It makes no sense that the government would allow Marineland to dump these whales while the government is writing the rules of when and how to safely transfer them. It is all backwards," he said.

With the Canadian permit expiring in 2025, the groups are worried the aquarium could breed the belugas at that point.

Last month, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries spokeswoman said the question of whether Mystic Aquarium can breed the whales or have them engage in other demonstrations after the permit expires will be determined by the office director depending on the circumstances at that time. The National Marine Fisheries Services is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The spokeswoman, Kate Goggin, added that should Mystic Aquarium choose at that time to continue research under a new permit, the new application would be published in the Federal Register for public comment.

Last Chance for Animals also has maintained the 10-hour transfer of the whales by flatbed truck and jet from Niagara Falls to Mystic is not only dangerous and stressful for the animals but will break the social bonds they have with the 50 other belugas at Marineland of Canada.

But Mystic Aquarium maintains the whales will be moved from a facility where they live in overcrowded conditions to one where they will have top-level care by the aquarium's veterinary and animal care staff. According to media reports, Marineland has been the subject of complaints and investigations about its care of animals, and numerous orcas have died there.

Mystic Aquarium currently has three belugas residing in its 750,000-gallon Arctic Coast exhibit. They are Kela and Natasha, two 40-year-old females, and Juno, a 19-year-old male. The aquarium has never successfully bred its whales.

The whales the aquarium is acquiring from Marineland — four females and one male, all between 5 and 6 years old — were born in captivity.

The import permit application states there will be two flights aboard a pressurized Airbus 300 cargo jet or similar aircraft. The whales would be placed in cradles partially filled with water and then loaded on a flatbed truck for the one-hour drive from Marineland to the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport in Ontario.

There, they would be placed on the plane and flown two hours to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks. There, they would be unloaded, put on another truck and driven one hour and 15 minutes to the aquarium, where they would be placed in the exhibit's pools. A veterinarian and other animal care staff will accompany the belugas. The temperature of the plane will be kept between 50 and 60 degrees, the whales' backs will be kept moist and aquarium staff will have water and ice to cool the whales, as well as sedatives if needed.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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