A Win for Whales: Georgia Aquarium Can’t Import Belugas

A federal judge denies the Atlanta-based aquarium’s request to bring 18 beluga whales into the country from Russia.

Beluga whales Matrena and Nilma swim in the White Sea off the coast of northern Russia. (Photo: Viktor Lyagushkin/Getty Images)

Sep 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

It’s official: After more than three years of legal wrangling, 18 beluga whales captured in Russia will not be heading to aquariums in the United States.

This week, a federal judge in Atlanta upheld the decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service to deny a permit to the Georgia Aquarium to import the gentle white whales.

The whales were captured in the Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2010 and are being held at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the Black Sea. The Georgia Aquarium’s request included sending several whales to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut on breeding loans. In September, SeaWorld dropped its bid for a share of the belugas.

Anti-captivity groups applauded the decision.

“We are thrilled with the court’s ruling,” Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said in an email. “The MMPA [Marine Mammal Protection Act] was enacted to protect marine mammals from harm and exploitation, and that is exactly what it has done in this case. The U.S. will thankfully not be part of the unsustainable and inhumane trade in belugas out of Russia.”

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In June 2012 the aquarium submitted its original application to the NMFS for a permit to import the whales under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which allows limited importation of some wild-captured marine mammals for public display.

The aquarium said it needed the whales “to enhance the North American beluga breeding cooperative by increasing the population base of captive belugas to a self‐sustaining level and to promote conservation and education.”

NMFS officials rejected the application in August 2013, saying that the import permit would likely have a “significant adverse impact” on the stock and “result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit.” They also determined that five of the belugas, estimated to be approximately 1.5 years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and “not yet independent.”

The following month, the Georgia Aquarium sued the government, claiming that the permit denial was “arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with the law.”

On Monday, Judge Amy Totenberg ruled against the aquarium in an unusually harsh summary.

“Like something out of a Russian spy novel...Georgia Aquarium launched a wholesale attack on NMFS, accusing the Agency of ‘cooking the books’ to fabricate its rationale in a deliberate and conspiratorial effort to deny Georgia Aquarium’s import permit,” Totenberg wrote.

The aquarium did not have an immediate reaction to the ruling. “We have received the decision and are in the process of reviewing it,” spokeswoman Jessica Fontana said.

Lori Marino, a whale and dolphin neuroscientist and executive director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, also lauded the decision.

“Fortunately, this current ruling upholds an ethical imperative which the Georgia Aquarium has continually attempted to defeat and a promise to the public they have continually tried to break,” Marino said in an email. “Moreover, as beluga whales and other cetaceans cannot thrive in captivity, the continued efforts of the Georgia Aquarium will ultimately never succeed.”

The Animal Welfare Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Cetacean Society International, and Earth Island Institute acted as “intervenors” in the case on behalf of the government.

What happens next is not clear. The whales may simply be put up for auction to the highest bidders in countries without marine mammal protections. But animal welfare activists want to see them rehabilitated for return to their natural pods off the Russian coast.