TORONTO—Animal Justice has learned that after months of secrecy and uncertainty, Marineland in Niagara Falls is preparing to transfer several belugas to Connecticut-based Mystic Aquarium. Reports indicate that Mystic staff are currently on site at Marineland to assist with the transfer, and that the belugas will soon be flown out of the Hamilton airport. The transfer comes after the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) granted Mystic Aquarium a permit to import five belugas from Marineland on August 27, 2020.
Until today, Canadian officials had refused to confirm whether they had issued export permits for the transfer, or whether the permits include conditions barring Mystic Aquarium from breeding the belugas and forcing them to perform. Officials have now confirmed that Marineland has been authorized to export three belugas, with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans awaiting further information about the health status of the two other belugas before approving their transfer. In 2019, Canada passed the groundbreaking Bill S-203 to phase out the cruel practice of keeping whales and dolphins in captivity in this country.
“We hope that Canada has included strong, enforceable conditions in the export permit to ensure these five belugas are not bred or forced to perform, which is illegal here at home,” said Kaitlyn Mitchell, staff lawyer with Animal Justice. “The Fisheries Minister has a legal duty to ensure any exports comply with the objectives of Canada’s groundbreaking whale protection law, which aims to completely phase out the captivity of whales and dolphins.”
Under Canadian law, it is a criminal offence to breed captive cetaceans or to force them to perform tricks for human entertainment. It’s also illegal to import or export whales and dolphins unless permitted by the Minister if the transfer is for scientific research or is in the animals’ best interest. When Mystic Aquarium applied for a permit to import five whales from Marineland, Animal Justice and a coalition of animal protection groups originally spoke out against the proposal because Mystic Aquarium intended to breed the belugas, which would perpetuate the captive beluga population for public display in the United States.
Before granting the import permit to Mystic Aquarium, NOAA engaged in extensive public consultation, including a public hearing near Washington, D.C. at which Animal Justice and other groups presented their concerns. In contrast, Canada refused to even confirm whether or not Marineland had applied for export permits. Concerned Canadians, interested organizations, and independent scientists have been shut out of the decision-making process and have been unable to review the export permit to see what conditions have been included and how they will be enforced.
“The lack of transparency on the part of Canadian officials has been truly shocking,” said Ms. Mitchell. “When issuing U.S. permits, NOAA benefitted from legal and scientific information provided by concerned organizations and scientists. Yet Canadian decision-making has been cloaked in secrecy. As demonstrated by the nation-wide outpouring of support in favour of banning whale captivity in Canada, the public has an intense interest in the fate of these highly intelligent, social animals. Decisions about whether to transport them to facilities abroad have life-altering consequences for the animals involved and should be made in a transparent manner based on independent scientific advice.”
After hearing from a coalition of animal protection groups, including Animal Justice, NOAA included strong restrictions in the import permit that it issued to Mystic Aquarium. The five-year import permit prohibits Mystic Aquarium from breeding the animals, using them in public interactive programs, or training the whales for performance. Nonetheless, strong and enforceable conditions in the Canadian export permit are needed to ensure these requirements are met for the duration of these animals’ lives. In the case of non-compliance with those conditions, Canada must have the ability to impose severe sanctions.
“We have serious and ongoing concerns about the welfare of these belugas and all other animals held at Marineland,” said Ms. Mitchell. “After the U.S. import permit was granted, three of the five whales that were to be transferred tragically became ill, so three other belugas are to be transferred in their place. We understand there are still questions about the health of two of the animals set to be transferred. This raises serious concerns about the conditions at Marineland and underscores the need for the Minister to carefully assess Marineland’s export permit application, and for the federal and provincial governments to take steps necessary to protect the health of all belugas held at that notorious facility.”
Because most captive whales and dolphins cannot be released into the wild, the ideal outcome for these animals is for them to be moved to a seaside sanctuary. Efforts to establish sanctuaries for belugas and other cold-water species are ongoing, with Canada poised to become home to a Whale Sanctuary Project facility in the coming years.
UPDATE: As of late in the day on May 11, DFO has confirmed that it issued permits for all five belugas. It will not release the permits or confirm what conditions are included.
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