It’s been almost exactly a year since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denied the Georgia Aquarium’s application for a permit to bring 18 wild-caught belugas to the U.S. for public display, but the aquarium hasn’t given up trying to get its hands on them and went to court yesterday seeking to overturn the decision.
The controversy started in 2012 when the aquarium tried to get a permit to import the belugas, who who were captured in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011, making it the first request in 20 years from a facility in the U.S. to import wild-caught marine mammals for public display.
Had the permit been approved, they would have been transported here and split up under breeding and loan agreements between SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas and California, and Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.
Fortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied the request over concerns that the move would further harm wild populations and that a few were still young enough to be dependent on their mothers, stating:
There are ongoing, legal marine mammal capture operations in Russia that are expected to continue, and we believe that issuance of this permit would contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock for the purpose of public display in the U.S. and worldwide, resulting in the future taking of additional belugas from this stock.
While the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) allows some exceptions for marine mammals to be captured and imported for public display, the agency didn’t believe the aquarium met the requirements for the permit it was seeking.
That should have been the end of it, especially considering the growing public opposition to keeping cetaceans in captivity, but officials with the aquarium are still baffled by the decision and believe they have a right to import these belugas. Even after being told what they want to do would further harm beluga populations and knowing how poorly they do in captivity, the aquarium has continued to make ridiculous claims that its efforts are being made in the name of conservation and have boldly stated that “maintaining a sustainable population of beluga whales in human care is essential to the survival of belugas everywhere.”
Last October, the aquarium filed a lawsuit to get the decision overturned and appeared at the U.S. District Court Northern District of Georgia yesterday to add more documents that would justify the permit and to get internal documents from NOAA about why it made the decision.
While the judge isn’t expected to make a decision for a few weeks, belugas weren’t without their advocates in court. The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Cetacean Society International and the Earth Island Institute were granted permission last April to intervene on their behalf.
While we wait to hear about their fate, there is some good news that could bring hope for wild belugas who remain in the Sea of Okhotsk. Earlier this month, the NMFS announced that a petition requesting that the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River beluga whale population be granted greater protection as a depleted stock under the MMPA warranted consideration.
The petition was filed last April by the Animal Welfare Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Cetacean Society International and the Earth Island Institute, which argued that this population is the only source of whales for the live trade and that further captures would put their future survival in jeopardy.
According to a statement from AWI, the organizations that filed the petition hope that a “depleted designation under the MMPA will stimulate research and conservation efforts by the United States and foreign governments, conservation organizations, the scientific community, and funding institutions to help recover these belugas and protect their habitat.”
The agency is working on a status review that should be completed by mid-November and will be accepting public comments until September 2.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, please sign and share the petition asking the Georgia Aquarium to stop fighting to get these whales and to phase out keeping cetaceans at all.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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