Washington, DC—As more details emerge about the deaths of two of the five beluga whales imported to Mystic Aquarium from Canada last year—and the ongoing illness of a third whale—the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) is urging the three US agencies responsible for supervising the whales’ import to strengthen the monitoring of animal health during wildlife border crossings.
In a letter sent Friday to senior officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and the US Fish and 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.”
“Something went terribly wrong with this transport. Procedures at the border must be strengthened,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI’s marine mammal scientist. “When live animals come into the United States and their research permit is predicated on all animals being healthy, every effort must be made to ensure the animals are indeed healthy.”
Rose added: “Veterinary certificates designed primarily to keep out contagious disease are insufficient and officials cannot rely on the word of the receiving facility alone.”
Unprecedented Import Request
A number of laws and regulations, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), Endangered Species Act, and Animal Welfare Act (AWA), as well as an international treaty, govern the safe passage of wildlife, including marine mammals, into the United States.
In August 2020, NMFS issued a controversial permit under the MMPA to allow Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut to import five captive-born belugas from Marineland, a marine theme park in Canada, for scientific research and “incidental” public display. NMFS’s approval followed an intense lobbying effort from aquarium leaders targeting all levels of the Department of Commerce, including then-secretary Wilbur Ross. Following a concerted effort from AWI and its allies, NMFS restricted the permit to prohibit the use of the animals for entertainment shows or breeding.
NMFS subsequently allowed Mystic to substitute three of the 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. AWI has consistently maintained that Mystic’s research should be conducted at Marineland, in part to avoid exposing these whales to a stressful transport.
Within three months of the transport, 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.
Last month, a female beluga, Havana (one of the original whales), 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.
In September 2021, less than two months after Havok’s death, APHIS conducted an inspection of Mystic Aquarium that involved reviewing his medical records and behavioral notes. According to the agency’s report, released last month, inspectors found three “critical” violations related to Havok’s care, two of which resulted in Havok injuring himself.
The most egregious violation occurred during the eight hours prior to Havok’s death. Mystic staff members documented multiple observations of abnormal behavior, yet they did not alert the attending veterinarian. Taken together, these critical violations of AWA regulations also violate the federal research permit conditions set by NMFS.
“I was appalled reading the violations described in this inspection report,” Rose said. “Mystic rushed this transport, rather than wait to ensure the whales were fully healthy.”
“The aquarium claimed that Havok and all of its other animals receive ‘world-class’ care,” she added, “but this report clearly documents failures in basic common sense. As a result, Havok suffered needlessly for the weeks, days, and hours before his death. We do not yet have enough information about Havana’s situation to say whether things were better or worse for her.”
Lack of Transparency
Similar to Havok, Havana had experienced health challenges before transport. According to Canadian documents obtained by AWI from NGOs 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 is that Mystic, a publicly supported nonprofit institution, did not notify the public about Havana’s health status until after her death on Feb. 11.
AWI has offered to continue discussions with federal agencies to strengthen regulations for wildlife border crossings. One recommendation would be to require independent veterinary assessments of animals instead of relying on information submitted by the importing and exporting facilities, which have a vested interest in getting their transport approved.
Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
email@example.com, (202) 446-2128
The Animal Welfare Institute (awionline.org) is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.