– Article by Rachel Matulis
Last week, a U.S. court denied Georgia Aquarium’s request to import 18 beluga whales from Russia for public display.
The decision has been highly anticipated since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (‘NOAA’) initial rejection of the aquarium’s application over two years ago.
The 18 belugas subject to the import application were sourced from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011, and currently live in the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia. The application requested the belugas be imported and held by Georgia Aquarium, with some being transported to other aquariums throughout the United States.
SeaWorld was listed as one of the recipients, but later announced they had second thoughts on the deal, and would no longer be taking any of the belugas. This withdrawal is without doubt a response to increasing public criticism over SeaWorld’s appalling treatment of orcas, as well as an 84% drop in profits.
NOAA rejected the beluga permit application because it did not align with specific criteria as set out in the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which is designed to prevent the “extinction or depletion of marine life as a result of human activities.”
NOAA found it would be inappropriate to grant Georgia Aquarium a permit because the import of the belugas into the U.S. might negatively impact the number of whales in the wild. It even went so far as to argue the ongoing trade in live capture could be a major contributor to the decline of wild belugas in the last 20 years.
NOAA also voiced concerns that granting the import permit would create an unwelcome precedent, encouraging the capture of belugas for public display. Several of the captured belugas in question are of such a young age they are still dependent on their mothers.
Georgia Aquarium attempted to have the NOAA’s finding overturned by filing legal action in September 2013 in the U.S District Court. Despite their best efforts, on 29th September presiding Judge Totenberg affirmed all three bases of NOAA’s initial rejection. Not only did the judge reject the aquarium’s arguments, she voiced her scathing disapproval of Georgia Aquarium’s conduct – blasting the aquarium for going so low as to accuse NOAA of fabricating grounds for refusal.
While this is a momentous win for whales, unfortunately, the court’s decision does not prevent applications of a similar nature being made in the future. However, the case was the first in twenty years addressing direct importation of whales into the U.S for the purposes of captivity. Given the outcome, it’s a positive indication government bodies will strictly adhere to animal protection responsibilities. Further, SeaWorld’s very public withdrawal is a welcome step, and will hopefully contribute to decreasing demand for wild-captured whales in the future.
The full judgment can be read here.