Georgia Aquarium Fights To Import Beluga Whales To United States From Russia

The Georgia Aquarium and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) are waiting for a judge’s decision on whether or not 18 beluga whales will be allowed to be imported to the U.S. from Russia.

This legal fight has been going on for years, with the aquarium desperately trying to get permission to import the whales and NOAA Fisheries insisting that the animals were caught in such a way that it threatens the protection of their species.

“The aquarium unfortunately is contributing to the depletion of this population back in Russia,” Courtney Vail of Whale Dolphin Conservation said. “That’s not conservation.”

“They are behaving like a user group, like oil and gas exploration, you know, they’re trying to exploit a resource,” Dr. Naomi Rose of Animal Welfare Institute added.

A permit was applied for by the Georgia Aquarium and turned down. The aquarium has argued that they meet every requirement of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and that they should have never been turned down in the first place.

Although the Marine Mammal Protection Act doesn’t allow for importation of marine animals usually, it does allow the action for aquariums if the organization meets certain standards.

All the belugas were caught between 2006 and 2011 in the Sea of Okhotsk in northern Russia. They currently reside at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia.

“The fact of the matter is this should have been a very easy operation,” Georgia Aquarium Vice President Scott Higley said. “The Marine Mammal Protection Act strongly supports education programs in zoos and aquariums. It also supports the import of animals for that purpose.”

If the whales are allowed into the U.S., they won’t all be staying at the Georgia Aquarium. Some of the whales would be loaned to various other organizations.

On Friday, both sides of the argument got to see a judge, hoping that the judge would be able to make the decision quickly.

The Georgia Aquarium issued a statement about the legal action.

“Our goal with Friday’s legal action is to have the court grant our request for the U.S. federal government to approve our permit to import 18 beluga whales to the United States from Russia. We believe that the government has repeatedly acted in a questionable manner in denying Georgia Aquarium’s permit request to import these belugas from Russia. Georgia Aquarium is asking the court to uphold the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act and order issuance of a permit to bring the belugas into the U.S. as soon as possible.

“If the permit is granted, the animals will reside in accredited aquariums to assure consistency and quality of care, social setting for the animals, and to enhance opportunities for cooperative breeding to help ensure a long-term sustainable population.”

[ Image courtesy of Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images ]