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U.S. government reviewing deaths of two belugas moved from Canada to Connecticut

DFO approved permits for the whales after receiving an ‘attestation of good health for each beluga’
Three beluga whales swim together in an acclimation pool after arriving at Mystic Aquarium, May 14, 2021 in Mystic, Conn. The U.S. government is reviewing the deaths of two beluga whales that were moved from Marineland in Canada to an American aquarium last year. (Jason DeCrow/AP Images for Mystic Aquarium, File)

The U.S. government is reviewing the deaths of two beluga whales that were moved from Marineland in Canada to an American aquarium last year.

Havana, a young female beluga, died last month at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. Havok, a young male beluga, died at the aquarium last summer. Mystic, which announced the deaths after they occurred, said last month that a third whale from Marineland was in intensive care.

The mammals were among five beluga whales sent to Mystic in May 2021 after Marineland, a tourist attraction in Niagara Falls, Ont., sold them for an undisclosed price.

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.

“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 and Plant Health Inspection Service,” Katie Wagner, a spokeswoman with the service, told The Canadian Press in a written statement.

In Canada, 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.

Word of the U.S. review comes after the Animal Welfare Institute, an American advocacy group, asked the American government last week to investigate the transfer and treatment of the whales from Marineland.

The advocacy group noted three Marineland whales originally set to be transferred were replaced months before the move due to health issues.

“While we advised against the issuance of this permit from the outset, our present concerns stem from Mystic’s need to replace three of the original whales proposed for importation with substitutes that Mystic stated would be healthy,” it wrote in a letter to the government.

“We believe our concerns were, most unfortunately, validated by the August 6 death of Havok, a young male beluga who was a substitute for original whale Frankie; the serious illness of Jetta, reported on August 26, a young female beluga who was a substitute for original whale Qila; and then the February 11 death of a second female beluga.”

The week the whales were moved, Ontario’s Animal Welfare Services found all marine mammals at Marineland to be in distress due to poor water quality. Marineland, in court documents last May, denied its animals were in distress.

The now yearlong Marineland inspection remains ongoing, an Ontario government spokesman said Wednesday. Marineland has maintained it treats its animals very well.

In the U.S., the Animal Welfare Institute sought to learn more about the transferred whales and obtained American and Canadian government documents and Mystic reports through freedom of information laws. It shared those with The Canadian Press.

The documents shed light on the health of the two whales that died, as well as the third whale that was ill.

The two whales who died were found to have gastrointestinal problems, and all five transferred mammals had vision problems at Mystic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in an inspection report.

Havok, the whale who died last August, had a history of gastrointestinal issues, according to several documents.

“In the months following the move, the animal experienced a reversion and worsening of the pre-existing gastric condition,” said a Mystic report. “The Marineland medical history for this animal included a history of gastric ulcers and associated bleeding, anemia, and inappetence.”

A USDA report examining Havok’s death found Mystic had three “critical” violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

One involved the final hours of the whale’s life, at which point he was under under 24-hour watch.

“During the eight hours prior to his death, the staff members conducting the overnight watch documented multiple observations of abnormal behavior and did not alert the attending veterinarian,” the report noted.

Havok had been shaking his pectoral flippers, rolling over more than 40 times, surfacing belly up, had laboured breathing and 10 “instances of active bleeding.”

“The facility failed to provide adequate veterinary care by not using appropriate methods to prevent, control, diagnose and treat diseases during Havok’ s last eight hours,” the USDA wrote.

Trouble for Havana, who died in February, began soon after the move, according to a report filed by Mystic with the National Marine Fisheries Service last week.

The whale was in “healthy, stable condition” when she was transferred but within two weeks her bloodwork “began showing evidence of a systemic inflammatory process,” triggering treatment, the report said.

By the end of July, Havana began squinting her right eye and received treatment for a cornea issue.

In September, she developed a gastrointestinal problem called hemorrhagic gastritis. She first responded well to treatment, according to the Mystic report, but her condition worsened months later.

“On November 6, 2021, the whale stopped eating and was noted to be periodically swimming with closed eyes and contacting wall during swimming from time to time,” the report said.

Two days later, she had another episode of hemorrhagic gastritis, followed by another episode in mid-December and one more in late January.

The aquarium said it found abnormalities in Havana’s lungs on Feb. 9.

“Despite 24-hour care and intensive medical management, early in the morning on February 11, 2022, the whale exhibited an abrupt period of high energy and disoriented swimming and died soon thereafter,” the report said.

Health problems for the third whale began in August, Mystic said.

Jetta was “seriously ill,” Mystic president Stephen Coan told U.S. authorities in an email on Aug. 26, 2021.”The whale has a low white blood cell count and gastrointestinal issues which appear to be improving, and is not eating,” he wrote.

Mystic, which said last month its five other whales were healthy, hasn’t posted a recent public update on the ill whale.

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, said there needs to be more scrutiny of the whale transfer.

“These whales are dying,” she said. “Clearly something went terribly wrong here.”

—Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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