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Stemming The Tide of Whale Extinction: Why It Must Be Our Civil Duty

Whales are what we call sentinels of the sea. They tell us what is happening in the ocean. This is because they are the top of the food chain. Their survival depends on the overall health of the ocean ecosystem.

Several species of whales are disappearing from earth at an alarming rate. It is estimated that only 300 to 1,000 northern right whales remain. Southern right, humpback, bowhead and blue whales all number less than 10,000 for each species.

We have an ethical obligation to reverse this devastating trend of extinction for whale populations. Why?

The disappearance of whales is telling us a great deal about our own future as a large mammalian species. The human species is thoroughly dependent upon the oceans for survival. The ocean cools the earth so that we can live, is a primary source of food and even medicine, and its wave and tidal patterns shape the terrestrial landscape upon which we live, right here and throughout the world.

Ethics are the application of values. If we value the earth we live on, we must act to protect whales. For many years, the message of saving the whales has been in our popular culture, and it has been trivialized and marginalized as a leftist slogan.

Today, however, saving whales is a clarion call. We cannot wait. As whales go, perhaps the human species goes too.

To do so, we must take steps to rapidly advance research to help whales and other cetaceans survive. We must fund this research as if our lives depend upon it, because they do. We must then implement science based public policies that positively change the current extinction trajectory.

Low birth rates are one of the greatest concerns with whale populations. Beluga whales and other species are having trouble reproducing. The reasons are not well known, but what is known, is that constantly changing environmental conditions such as limited food supply, noise, and human activity increase stress levels for belugas and other cetaceans. Stress can have an adverse impact on pregnancy and birthing.

At Mystic Aquarium we study beluga whales as a representative species of cetaceans. Our scientists, led by Dr. Tracy Romano, have advanced knowledge of the immune systems of whales, stress factors that cause lack of breeding, and other issues related to why whale species are struggling.

Key to our research is having a group of whales under controlled conditions that can be studied easily and efficiently. Recently Mystic Aquarium applied to the United States National Marine Fisheries Service for permission to transfer five beluga whales from Marineland Canada to our facility, which is the largest outdoor beluga habitat in the United States and specifically designed for research and care of beluga whales.

Moves of whales like this one inevitably attract attention, and that is legitimate. Whenever humans impinge on other species, questions should be raised about whether it is necessary, whether it is in the creatures’ best interest rather than just exploitive, and whether it’s being done well.

In this case, the answers are yes, yes and yes.

The first point to recognize is that belugas – like other whale species– are endangered or threatened in many parts of the world. Two beluga populations in particular are threatened, one in the St. Lawrence Estuary, the other in a large expanse of water on the coast of Alaska known as Cook Inlet. The threats they face are almost entirely human-induced, from noise pollution to the stresses caused by shipping traffic and coastal construction projects.

It is imperative to learn how these and other factors are affecting the belugas’ reproductive systems, stress responses and immune-system capabilities to help us understand what steps can be taken to ensure their survival. Moreover, the information that is gathered will help advance international protection policies for other marine mammals. This will be especially important in the effort to save other whale species.

There is no better place in which to conduct such research than Mystic Aquarium. It is home to the world’s leading marine mammal scientists, animal behaviorists and veterinarians who provide continuous, compassionate care for the belugas they study.

They work in a setting that gives them access to the animals in ways that are impossible in the wild. Mystic’s outdoor, 750,000-gallon Arctic Coast habitat is specially designed and equipped for beluga research, and its naturalistic features and high standard of water quality provide a safe, healthy environment for the animals akin to a sea sanctuary.

The non-invasive conservation research that Mystic Aquarium is conducting can only be done with belugas in a controlled setting – there are just too many variables and unknowns in the wild.

It is significant to point out that transferring the five belugas to Mystic will take them out of overcrowded conditions at Marineland Canada, where new management is working to improve a facility that has come under serious criticism in the past. While not the main reason for the permit to import, transferring these whales to Mystic Aquarium is good for the health and welfare of each of the animals.

