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Ga. Aquarium To Review Court’s Decision On Beluga Whales

Beluga whales at Sea World in San Antonio in 2008. San Antonio was expecting to receive six of 18 beluga whales from an application submitted to NOAA by the Georgia Aquarium. Chicago, Atlanta, San Diego and Orlando were also hoping to receive whales.
Credit ERIC GAY / AP PHOTO

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries agency said it is pleased with a federal judge’s ruling to uphold NOAA’s decision.

The Georgia Aquarium lost an appeal on Monday to import 18 beluga whales from Russia. An aquarium spokeswoman said Wednesday that it is still reviewing the documents and decision.

Some of the 18 whales were captured by scientists nearly a decade ago and have been swimming around a research facility in Russia.

In June 2012, the Georgia Aquarium filed for permission to import these whales to Atlanta and distribute the rest to aquariums in San Antonio, Chicago, Orlando and San Diego.

But in August 2013, NOAA Fisheries denied the permit.

NOAA Fisheries’ director of the Office of Protected Resources, Donna Wieting, said it was the first time in over 20 years that NOAA received an application to import wild marine mammals.

“When you’re looking at the sustainability or health of a population, you want to make sure that the removals don’t negatively impact the ability of that population to be healthy,” Wieting said.

NOAA Fisheries wrote in its final environmental assessment that it can’t control the trade of whales in Russia, but if it approved the permit, more whales may be taken out of the wild to meet global demand for public display.

“We have to see whether the request itself and the activities would result in taking more marine mammals and marine mammal parts beyond that authorized,” Wieting said. “So does it lead to additional requests and additional takings?”

NOAA Fisheries received nearly 9,000 comments during its public review process. Some people were concerned about the ethics of the U.S. participating in the live trade of beluga whales in Russia.

beluga whales
The NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) is an alternate name for NOAA Fisheries. NOAA Fisheries’ final environmental assessment report said it wasn’t sure if the import met some of the criteria of the MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act) of 1972.
CREDIT NOAA FISHERIES

The Georgia Aquarium said its goal is to promote education and conservation of beluga whales, which is in line with the MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act).

It called NOAA’s denial of its request “arbitrary and capricious.”

The Georgia Aquarium has the right to appeal the decision to a higher court: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.