Ge­or­gia Aquar­ium fight­ing de­nial of per­mit to im­port bel­u­gas


The Ge­or­gia Aquar­ium is locked in a le­gal bat­tle with a fed­eral agency over the de­nial of its re­quest to bring 18 bel­uga whales from Rus­sia for dis­play in aquar­i­ums in the United States.

The aquar­ium ar­gues in­tro­duc­ing new bel­u­gas into the cap­tive pop­u­la­tion in the U.S. would di­ver­sify the gene pool, make the pop­u­la­tion more sta­ble and broaden the data­base of re­search on bel­u­gas’ needs and ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Na­tional Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice, known as NOAA Fish­eries, said the aquar­ium’s ap­pli­ca­tion for an im­port per­mit failed to meet some re­quire­ments of the Marine Mam­mal Pro­tec­tion Act.

The aquar­ium filed the ap­pli­ca­tion in June 2012, and NOAA Fish­eries de­nied it in Au­gust 2013. The aquar­ium then filed a law­suit in Septem­ber 2013 ask­ing a fed­eral judge to over­turn the de­nial, and both sides are set to present oral ar­gu­ments in court Fri­day.

The two sides have asked the judge to make a de­ci­sion on the mer­its of the case, based on court fil­ings and oral ar­gu­ments, with­out hold­ing a trial.

The 1972 Marine Mam­mal Pro­tec­tion Act pro­hibits the cap­ture of marine mam­mals in U.S. wa­ters and by U.S. cit­i­zens else­where and also doesn’t al­low the im­port of marine mam­mals and marine mam­mal prod­ucts into the U.S. But it has some ex­cep­tions, in­clud­ing one that al­lows an­i­mals to be caught and im­ported for public dis­play by ap­pli­cants meet­ing cer­tain qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

The 18 bel­u­gas the aquar­ium seeks to im­port orig­i­nate from the Sea of Okhotsk in north­ern Rus­sia and were col­lected by sci­en­tists there in 2006, 2010 and 2011. They cur­rently live in the Utr­ish Marine Mam­mal Re­search Sta­tion in Rus­sia.

If the per­mit is granted, the whales will be im­ported and owned by the Ge­or­gia Aquar­ium, and some would be trans­ferred un­der breed­ing loans to Shedd Aquar­ium in Chicago, Mystic Aquar­ium in Con­necti­cut and Sea World fa­cil­i­ties in Florida, Texas and Cal­i­for­nia, ac­cord­ing to the ap­pli­ca­tion.

There are cur­rently 29 bel­u­gas in cap­tiv­ity in the U.S., and about two-thirds of those were born in cap­tiv­ity, ac­cord­ing to NOAA Fish­eries. That cap­tive pop­u­la­tion has an “in­op­por­tune dis­tri­bu­tion of ages and sexes” and would ben­e­fit from the in­tro­duc­tion of new an­i­mals and new DNA, Ge­or­gia Aquar­ium spokesman Scott Higley said.

“If we don’t win here, the pop­u­la­tion of bel­u­gas in hu­man care in North Amer­ica would even­tu­ally cease to ex­ist,” he said. “It’s just not cur­rently a sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tion.”


In this June 10, 2008 file photo, Qila, a bel­uga whale at the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium, pre­pares to give birth to a calf in Van­cou­ver.

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