In a victory for animal rights advocates, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA announced last week that it had denied an application from Georgia Aquarium to import 18 beluga whales from Russia for public display.
NOAA said it denied the application - the first of its kind in over 20 years - because the import operation would violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). NOAA gave Georgia Aquarium 60 days to appeal the decision to a federal district court.
Captured from the Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011, the whales were part of the Sakhalin-Amur whale stock and would have been imported to Georgia Aquarium from Russia's Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station.
Georgia Aquarium planned to display the belugas in its Atlanta facility and at its partner locations, including SeaWorld of Florida, SeaWorld of Texas, SeaWorld of California and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
In its denial letter, NOAA told Georgia Aquarium that it had failed to adequately demonstrate -- as required by the MMPA -- that the importation would not result in significant negative impact on the Sakhalin-Amur whale stock; and that the importation would "likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit."
"The Georgia Aquarium clearly worked hard to follow the required process and submit a thorough application, and we appreciate their patience and cooperation as we carefully considered this case," said Sam Rauch, acting assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries in a press release. "However, under the strict criteria of the law, we were unable to determine if the import of these belugas, combined with the active capture operation in Russia and other human activities, would have an adverse impact on this stock of wild beluga whales."
For example, NOAA determined that five of the 18 belugas "were potentially still nursing and not yet independent," when they were captured.
NOAA further determined that Russia's whale capture operations may resulted in an overall reduction in the beluga population. "The ongoing live-capture trade since 1989 may have contributed to a cumulative decline over the past two decades, and we considered this in combination with other past, present, and foreseeable future actions," stated NOAA.
Aside from international whaling operations, beluga whales face a number of threats, including ship strikes, pollution, habitat destruction and entanglement in fishing gear, according to NOAA.
PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - called NOAA's action a victory for the constitutional rights of animals, referring to its pending lawsuit against Sea World claiming the marine parks violate the 13th Amendment anti-slavery rights of orcas or killer whales.
"Slavery does not depend on the species of the slave any more than it depends on race, gender, or ethnicity," argued PETA general counsel Jeff Kerr in the case summary. "Coercion, degradation, and subjugation characterize slavery, and these orcas have endured all three."
"Thanks to the film Blackfish and PETA's lawsuit against SeaWorld for violating orcas' right to freedom under the 13th Amendment, people are now aware of the cruel rodeo-style capture of whales from their pods in the ocean and how humans are endangered (sometimes fatally) by their proximity to these severely distressed animals in captivity," said PETA in a press release.