Georgia Aquarium heads to court over the NOAA’s denial to allow beluga whale import
Georgia Aquarium filed a complaint today in a U.S District Court in Georgia seeking to overturn a permit denial from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, formerly known as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the Department of Commerce for the importation of 18 beluga whales to the United States from Russia. The court is being asked to uphold the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and order issuance of a permit to bring the belugas, which are in the care of Russian scientists and awaiting transport, into the U.S. as soon as possible.
“Maintaining and studying sustainable, genetically diverse populations of marine mammals in accredited zoos and aquariums is essential to raise public awareness, foster connections and generate insights that sustain conservation-dependent species such as belugas,” said Brian Davis, Ph.D., vice president of education and training, Georgia Aquarium. “The acquisition of these belugas will allow us to continue public education, scientific research and global conservation programs to protect this species for as many as six-plus decades. These programs, and the millions of people in North America who will visit and learn about the species, are of critical importance to belugas worldwide.”
According to the complaint, denial of the permit is in violation of the MMPA and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and it contradicts the facts and rigorous peer-reviewed scientific research and expert findings supporting the acquisition.
“The permit application presented extensive, research-based evidence meeting all requirements of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, and illustrated the critical importance of these belugas to sustaining the species globally,” said retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, Jr. “As a former Administrator of NOAA, I have been involved in reviewing the agency’s response to a large number of important permit applications. Georgia Aquarium’s submission was by far the most thorough and well supported that I have ever seen.”
The MMPA allows for the collection of wild animals for the purpose of public display to educate the public and requires the issuance of permits to import animals for public display if the application complies with all applicable statutory and regulatory provisions, which the Georgia Aquarium’s permit application does.
“The permit denial ignored five years of population abundance research peer reviewed by the highly respected, independent International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which concluded that acquisition of these belugas – which have been in human care for years – will have no detrimental impact on the beluga whale population in Russia,” said Greg Bossart, V.M.D, Ph.D., Georgia Aquarium’s chief veterinary officer and senior vice president of animal health, research and conservation.
The IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environment organization and a leading authority on the environment and sustainability.
The 18 belugas originate from the Sea of Okhotsk in northern Russia. They were collected by scientists there in 2006, 2010 and 2011, and currently reside in the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia. If the permit to import the belugas to the United States is granted, they will reside in accredited aquariums and zoological parks to assure consistency and quality of care, social settings for the animals, and enhance opportunities for cooperative breeding. The addition of these animals into a cooperative breeding program helps to ensure a long-term sustainable population.
Georgia Aquarium has long been dedicated to preserving belugas through a four-tiered approach to conserving and protecting the species that includes:
- conservation and research of belugas in the wild and in human care;
- sharing knowledge and experience with the international scientific and conservation community;
- participating in cooperative breeding programs among North America’s accredited institutions; and
- educational initiatives that inspire others to conserve belugas and the species’ natural habitats.
The Aquarium’s beluga caretakers have more than 100 years of combined experience caring for the species. Animals at the Aquarium receive the highest quality care reflecting the latest developments in animal nutrition, veterinary care, enrichment, training and research.
For more information about Georgia Aquarium and beluga whales, visit www.georgiaaquarium.org.
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