Beluga Whale

Park's decision 'bad for belugas'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am


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A marine mammal expert who spent four years studying beluga whales in Russia claims the decision not to import them to Hong Kong may do more harm than good to the near-threatened species.

Marine mammal scientist Olga Shpak said Ocean Park bowed to political pressure by deciding not to exercise its option to import six wild-caught beluga whales from the Okhotsk Sea.

Shpak, who saw Ocean Park's Polar Adventure attraction where the whales were to live, said from Moscow: 'This decision is nothing to do with science. It is about politics.'

Shpak's study, verified by independent experts, concluded that 29 beluga whales could be taken annually over the next five years from the part of the sea she studied without adverse effects on the population.

However, at the end of August Ocean Park chairman Allan Zeman announced the park had dropped the plan amid opposition from animal welfare groups to wild capture.

'I am surprised public opinion went this way,' Shpak said. 'It's not my business, but I believe what happened is more about politics than a real reflection of the situation.'

The decision, she argued, was bad not just for the six belugas, but for the near-threatened species at large, because if wild-caught whales did not go to overseas aquariums, it increased the chance of them being harvested by local fishermen.

'The population is doing well at the moment,' she said. 'It is increasing, but there is huge overfishing and locals keep saying there are more and more belugas, so the situation in the area is not good for belugas.

'Beluga whales that are not sent to dolphinariums are simply being given to locals to harvest, but welfare organisations do not talk about this.'

Shpak was particularly critical of the suggestion from Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, that the whales should simply be released. 'There is no way the animals would survive,' she said. 'Do they know how to catch fish? Will they rejoin their group? These animals have spent one year or two years in captivity. They would certainly die.'

Jill Robinson, executive director of Animals Asia, which campaigned against the import of the whales to Ocean Park, said: 'While we believe the right decision has been made in terms of the whales, there is a rather bitter taste of acknowledging that the six belugas slated for the park now have an unknown fate.'

But she said the decision achieved a bigger objective. 'We stand behind our original protests acknowledging that the import of such marine mammals sends a negative message ... that it is perfectly acceptable to remove threatened, free-ranging animals from their ... social groups, and to place them in an artificial environment contrary to their physical and psychological needs,' she said.