A young beluga whale in the White Sea near the Arctic Circle, 2008 (Photo: Getty)
Federal authorities in the U.S. have denied the Georgia Aquarium a permit to import 18 beluga whales from Russia, citing concerns about the wild population of beluga whales and the way the animals were captured.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries Service turned down the application, which had received over 9,000 public comments, most of them arguing against bringing the whales into the country.
In 1972, the U.S. passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which bans taking whales, dolphins, seals and other marine animals from their natural habitats, but American zoos and other institutions can apply for special permits to import animals for display purposes.
The request to import these whales was the first to be filed in more than 20 years (most new arrivals in aquariums are either rescued animals or those bred in captivity).
If the request had been approved, the 18 whales would have been sent to the Georgia Aquarium, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and three SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas and California.
In its decision, the NOAA argued that allowing the whales to be imported could increase the demand to capture the animals in the wild, which could hurt the overall population.
"This is a triumph of science over rhetoric," Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute told activist website Take Part. "We were able to provide them with solid science and information that confirmed that this import would violate the MMPA."
In a statement, the Georgia Aquarium called the decision "deeply disappointing," and wrote that the rejection "places the long-term global sustainability of an entire species in limbo. The animals in question would help to ensure the sustainability of beluga whales in human care in the U.S. for the purposes of education, research and conservation."
It's not clear what will happen to the whales now that the application has been denied.
There is a possibility that the Georgia Aquarium will appeal the decision. Otherwise, Take Part's David Kirby speculates, the whales "may simply be put up for auction to the highest bidders in countries without MMPAs."
The decision may have serious implications for SeaWorld and other companies that run marine parks.
Writing in National Geographic, Kenneth Brower calls the decision a "shift in approach by the NOAA" that could mean "the end of the marine park business... is now on the horizon."