Two of five “healthy” beluga whales sold by Marineland to Mystic in 2021 have died & a third is reportedly ill
MYSTIC, Connecticut; NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario––Two of the longtime most controversial marine mammal exhibition venues in North America are taking heat––again––after the deaths of two out of five beluga whales who were transferred from one to the other in May 2021, while another is reportedly in intensive care.
Marineland of Canada, operating under private ownership in Niagara Falls, Ontario since 1961, sold the five belugas for an undisclosed price to the nonprofit Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, opened in 1973.
Summarized Liam Casey of Canadian Press on March 31, 2022, “The U.S. and Canadian governments approved the move, which was allowed for research purposes. The deaths of the transferred whales are now under scrutiny by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.”
U.S. feds “reviewing the circumstances”
Confirmed National Marine Fisheries Service spokesperson Katie Wagner, to Casey, “The agency is reviewing the circumstances of the deaths of the imported beluga whales and is co-ordinating closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service.”
“In Canada,” continued Casey, “the Fisheries Department said it approved permits for the whales after receiving an ‘attestation of good health for each beluga,’ and is not reviewing the transfer. Mystic and Marineland did not respond to multiple written requests for comment.”
The veracity of the Marineland of Canada “attestation of good health for each beluga” and much else about the transaction have been called into question by the Washington D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.
AWI suspects “none of the whales were actually healthy”
Stated Animal Welfare Institute media contact Marjorie Fishman, “In a letter to senior officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service, the USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, and the US Fish &Wildlife Service, AWI noted that, at present, documentation required at the border to verify that animals are healthy enough for transport has proved insufficient.
“With respect to this import, the organization suspects—based on a review of necropsy reports, health records, and inspection documents—that none of the whales were actually healthy in the weeks and possibly days prior to the transport.”
During the preparations for moving the five belugas from Niagara Falls to Mystic, the Animal Welfare Institute charged, the National Marine Fisheries Service “allowed Mystic to substitute three belugas who were deemed too ill for transport for three other Marineland whales. At the time, Mystic Aquarium committed in writing to import only healthy animals.
“Within three months of the transport,” Fishman continued, “Havok, one of the substituted whales, died, apparently from a ‘preexisting condition’ related to gastric abnormalities. Records show that the 6-year-old whale’s transport was postponed several times to ensure that his gastric ulcers had healed while he was still at Marineland. At the time of transport, Havok was declared “stable,” with the health certificate—dated seven days before the move—indicating a limited number of normal health parameters.”
A USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service review of Havok’s medical records and behavioral notes, conducted in September 2021 but only released in February 2022, “found three ‘critical’ violations related to Havok’s care, two of which resulted in Havok injuring himself,” Fishman said.
“The most egregious violation occurred during the eight hours prior to Havok’s death,” Fishman continued. “Mystic staff members documented multiple observations of abnormal behavior, yet they did not alert the attending veterinarian. Taken together, these critical violations of Animal Welfare Act regulations also violate the federal research permit conditions set by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“Last month,” Fishman added, “a female beluga, Havana, died after being in ‘intensive care over the past several months for multiple health issues,’ according to Mystic. The aquarium also disclosed that another female whale was still in intensive care.
“Similar to Havok,” Fishman said, “Havana had experienced health challenges before transport. According to Canadian documents obtained by the Animal Welfare Institute from nonprofit organizations in Canada, she was being treated for a bacterial and/or fungal infection. While subsequent blood tests showed that her situation had improved, it is unclear whether these issues were completely resolved before transport.
“What is clear,” Fishman concluded, “is that Mystic, a publicly supported nonprofit institution, did not notify the public about Havana’s health status until after her death on February 11.”
Zoos and marine mammal exhibition facilities do not customarily advise the public––or animal advocacy organizations––about the health status of the individual animals in their care, unless those animals have a particularly high public profile.
The five beluga whales moved from Marineland of Canada to the Mystic Aquarium have collectively had a high public profile, however, as both facilities have had for decades, in part over recurring allegations of deficient animal care and questions about their animal acquisition practices.
The Mystic Aquarium has been trying since at least 2011 to develop a successful captive breeding program for beluga whales.
