National Marine Fisheries Service Denies Permit to Import 18 Wild-Caught Beluga Whales from Russia

Washington, DC—The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) is pleased to report that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has denied a permit application by the Georgia Aquarium to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia for the purposes of public display. The Georgia Aquarium’s business partner—Utrish Dolphinarium, Ltd, a Russian company with a long and controversial record in the live capture of whales—had arranged for the capture of these belugas from the Sakhalin Bay-Amur Estuary region of the Russian Sea of Okhotsk.

NMFS determined that the import did not meet the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Although the MMPA allows marine mammals to be imported for the purpose of public display, there is a specific process for issuing permits. This includes ensuring that the capture and import would not have an adverse impact on the stock of wild beluga whales. This particular permit application did not pass muster under the MMPA in part because NMFS determined that the import could have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale stock and would likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit.

Live capture is one of the most serious threats facing the already depleted Sakhalin-Amur stock of beluga whales. AWI believes that issuance of the permit would have provided a US endorsement of, and support for, this unsustainable and expanding international trade in live-captured beluga whales and other whales and dolphins to countries, such as China, with little or no expertise in caring for these animals. Indeed, issuance of this permit would have also marked the first time in two decades that the United States has permitted the import of any wild-caught cetacean for public display purposes.

“AWI commends NMFS for upholding the mission and purpose of the MMPA in denying this import permit,” said Susan Millward, executive director of AWI. “While the 18 beluga whales are still being held in Russia, and sadly may never be released, the decision will protect this species from further depletion by denying the U.S. market for such whales.”