ATLANTA — The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has applied for a permit to bring 18 beluga whales into the country to help improve the condition of the mammals in captivity.
The application is part of a three-year, multimillion-dollar conservation program to improve the genetic diversity of captive belugas in the U.S. That would, in turn, make the beluga population more stable and would broaden the database of research on belugas' needs and capabilities.
The whales would be housed in aquariums and zoological parks around the country.
Georgia Aquarium chief zoological officer William Hurley says there are 34 belugas in U.S. captivity. He said many of them are past calf-bearing age, and bringing more belugas into the pool could improve the success of breeding efforts.
Georgia Aquarium's 17-year-old female beluga, Maris, gave birth in May, but the infant calf died just a few days later. The aquarium is still waiting on reports from the dead calf's necropsy.
"When the calf didn't make it, it was devastating to us," Hurley said.
If the application is approved, the new belugas would come from the Sea of Okhotsk in eastern Russia, where there is a population of several thousand of the whales. Marine protection agencies there have overseen the collection by Russian scientists of the animals that would come to the U.S.
The Georgia Aquarium has taken significant steps to make sure the removal of those animals wouldn't have negative effects on the whale population in that part of the ocean. The aquarium has spent about $2 million on research missions over the last three and a half years to do population counts and epidemiological studies on the whales there.
It hasn't been determined whether any of the new belugas would come to the Georgia Aquarium. That kind of decision is generally made by those coordinating nationwide conservation efforts.
Marilee Menard, executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, says the project is important.
"The beluga import is a seminal decision that is strongly supported by the marine mammal community," she said. "The Alliance's understanding is that the new animals are of the right ages and sexes to virtually ensure the goal of a long-term, sustainable population for decades to come."
The bigger population would also provide a broader sampling for scientists studying bio-acoustics, nutrition and temperature effects and other criteria critical to the survival of the species, said Brandon Southall, former director of the ocean acoustics program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.