By Seann Lenihann
The Georgia Aquarium 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 18 beluga whales from Russia.
The appeal put the future of beluga whale exhibition before the U.S. District Court in Atlanta at the same time that the future of orca exhibition is before the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., as result of a SeaWorld appeal of an OSHA order.
But the cases differ in that the issue for SeaWorld is how orcas are exhibited, while the issue for the Georgia Aquarium is whether beluga whales may be imported for exhibition at all.
“The Georgia Aquarium clearly worked hard to follow the required process and submit a thorough application, and we appreciate their patience and cooperation as we carefully considered this case,” acting assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries Sam Rauch said when the import permit was denied. “However, 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.”
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. Four of the five partners already exhibited belugas. 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 John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago 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 May 2013, 284 belugas remained at Cook Inlet, down from an estimated peak population of about 1,300.