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WDC to attend beluga import court case this week

A federal judge will hear oral arguments on Friday in the ongoing legal battle over whether the Georgia Aquarium should be allowed to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia into the US.

The US National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) denial of Georgia Aquarium’s permit application to import the belugas captured in Russian waters was issued in August 2013. The permit was denied on the grounds that Georgia Aquarium did not meet statutory and regulatory permitting requirements when it failed to show that the import would not likely contribute to more removals of beluga whales from the wild and would not adversely affect the species or stock, among other deficiencies.

The Georgia Aquarium petitioned a federal district court in Atlanta for judicial review of this permit denial at the end of September 2013, just over a month after the decision was issued, launching a legal challenge against NMFS, NOAA, and the US Department of Commerce. In January 2014, WDC, along with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Earth Island Institute (EII), and Cetacean Society International (CSI) filed a motion to intervene in defense of NMFS’ permit decision and was granted intervenor status in April 2014.

Since then, Plaintiff (Georgia Aquarium), Defendants (NMFS and Commerce), Intervenors, and amicus curiae parties (“friends of the court”) have filed legal briefs with the court on the merits of the case. Oral argument will take place at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg on August 14th in Atlanta. The court’s decision regarding whether to uphold NMFS’s permit denial will be forthcoming after this hearing.  WDC and Co-Intervenors will be present at this hearing to represent the interests of all stakeholders that care about the fate of this beleaguered population of Russian belugas.

In April 2014, WDC also joined fellow Intervenors AWI, EII, and CSI in filing a petition for the listing of this targeted Sakhalin-Amur population of belugas in the Okhotsk Sea as “depleted” under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. A decision by NMFS on the petition is still pending. If this stock is listed as depleted under the MMPA, it would be illegal to import any belugas originating from this population now or in the future for public display and other purposes.

Live capture for public display is one of the most serious threats facing this likely depleted stock of beluga whales in the Sea of Okhotsk. Issuance of a permit would not only undermine the statutory requirements of the MMPA, it would signal US endorsement of an unsustainable and expanding international trade in live-captured beluga whales. The two decades that have passed since US facilities last sourced cetaceans directly from the wild for public display reflects in part growing scientific recognition that cetaceans suffer significant trauma when captured and removed from their social group. This particular population of beluga whales has yet to recover from heavy hunting in the past.