Up to 29 belugas a year could be caught, report says
Beluga whales are classified as 'near threatened', but up to 29 can be removed each year from the wild in Russia.
That is the finding of a four-year sustainability assessment commissioned and sponsored by five aquariums around the world, including Ocean Park.
The study, conducted between 2007 and 2010 with the aim of developing a conservation plan for the species, gauged the whale population in the Sakhalin-Amur region in the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia's far east.
Conducted mainly by Olga Shpak, an expert from the Moscow-based A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution under the Russian Academy of Sciences, the study was reviewed by an independent scientific panel convened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in May.
There were at least 2,891 beluga whales in the region from where the whales could be removed, the study concluded from a series of aerial and field surveys. However, depending on age and sex, the live capture of whales might affect the sustainability of the population and its social structure, the review panel highlighted in its report. It also raised concerns about the method of estimating the population size.
Beluga whales in the region were hunted heavily from 1917 until the 1960s, the study said. At the peak of the trade in the 1930s, at least 2,800 whales were captured yearly. Since 1963, however, hunting for beluga whales has almost ended because the population had fallen so far.
Russia is the only regular supplier of beluga whales to the aquarium industry after Canada banned exports in 1992.
Since 2000, between 10 and 31 whales have been captured live every year, except in 2007.
Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, a local specialist in dolphin surveys, said closer scrutiny of the findings was needed. 'Ocean Park wants to take the findings as a green light for its live-capture plan, but the report ... is rather ambiguous on whether the panel endorses the findings.'
He said the issue had attracted the attention of international animal welfare bodies, which had written to Ocean Park urging it to scrap its plan.
The study co-sponsors are Atlanta's Georgia Aquarium and Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration in Connecticut, both in the US, Kanagawa Sea World in Japan and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.