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BREAKING NEWS Georgia Aquarium Will Not Appeal Beluga Case

| Mark J. Palmer, International Marine Mammal Project
Topics: Dolphins, SeaWorld

Georgia Aquarium announced on November 17th that they will not appeal the case of the import of 18 beluga whales from Russia.  This puts an end to their efforts to seek an import permit.

Our coalition, which includes Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, Animal Welfare Institute, Whale & Dolphin Conservation, and Cetacean Society International, had intervened in the case as defendants in support of NMFS, which denied Georgia Aquarium’s import permit application.

In 2012, Georgia Aquarium applied to NMFS for a permit to import the 18 belugas caught in the wild.  Georgia Aquarium intended to share the belugas with the three SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. parks in California, Texas and Florida, and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.  A few weeks ago, SeaWorld announced they would not accept any of the beluga whales after all.

The record of aquariums maintaining healthy beluga whales in captivity is poor.  The application by the Georgia Aquarium claims that belugas live as long in captivity as in the wild and that high mortality of belugas in captivity “largely ceased by 1995.”  Yet, two of nine captive belugas held at the Georgia Aquarium, according to NMFS records, died in captivity at the Georgia Aquarium in 2007.  In fact, of 34 belugas that have died in captivity in these six aquariums, 25 have died since 1995 (not counting two that died in 1995).  In total, of 71 belugas that have been held by these six aquariums (and often transferred between them) seeking the import permit, 34 have died in captivity—almost 48% of them.

Just in the past weeks, two captive adult belugas died in SeaWorld and Georgia Aquarium.  The 18 belugas, if imported, would have likely faced a stressful life in captivity and many of them would die young.

NMFS offered the public the opportunity to comment on the import permit application, and the agency was overwhelmed with about 9,000 responses, the vast majority of which opposed the issuance of the permit.  Strong opposition was also expressed at the hearing on the application held by NMFS, in spite of the appearance of people paid by Georgia Aquarium to show up at the hearing to try and prevent opposition and the general public from being present.

The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) only allows marine mammals to be imported for the purpose of public display if a proposed import is fully consistent with the purposes of the MMPA, which are to protect and conserve marine mammals, and strict regulatory criteria. NMFS cited three reasons for denying the application under the MMPA:

•               The agency could not determine that the import, by itself or in combination with other activities, would not have a significant adverse impact on the Russian stock of belugas from which the 18 whales were taken, given the stock’s “steady and significant decline over the past two decades” caused in part by the “ongoing live-capture trade since 1989.”  The belugas were caught in the wild in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk.

•               The import would likely result in the capture of additional belugas from this stock, beyond the 18 proposed for import, because issuance of this permit would result in replacement takes by the foreign shipping facility and “contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock for the purpose of public display worldwide.”

•               Five of the beluga whales—estimated to be approximately 1.5 years old at the time of capture—were potentially still nursing and not yet independent at the time of capture.

This was the first time since Congress enacted the MMPA in 1972 that NMFS has denied an application for a permit to import marine mammals for public display.  Georgia Aquarium subsequently sued NMFS in federal court in Atlanta, seeking to have a federal judge order NMFS to issue the permit.

Georgia Aquarium proceeded to sue the NMFS in September 2013 for denial of their permit.  But on September 29th, 2015, Judge Amy Totenberg, in a blistering 100 page opinion, agreed with NMFS and Earth Island,denying the Aquarium the import permit. 

Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project intervened in the case as a defendant, and our coalition filed legal briefs in support of denial of the import permit application.  In addition, prominent scientists, including Sylvia Earle and Jane Goodall, filed amici curiae (friend of the court) briefs in support of NMFS.

With Georgia Aquarium deciding not to take the case to the US Court of Appeals, their permit request is now dead, and the 18 belugas will not be coming to US aquariums.  This is a huge victory to keep the lucrative US market off limits to the captivity industry to catch wild dolphins and whales and import them to a life of bitter confinement.

The fate of the captive belugas, which are being held in Russia, is now up in the air.  The right thing to do would be for the Georgia Aquarium to return the 18 beluga whales to their original home waters of the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia.  It would take time to reintroduce the beluga and link them up with their original pods, but if Georgia Aquarium does not step forward, the beluga whales will likely be sold to other aquariums in other countries.

According to Associated Press, the Georgia Aquarium spent $9 million on legal fees and studies to try to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia to their aquarium in Atlanta. 

Just think how much help that $9 million would have been had it been spent on protecting and studying beluga whales in the wild!  Instead, it was wasted in a vain attempt to put 18 wild beluga whales into small concrete tanks where they would languish until an early death.

The Georgia Aquarium now owes it to those 18 beluga whales to work with the Russians to restore them to their home waters and family pods in the Sea of Okhotsk.  Otherwise, they will be sold to some other aquarium to spend their short lives.   This is the right thing to do for these beluga whales.

Thanks to our lawyers with Stack and Associates in Atlanta, Tyler Sniff and Don Stack, for their excellent legal work to make this victory for belugas possible.

What You Can Do:

Consider a donation to help Earth Island Institute continue to its efforts to prevent future proposed imports and protect beluga whales and other cetaceans.  This case has now set an important precedent as to whether NMFS and the U.S. government can indeed protect whales and dolphins from exploitation by the public display industry.

Thank you for your support!


Photo of SeaWorld Beluga Whale by Mark J. Palmer/Earth Island Institute