Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has been denied its request for a permit to import 18 Beluga whales from Russia for public display.
The Aquarium sought to import the whales from Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on Russia’s Black Sea Coast for public display at its own facility in Atlanta and at partner facilities, including SeaWorld Florida, SeaWorld Texas, SeaWorld California and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
NOAA Fisheries says it based its decision not to issue a permit on requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
The MMPA allows marine mammals to be removed from the wild or imported for the purpose of public display, and provides a process for issuing permits.
This was the first application for a permit to import recently caught wild marine mammals in more than 20 years and it had been heavily contested by conservation groups.
"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.
"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."
Georgia Aquarium applied last June to import 18 whales as part of an initiative to improve the genetic diversity of Belugas living in captivity in the U.S., saying most Belugas living in America are past their prime calf-bearing age, and importing new ones could improve breeding efforts.
NOAA Fisheries gave the following reasons for its refusal of the permit:
"NOAA Fisheries is unable to determine whether or not the proposed importation, by itself or in combination with other activities, would have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur Beluga whale stock, the population that these whales are taken from;
"NOAA Fisheries determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorised by the permit;
"NOAA Fisheries determined that five of the Beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1½ years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent."
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