AWI Will Defend Federal Denial of Permit to Import 18 Wild-Caught Beluga Whales from Russia

Atlanta, GA—A federal district court in Georgia last Friday granted a request to intervene filed by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Cetacean Society International, and Earth Island Institute in a lawsuit challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) denial of a request for a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia for public display.

In June 2012, Georgia Aquarium, Inc., submitted an application to NMFS for a Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) permit to import wild-caught belugas, which would be divided up among several aquariums, including the three SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas, and California, and the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. In August 2013, NMFS found this permit application did not satisfy the MMPA’s requirements for several reasons. Most importantly, the proposed import could have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale stock and potentially encourage the capture of additional belugas from this stock for the purpose of public display worldwide. NMFS also determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import were likely nursing at the time they were captured, thus making their import illegal under the MMPA.

On September 30, 2013, Georgia Aquarium filed a lawsuit challenging the agency’s decision. In January 2014, the organizations listed above sought to intervene in the case in support of NMFS so as to advance the conservation of beluga whales within the already depleted Sakhalin-Amur stock. The judge’s order, in granting the organizations’ request for permissive intervention, found that the organizations “were instrumental in informing [NMFS’s] determination to deny the permit.”

“We are pleased that the court is permitting us to defend the agency’s decision to deny the permit application, which was based on a rigorous scientific analysis,” said Susan Millward, executive director of AWI. “The court must now uphold the agency’s decision, which helps protect this stock from further depletion by cutting off the US market for wild beluga whale imports.”

Georgia Aquarium’s business partner, Utrish Dolphinarium, Ltd.—a Russian company with a long and controversial record in the live capture of cetaceans—arranged for the capture of these beluga whales from the Sakhalin-Amur region of the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia. Other Russian companies are also involved in cetacean captures. If imported, these animals would have had to endure a complex and potentially dangerous transport process involving flights totaling over 24 hours in duration.

“The same Russian entities that have captured hundreds of beluga whales in the region capture other cetaceans, including orcas that WDC researchers have studied and worked to conserve for more than a decade,” said Chris Butler-Stroud, CEO of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “WDC welcomes this opportunity to ensure the protection of WDC’s cetacean conservation and research work, and beluga whales, in the Sea of Okhotsk.”

“The US public display facilities involved with this import request claim that they are committed to the conservation of cetaceans, but in this case they chose to deal with Russian entities that have captured hundreds of wild beluga whales,” noted Mark. J. Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute. “Sadly, I believe that these facilities are likely to submit future requests to import additional wild-caught cetaceans, unless a clear message is sent that sourcing cetaceans from the wild does not contribute to their conservation.”

The two decades that have passed since the United States last sourced cetaceans from the wild for public display reflects growing scientific recognition that cetaceans, particularly larger whales like belugas, suffer significant trauma when captured and removed from their social group. This particular stock of beluga whales has yet to recover from heavy hunting in the past.

The Atlanta law firm of Stack & Associates filed the motion to intervene on behalf of the organizations.