A proposal by a group of U.S. marine-park and aquarium owners to import 18 beluga whales captured from the wild has been rejected by the federal government.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service has refused to grant an import permit for the whales, captured in the Sea of Okhotsk off the eastern coast of Russia, saying doing so would worsen the decline of the wild population from which they were taken.
The application had been submitted by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which proposed to transfer 11 of the whales to marine parks owned by SeaWorld Entertainment in Orlando, Fla., the Orlando Sentinel reported Wednesday.
Through breeding-loan agreements, six whales would have gone to SeaWorld San Antonio, three to SeaWorld San Diego and two to SeaWorld Orlando.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, U.S. facilities can collect marine mammals from the wild for the purpose of public display, but only if the captures do not harm the wild population, or "stock," from which they are taken, federal officials said.
Michael Payne of the NOAA Fisheries Service's Office of Protected Resources said the agency ultimately concluded the imports would ultimately have a "significant adverse impact" on the wild population.
NOAA's decision was applauded by wildlife campaigners.
"The tide is turning. The public sentiment is wholly and fully against acquisition from the wild," Courtney Vail, campaigns-and-programs manager for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said. "I do think it's time that all facilities take a hard look at their policies and move toward not acquiring animals from the wild."