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Mystic — The president and CEO of Mystic Aquarium said Tuesday that a bill being considered by the General Assembly would end the aquarium’s research into protecting belugas and other whales in the wild.
“The bill’s net effect would shut down our beluga program and end our research on belugas and cetaceans,” Stephen Coan said.
He said the aquarium’s 35 years of beluga research — into the effect of stressors, such as climate change and pollution, on the decline in wild beluga pregnancy and successful gestation rates — requires a control group of whales in captivity.
The legislature’s Environment Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing at 10:30 a.m. Friday in the Legislative Office Building on Raised Bill 5341: “An act prohibiting the sale and breeding of certain cetaceans.” If approved by the legislature this spring, it would take effect Oct. 1.
Aquarium officials as well as supporters ranging from scientists and veterinary experts to members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce are expected to testify in opposition to the bill on Friday.
The bill comes as the aquarium awaits a decision from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the federal importation permit it needs to transfer five belugas from Marineland of Canada to Mystic. The aquarium, which has 800,000 visitors a year, currently has three belugas in its Alaskan Coast exhibit. It once housed dolphins but has not had one in its collection for almost 20 years.
Coan said the bill is directed at Mystic Aquarium, as no other facilities in the state house whales, and while it purports to make an exception for the aquarium, it does not, upon further reading.
The bill defines cetaceans as any whale, dolphin or porpoise of the Order Odontoceti.
While the Environment Committee’s website does not name the legislator who introduced the bill as it does with many other bills, Coan identified the legislator as state Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford.
Michel, a self-described environmental activist, states on his website that he has traveled to Florida on several occasions to shepherd endangered sea turtles and their hatchlings to the ocean and is the House Democrat chairman of the Legislators for Animals Advocacy Caucus.
Coan said Michel has been “quite vociferous” when he has been among groups of people in the past who have protested the aquarium having whales in its collection. Coan said he respects Michel’s position and has tried to have discussions with him.
Michel did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment about why he introduced the bill.
Coan said that while there’s nothing more important than the life of every cetacean out there, particularly as they are threatened in their Arctic habitat, “we feel there are bigger conservation issues the legislature can focus on.”
“This bill does nothing to advance conservation whatsoever,” he said.
Coan also addressed the aquarium’s controversial application to import the five whales from Canada. He said doing so would allow the aquarium to expand the validity of its research by adding animals that have been born in captivity and lived under human care in less-than-desirable situations. He said a move to Mystic would improve the lives of the whales.
In a recent letter urging aquarium supporters to attend the hearing, Coan wrote that the bill “is inconsistent with federal laws which are among the most stringent in the world in protecting marine mammals, assuring their right to breed, and the movement of animals under human care for their care and well-being.”
Both state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and state Rep. Kate Rotella, D-Stonington, whose districts include the aquarium, oppose the bill.
Somers said she has helped organize a group of opponents who will testify Friday.
She said that while those who support the bill have the best intentions in their heart, they may have misconceptions about the aquarium.
“This is an aquarium that does scientific research to protect these species and protect their environment,” she said.
Rotella said she has submitted testimony with other southeastern Connecticut legislators opposing the bill. She said research done by the aquarium has been instrumental in the conservation of beluga whales.
“I believe in the work they do. It’s not a Sea World show,” she said, adding the aquarium has been a good partner with the community and schools across the state.
The bill would prohibit the holding of a wild or captive-bred cetacean for any purposes such as “display, performance or entertainment purposes”; breeding and the export, collection or import of semen, gametes or embryos for artificial insemination; and the export, transport, movement or sale of a cetacean to another state or country unless otherwise authorized by federal law or unless it’s to another facility in North America that meets standards comparable to those provided under the federal Animal Welfare Act.
The bill states the provisions would not apply to a cetacean located in the state on Oct. 1, or any cetacean being rehabilitated by an educational or scientific institution after a rescue or stranding or for research purposes.
The bill attaches stipulations to the rehabilitation and research provision. These include the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection must be notified immediately upon the rescue or acquisition of any cetacean, and any cetacean held for rehabilitation or research purposes must be returned to the wild whenever possible. If a return is not possible, the cetacean may be used for educational presentations but not for breeding, performance or entertainment purposes. Violating the law would be a misdemeanor with a fine of not more than $2,000.