“Like something out of a Russian spy novel”
ATLANTA, Georgia––Rejecting an appeal by the Georgia Aquarium, which if upheld would have weakened key parts of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg of the Northern District of Georgia on September 28, 2015 ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service correctly refused to issue import permits for 18 wild-caught beluga whales.
Wrote Totenberg in a 100-page verdict, “Like something out of a Russian spy novel…Georgia Aquarium launched a wholesale attack on the National Marine Fisheries Service, accusing the agency of `cooking the books’ to fabricate its rationale in a deliberate and conspiratorial effort to deny Georgia Aquarium’s import permit. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record in this case and all parties’ arguments, the Court finds that the National Marine Fisheries’ Service properly reviewed Georgia Aquarium’s permit application.”
E-mailed Earth Island Institute International Marine Mammal Project associate director Mark Palmer to Sandra Pedicini of the Orlando Sentinel, “We are pleased the court agreed with the original decision by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service that allowing imports would violate the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, subjecting wild belugas in Russia to depletion from the captivity trade, encouraging further captures, and violating the MMPA’s ban on captures and imports of baby belugas still dependent on their mothers.”
Blogged Humane Society Legislative Fund president Mike Markarian, “The decision makes clear that the ‘primary purpose of the MMPA is to protect marine mammals’ and ‘was not intended as a ‘balancing act’ between the interests of industry and the animals.’ It’s an important step in the trend toward ending the inhumane and unsustainable trade in wild cetaceans, or marine mammals, by U.S. exhibition facilities,” Markarian assessed. “Indeed, it has been more than 20 years since the last wild-caught cetacean was imported directly into the U.S. for public display, and even Sea World now claims it would not take the whales if they were imported.”
Added Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle, “We and others had been pressing the agency to reject this application since we learned about it in 2012, and filed an amicus curiae brief in the case.”
“Adverse impact on wild belugas”
The Georgia Aquarium had on September 30, 2013 appealed an August 6, 2013 ruling by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration that it had not satisfied the requirements to import the 18 belugas from Russia.
Said acting assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries Sam Rauch when the import permit was denied. “Under the strict criteria of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, we were unable to determine if the import of these belugas, combined with the active capture operation in Russia and other human activities, would have an adverse impact on this stock of wild beluga whales.”
Some belugas held in sea pens since 2006
Captured in the Sea of Okhotsk in 2006, 2010 and 2011, the belugas have been held pending sale at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, along with eight orcas captured in 2012 and 2013.
The Georgia Aquarium applied to import the belugas in June 2012, after investing about $2 million over five years to study the Sea of Okhotsk beluga population. Much of the research was produced by a consortium also including Sea World, the Mystic Aquarium, Kamogawa Sea World in Japan, and Ocean Park in Hong Kong.
Maris & Beethoven
Four of the five partners already exhibited belugas, including the Georgia Aquarium. The Georgia Aquarium had a breeding pair, Maris and Beethoven, before Beethoven was sent recently to the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago on a breeding loan, but of the two calves born to Maris, one died within a week in 2012. The other survived 26 days before her death in June 2015.
Ocean Park announced in 2010 that it would exhibit dolphins from the Sea of Okhotsk, but cancelled the plan under public pressure in August 2011. No belugas have been captured in the wild and brought to the U.S. for exhibition since 1992, when the Shedd Aquarium imported four from the vicinity of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.
Five beluga subpopulations inhabit Alaskan waters. The best known group, at Cook Inlet, are protected from capture by the Endangered Species Act as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act. As of April 2015, about 340 belugas remained at Cook Inlet, down from an estimated peak population of about 1,300, but up from a low of about 278 belugas circa 2010.