There is growing interest in the concept of sea sanctuaries as a kind of rest home for captive born animals such as the belugas at Marineland. As of today, there is only one functioning beluga sanctuary in the world, housing two whales. It is located in a very remote area of Iceland with challenges related to weather, noise, boat traffic and other issues. The belugas are currently housed in a traditional indoor pool structure and visitors are encouraged to pay admission to see the animals as would be the case in traditional aquariums.

The concept of sanctuaries is well intentioned and it should be explored. However, at this juncture it is an untested concept that could actually be quite risky for animals born in captivity that have not developed immune systems capable of dealing with microbes and pathogens found in a wild environment. Further, operation of a sanctuary would cost millions of dollars every year to administer. In the case of the Iceland facility, Merlin Entertainment has underwritten the initial costs, but it is unclear what their long-term commitment will be as they have recently been acquired by an investment banking firm.

Mystic Aquarium is committing resources over the next five years to study the feasibility of sanctuaries. The very research we will be conducting with the transferred whales will help to advance knowledge about the viability of sea sanctuaries, especially from the perspective of animal health and welfare.

To what end are we conducting research? Clearly the accumulation of data on belugas and other whales is useful in advancing knowledge. However the current rate of extinction of whales demands near immediate solutions. We know many things about dinosaurs but what we know will never bring them back.

Therefore, Mystic Aquarium is committing more resources to beluga whale and marine mammal research over the next five years. We have developed a close collaboration with the University of Connecticut which provides access to state-of-the-art labs, faculty from a broad range of disciplines, and economies of scale in seeking research funding and dissemination of research findings. Alarger cohort of whales at Mystic Aquarium will increase the validity and applicability of our studies.

One of the most important aspects of our research is the design and ground truthing of non-invasive technologies for studying belugas in the wild. Examples of some of this technology includes breath sampling for health assessment and adding and expanding our knowledge on photogrammetry which can track beluga pods, identify the sex and age of wild belugas, and provide information on pregnancy status and body condition of wild beluga populations.

This technology and other aspects of our research will be used to inform conservation management policies. These include issues such as how and where shipping lanes should be located in the rapidly developing Arctic region, placement of energy extraction or generation platforms in ocean settings, considerations on fishing of certain stocks and possible encouraged movement or migration of animals to more productive or less stressful ecosystems.

The holy grail of our research is to find conservation practices, methods and approaches that will help belugas increase reproductive success. Understanding natural behaviors that lead to reproduction, stress factors that inhibit reproduction, behaviors and conditions that allow for successful gestation and birthing, are what we need to know, now, in order to save belugas and other whales from extinction.

Funding for marine mammal research is an afterthought amongst governmental agencies and foundations. Yet, understanding the rapid extinction of whale populations probably holds the key for many of the most vexing human health issues.

Investment in new sources of energy generation from the ocean, especially ocean wind energy, offer the most logical and immediate possibilities for funding marine mammal research. Massive private investment is underway to site wind turbines up and down the coastline of the northeastern United States. These efforts require research and development funding to make them successful and to secure the permits necessary for construction.

Learning about how these new systems impact marine life and especially marine mammals is of concern to almost all of the stakeholders. Mystic Aquarium is working with Orsted Eversource, Vineyard Wind and the United States Department of Energy to implement research studies related to ocean wind energy that will also advance efforts related to saving belugas and other whale populations.

Federal agencies such as the Department of Energy, NOAA, Bureau of Energy Management, the United States Navy Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation, as well as major philanthropic entities need to make investments in marine mammal research. In the coming year, the National Ocean Partnership Program will be up for reauthorization. This inter-agency effort to support innovative ocean research should focus attention on marine mammals. Modest funding, by federal standards, of as little as five to ten million dollars would have enormous impact and bring quick results.

There are examples of success in the conservation of whale species. The western South Atlantic Humpback whale has made a remarkable recovery from a low of 440 whales in the early 1960’s to about 25,000 today. We know that the advancement of knowledge, achieved through sound conservation research, has led to the enactment of public policies and public awareness that has helped to save other species ranging from the American Alligator to Steller Sea Lions.

As we think about the future of whales in relation to civil society, we should consider the words of Mahatma Ghandi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals.”

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