The purchase of the five belugas from Marineland of Canada, however, was not framed as part of the captive breeding program. If it had been, the deal would have broken Canadian law.
Dodging the Criminal Code of Canada
Skeptical that the purchase for “research” really had much to do with research, Friends of Animals, of Norwalk, Connecticut, and the California-based organization Last Chance for Animals in early 2021 filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service for issuing the import permits.
Pointed out a Last Chance for Animals media release dated February 1, 2021, “Under the five year term of the permit, breeding the beluga whales is prohibited. However, these restrictions will only last five years. Breeding the beluga whales in Canada would violate the Criminal Code,” Last Chance for Animals explained, “which criminalizes the breeding of captive cetaceans,” beginning in 2020.
“Moving the whales to Mystic would take them out of the important, hard-fought protections of [Canadian] Bill S-203 and leave them vulnerable to breeding. thereby perpetuating the cycle of captivity of these majestic creatures,” Last Chance for Animals said.
Transfers ahead of the law
Canadian Press reporter Liam Casey appeared skeptical of the beluga sale almost as soon as it was announced.
Wrote Casey on May 3, 2019, “Two major Canadian tourist attractions are sending beluga whales outside the country as a new federal law looms that would ban exports on marine mammals, Canadian Press has learned.
“Fisheries & Oceans Canada said it has approved permits for Marineland to move two belugas from the Niagara Falls, Ontario, facility to Oceanografic in Valencia, Spain. The Vancouver Aquarium says it owns the two marine mammals that are being cared for by Marineland, and operates the Spanish park where they’re being transferred.
“Marineland has also applied to move five more belugas to the United States,” Casey revealed, “but neither Fisheries & Oceans Canada nor Marineland would divulge where in the U.S. they’re headed if the permits are approved.”
The Vancouver Aquarium deal, Casey hinted, was occasioned by more than just the then-new Canadian law, Bill S-203.
Recounted Casey, “The Vancouver Board of Parks & Recreation passed a bylaw amendment in 2017 banning cetaceans being brought to or kept in city parks, after two beluga whales held at the aquarium died. The aquarium, which is located in Stanley Park, announced [in 2018] that it would phase out whale and dolphin display.
“There are currently no whales at the Vancouver Aquarium,” Casey said.
Opened in 1956, the Vancouver Aquarium exhibited both orcas and belugas from 1964 to 2001, and for a time also exhibited narwhals and a pseudorca.
Both Marineland of Canada and the Vancouver Aquarium have economically struggled in recent years.
The Vancouver Aquarium was sold in August 2021 to Herschen Family Entertainment, a Missouri-based theme park operator that also owns the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, and the Newport Aquarium in Newport, Kentucky.
Marineland of Canada founder John Holer died in 2018. The marine park remains property of the Holer family.
“It’s an anachronism,” the Waterloo Region Record editorialized on December 23, 2021.
“Now, Marineland has been charged under the Criminal Code with one count of using a captive cetacean for performance for entertainment purposes without authorization.
“Marineland has denied the allegation,” the Waterloo Region Record said, “blaming ‘ideologically driven activists’ and saying its exhibit educates park visitors.
“The courts will decide which side is right; no evidence has been presented yet and there is no trial date,” the Waterloo Region Record noted.
Kiska the killer whale
“And what about Kiska, the park’s lone killer whale, described on the Marineland website as ‘our friendly ocean giant’?” the Waterloo Region Record editors asked.
“Others call Kiska ‘The world’s loneliest orca.’
“By sticking to its outdated program while the world moved ahead,” the Waterloo Region Record editors noted, “Marineland boxed itself — and Kiska — into a quandary.
“Laws changed, and now it is illegal in Ontario to buy or sell orcas. And releasing Kiska into the wild now would likely be traumatic for her.”
Elaborated Toronto blogger Becky Robertson, “Kiska, widely considered the zoo’s most famous resident, has spent the vast majority of her 44-some-odd years in captivity after being caught off the coast of Iceland in the late 1970s, and has lived in complete isolation in a concrete tank for an entire decade now.
“The five calves she birthed while at Marineland all died at a young age — just a few of the 60+ animals that have allegedly passed away while in the park’s care — and the public has expressed concern for her health and treatment at the park for years as her mental and physical state continue to visibly deteriorate.”