Federal Court Affirms Denial of Russian Beluga Import for Georgia Aquarium

Washington, DC—A federal court today affirmed the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) denial of Georgia Aquarium’s application for a permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to import 18 beluga whales from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk for public display at several facilities in the United States.

The court ruled in favor of Defendant NMFS and Intervenors Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Cetacean Society International (CSI), and Earth Island Institute (EII), finding that NMFS followed the statutory mandate of the MMPA in its previous denial of the aquarium’s permit application.

The court agreed with NMFS’ determination that the Sakhalin-Amur stock is likely declining and is subject to adverse impacts beyond the ongoing Russian live-capture operations. This determination aligns with the primary purpose of the MMPA—to prevent marine mammal species and populations from diminishing beyond the point at which they cease to be a significant functioning element in their ecosystem.

The court also backed NMFS’ interpretation of its regulations, concluding that an import could potentially encourage the capture of additional belugas from this stock for the purpose of public display worldwide.

Finally, the court supported NMFS’ finding that some of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1.5 years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent of their mothers. The finding, the court ruled, is based on unrebutted scientific literature that beluga whales are not likely fully independent and still rely to some extent on their mother’s milk until 3 years of age.

“We are thrilled with the court’s ruling,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at AWI. “The MMPA was enacted to protect marine mammals from harm and exploitation and that is exactly what it has done in this case. The US will thankfully not be part of the unsustainable and inhumane trade in belugas out of Russia.”

"While we believed the facts of the case would prevail, we are encouraged by the court's decision to uphold not only the original decision to deny the import permit, but reaffirm the integrity of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act and its precautionary principles,” stated Courtney Vail, of WDC. “We praise the court for confirming what we already knew—this permit application failed to meet any of the regulatory burdens and was an unfortunate attempt to falsely promote profit and entertainment at the expense of conservation."

In August 2013, after a rigorous review process during which NMFS received nearly 9,000 public comments, NMFS found that Georgia Aquarium’s permit application did not satisfy the MMPA’s statutory and regulatory criteria.

On September 30, 2013, Georgia Aquarium filed a lawsuit in the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, challenging the agency’s decision under the federal Administrative Procedure Act as contrary to the MMPA and its implementing regulations and as arbitrary and capricious. In January 2014, AWI, along with the other groups 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.

On April 18, 2014, the court granted the organizations’ request for permissive intervention, finding that the organizations “were instrumental in informing [NMFS’s] determination to deny the permit.” After summary judgment briefing ended, a merits hearing took place before Judge Amy Totenberg on August 14, 2015.

“Beluga whales simply don't belong in captivity, said Mark J. Palmer, associate director of EII’s International Marine Mammal Project. “Russian beluga populations should not be depleted to supply aquariums aimed to entertain, rather than promote legitimate and ethical animal protections.”

“Although a federal court has upheld the denial of this import, this stock remains at threat from future import requests,” said William Rossiter, director of CSI. “We strongly urge the agency to protect this stock from the threat of future imports by making a final decision on Intervenors’ legal petition to formally designate the stock as depleted.”

To view the court ruling, download this PDF.

About Animal Welfare Institute
The Animal Welfare Institute is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. For more information, visit www.awionline.org

About Whale & Dolphin Conservation
Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) is an international charity dedicated to the conservation and welfare of whales, dolphins and porpoises worldwide. Established in 1987 with offices in the United States, United Kingdom, Argentina, Germany, and Australia, WDC works to reduce and ultimately eliminate the continuing threats to cetaceans and their habitats, while striving to raise awareness of these remarkable animals and the need to protect them in their natural environment. For more information on WDC, visit www.whales.org.

About Cetacean Society International
2015 is Cetacean Society International’s 41st year of advocacy to meet our mission: to stop the killing, capture and display of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises); encourage human activities that enhance public awareness and stewardship of cetaceans and our marine environment; and collaborate with stakeholders to reduce anthropogenic threats such as bycatch, invasive research, sonar, ship strikes, pollution, seismic testing, and others as they are revealed.

About Earth Island Institute
Earth Island Institute (EII) is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to protecting the diversity of life on Earth. EII’s International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) works to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals around the world. For more information on EII’s IMMP, visit http://immp.eii.org/.