In a world in desperate need of people banding together to preserve nature, why has the issue of conserving the animals of the oceans become so contentious? During the past three months, battle lines have been drawn between aquariums and animal activists, creating one of the most controversial marine mammal permit applications to cross National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) desks. A consortium of marine parks led by the Georgia Aquarium has requested a permit to import 18 wild caught Russian beluga whales for breeding and public education. Activist groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and PETA, have vehemently protested the proposed break in a decades-long lull in the placement of wild caught cetaceans into U.S. facilities. With scientists just discovering that these white whales can mimic human speech (Current Biology 22, 2012), one wonders what the whales would have to say about it.
Each side has become increasingly entrenched in their views, with marine mammal conservation all but lost in the fray. Collateral damage from the continued debate has been the fracturing of the larger marine mammal community and confusion by the public. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction when passions run so high, and with both sides fundamentally believing that they speak for the animals. One result has been a disturbing silence by the majority of people. To date over 4,000 public comments have been submitted to NMFS regarding this permit application. While this number is unprecedented for a single application, it represents only 0.00017 of the 23.6 million visitors to SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment facilities just last year. Where are all of the other voices?
In truth, the members of the general population are so overwhelmed with negative scientific reports and media about the environment, that it is difficult to generate empathy for any animal in trouble no matter how critical. I've observed this from elementary schools to college campuses where impending extinctions of marine mammals such as the Hawaiian monk seal and the vaquita are erroneously accepted as inevitable and without solution. Warnings about oceanic ecosystem collapses are blindly accepted as commonplace. Therein lies the most challenging problem for saving the animals of this planet, apathy.
Neither aquariums nor animal activist groups nor scientists are the enemy. Rather, the enemy is apathy fueled by ignorance. Indifference to nature has become rampant in our society, evident in each "Drill baby, drill!" rallying cry by politicians. It is the act of not caring that will ultimately lead to the global demise of animals and ourselves, for it is manifested as habitat degradation and destruction, over-fishing, crushing carbon footprints and global warming, as well as runaway pollution that kill wild creatures.
People need help in understanding their connection to nature and ecosystems; they need truthful guidance to learn to care. Maybe the beluga whales will finally tell us what how to do that.
As difficult as the task at hand may be, all is not lost. There are solutions to all of these problems. However, it will take every tool in the toolbox, tools that include the best of what aquariums, activist organizations and scientists can offer -- the attention and education of millions, the passion for action, and data to guide intelligent conservation directions, respectively. As heretical as it may seem, what is critical is for these disparate groups to shed hardened, seemingly divergent views and to begin working together towards their professed common goal of conserving the whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions living in the wild and everywhere in between.
For the individuals engaged on both sides of the beluga whale issue, such cooperation is not impossible, especially given where each started. Whether for or against dolphin and whales in captivity, whether working for aquariums, academia, or animal activist organizations, nearly all of the individuals once found their passions instilled by personal dolphin or whale encounters; the same encounters that millions try to experience every day at marine parks and aquariums. Clearly, one-on-one interactions with animals can inspire action for their conservation, and now we find even a conversation.
There is no arguing that we can do much better for the animals whether it is in the creation of premier conservation research and education programs for those in our care or in the safeguarding of wild populations. Directly or indirectly, we all use marine mammals, whether in eating a fish dinner that might have fed a dolphin, whale and seal, or in demanding crude oil that is drilled, pumped and transported across their oceanic homes. Ever since man walked the earth or sailed the oceans all manner of wild animal has borne the cost of our human existence. Perhaps it is time for us to balance those costs with benefits that will guarantee the continued survival of wild species. We can begin by working together as a society that truly cares about a whale safe world. I think that is what the beluga whales are trying to tell us.