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Court Update: Importing Wild Beluga Whales for Captivity

On March 16, 2015, WDC, along with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Cetacean Society International (CSI), and Earth Island Institute (EII) filed their joint response to Georgia Aquarium, Inc., in the case of Georgia Aquarium, Inc. v. Pritzker—a lawsuit Georgia Aquarium filed to overturn a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to deny the Aquarium’s application for a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk for purposes of public display. Georgia Aquarium’s “motion on the merits” seeks to have a federal judge order NMFS to not only overturn the decision but also order the agency to grant the permit.

In April 2014, the court granted a request by the animal protection and whale conservation groups to “intervene” in the case as co-defendants in support of the government’s denial of the permit application.

“We fully support NMFS’s decision and find Georgia Aquarium’s arguments to overturn it to be exploitative and completely counter to the Aquarium’s self-portrayal as a conservation organization,” stated AWI’s marine mammal scientist, Dr. Naomi Rose. “It is shocking how Georgia Aquarium ignores good science and basic conservation principles in its quest to increase the number of belugas in its breeding program.”

If the import occurs, the belugas would be distributed between Georgia Aquarium, SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., and Shedd Aquarium.

In its response, the groups argue why NMFS was correct in determining that Georgia Aquarium:
* failed to demonstrate that the proposed import, by itself or in combination with other activities, would not harm this likely depleted stock of beluga whales;
* failed to show the proposed import would not result in additional captures beyond the eighteen proposed for import; and
* failed to prove that five beluga whales captured in 2010 were not nursing when captured.

“Live capture is one of the most serious threats facing this likely depleted stock of beluga whales in the Sea of Okhotsk,” stated Courtney Vail, campaigns and programs manager for WDC. “Issuance of a permit would not only undermine the statutory requirements of the MMPA, it would signal U.S. endorsement of an unsustainable and expanding international trade in live-captured beluga whales.”

CSI’s William Rossiter added that “approving this import permit would open the floodgates rightly closed since 1993, allowing many wild caught cetacean species to be imported from nations with laws and regulations that fall far short of U.S. standards.”

“The dolphin and whale captivity industry, including SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., have repeatedly claimed to the American public that they no longer catch wild cetaceans to put into small aquarium tanks,” stated Mark J. Palmer, associate director of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project. “Clearly, the industry has tried to mislead the public. This lawsuit is all about bringing 18 wild beluga whales from Russia into the United States to put them in inadequate tanks for public display. Forty-eight percent of the beluga whales brought into captivity have died in U.S. aquariums.”

The same month that the animal protection and whale conservation groups intervened in the lawsuit, they also submitted a petition to NMFS to protect this stock of beluga whales in Russia by designating it as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). It is illegal under the MMPA to import marine mammals or their parts from depleted stocks.

More information on the case can be found here.

The Atlanta law firm of Stack & Associates, P.C. filed the response on behalf of the groups.