In a long-awaited decision, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia has today upheld a denial by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), rejecting Georgia Aquarium’s application to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia.
In 2012, Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit to import into the U.S., 18 beluga whales captured from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011. In August 2013, NOAA denied the hotly debated request, following an extended public comment period that saw 9,000 comments submitted. An online petition launched by a Sea Shepherd volunteer also received nearly 76,000 signatures against the proposed import.
According to NOAA, permit denial was based largely on the following reasons:
- Inability to determine whether the proposed activity, by itself or in combination with other activities, would likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock.
- The likelihood that the request would result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by this permit, as ongoing legal marine mammal captures are expected to continue in Russia. NOAA stated it believes issuance of this permit would therefore contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock in the future for the purpose of public display in the U.S. and worldwide.
- It was determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 18 months old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.
Undeterred by NOAA’s denial, in September 2013, Georgia Aquarium brought its attempts to get its hands on the wild-caught whales to the courtroom, asking the U.S. District Court to overturn NOAA’s decision. Judge Amy Totenberg, in today’s ruling, stated that NOAA “properly reviewed” the permit application, despite Georgia Aquarium’s accusations – which Judge Totenberg said were “like something out of a Russian spy novel.”
If the permit had been granted, upon arrival in the U.S., the whales would have been scattered to aquarium and marine parks including Georgia Aquarium, SeaWorld locations in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. This month, SeaWorld stated that it no longer had plans to accept any of the belugas, likely in an attempt to battle the ongoing public backlash against the company for its treatment of whales.
Sadly, these 18 beluga whales have already been captured and they reportedly remain in pens at Russia’s Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station. Critics of the opposition to the import have pointed out that the belugas will likely still face a life of imprisonment in captivity there or elsewhere around the world. However, Sea Shepherd believes that the decisions from the NOAA and the U.S. District Court, ultimately, are victories for the overall population of beluga whales and for whale conservation as a whole. Allowing Georgia Aquarium to import these whales would have set a dangerous precedent, opening the floodgates for further captures and exports from around the world into the U.S. The aquarium’s import permit application was the first attempt to import wild-caught whales directly for the U.S. captive industry in 20 years.
Sea Shepherd has followed this issue since the application was submitted by Georgia Aquarium and encouraged our supporters to oppose the aquarium’s plans to import these 18 whales torn from the sea. Sea Shepherd applauds today’s responsible decision from the federal court, and hopes that it will help to end the demand for wild-caught whales and dolphins that continues to fuel violent captures around the world. As we have seen time and time again, it is this same demand that sustains the drive hunt that targets entire pods of cetaceans in Taiji, Japan.
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