Opinion: Mystic Aquarium president defends whale research in wake of beluga death

A beluga whale is lifted from a transport truck after arriving at Mystic Aquarium, May 15, 2021 in Mystic, Conn.

A beluga whale is lifted from a transport truck after arriving at Mystic Aquarium, May 15, 2021 in Mystic, Conn.

Jason Decrow / Associated Press

The worldwide population of whales is diminishing rapidly. Many whale species are on the edge of extinction.

As you may have read, we recently lost one of the five belugas we imported from Canada where they were living in overcrowded conditions. Another has developed some different health issues, although at this point her health is improving. Despite the tragic loss of one and current health issues in another, the ability to better understand belugas’ metabolism, auto-immune systems and other aspects of their biology is critical if we are to preserve belugas in the wild.

There is considerable evidence that the decline in whale populations is correlated to rapidly changing environmental conditions that can be attributed to rising temperatures, alteration of tidal patterns, and rapid growth of human development, especially increased shipping, shoreline construction, and extraction of minerals from ocean settings.

Developing policies related to how humans interact with the Arctic and other key environmental areas for whales, are essential. These include creating marine protected areas, reducing noise pollution, preventing ships from striking whales, reducing climate emissions, pollution from plastics and more.

Often overlooked, however, is helping whales to adapt to environmental change, some of which despite many efforts, cannot be reversed. One of the biggest challenges for whale populations is low birth rates and high mortality rates among calves that are birthed.

Mystic Aquarium research is focused on studying the immune systems of marine animals. We study beluga whales under human care because they are representative of cetaceans that are threatened and endangered. They are also sentinels of the sea, or top of the food chain animals, that can inform scientists about the condition of the entire ocean environment where they live, especially the rapidly changing Arctic environment that is so critical for us to understand and protect, right now.

Only in recent years has the human medical research field come to understand the absolute centrality of neuro immune systems to every facet of human health and survival. The extension of this field to marine and terrestrial animals is still in its infancy. Mystic Aquarium scientists, led by Dr. Tracy Romano, are pioneers in working to discover how the immune systems of marine mammals are affected by environmental changes, including impact on reproduction, birthing, and survival.

Wild research related to whales is largely focused on aerial surveys of populations, tagging studies, and very limited blood or other chemical sampling. Noise studies are also being conducted in the wild.

Yet all these processes are limited in both scale and validity because whales are difficult to reach in the wild, let alone collect samples from. Another barrier to research in the wild is stringent government restrictions on approaching and handling whales and other marine mammals. For immunological and stress studies, a control group is needed to assure the validity of scientific research and interpret findings in wild animals.

Mystic Aquarium maintains a population of belugas under human care that are trained to provide ongoing samples of blood, whale blow, and saliva. They also provide insight on behavioral characteristics of whales, impact of noise, and patterns related to reproduction. Advances with Mystic Aquarium based whales are leading to new technologies that will help scientists and policymakers move beyond the nascent research of wild belugas and take immediate steps to protect wild whale populations.

Scientists at Mystic Aquarium play an essential role in conducting research that increases knowledge and provides data to inform management and policy on science-based protections for cetaceans, as well as other marine mammal populations. Without the studies that are happening at Mystic Aquarium, little would be known about beluga whales, their immune systems, or how they are impacted by environmental and anthropogenic stressors, and what to do about it, if anything.

Advancing knowledge through scientific research is essential to the recovery of endangered whale populations, now.

Dr. Stephen M. Coan is president and CEO of Mystic Aquarium.