ATLANTA — A group of prominent actors, activists and scientists is opposing an attempt by the Georgia Aquarium to import beluga whales from Russia.
The aquarium applied in June 2012 to import 18 whales, saying it would help improve the genetic diversity of belugas living in captivity in the U.S. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the federal agency formerly known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, denied the application in August 2013.
The aquarium filed a complaint in federal court in Atlanta in September 2013 asking a judge to overturn the denial of its application. The aquarium's lawyers have said in filings that they are bringing the complaint under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which aims to conserve marine mammal populations.
The 1972 law prohibits the capture of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens elsewhere and also doesn't allow the import of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the U.S. But it does have some exceptions, and the aquarium's lawyers have argued their permit should fall under an exception allowing the animals to be caught and imported for public display for applicants meeting certain qualifications.
The 18 belugas the aquarium is seeking to import originate from the Sea of Okhotsk in northern Russia and were collected by scientists there in 2006, 2010 and 2011. They currently live in the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia. If the permit is granted, they would be brought to accredited zoos and aquariums in the U.S.
The aquarium has argued that bringing new belugas into the captive population in the U.S. would diversify the gene pool, make the population more stable and broaden the database of research on belugas' needs and capabilities. The aquarium has said in court filings that it has taken significant steps to ensure the whales' removal from the wild wouldn't have negative effects on the whale population in that part of the ocean.
NOAA Fisheries argues the aquarium failed to meet the rigorous requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The aquarium did not adequately ensure that the import of the belugas would be unlikely to have an adverse effect on the beluga population in the area where they were captured, the agency argued. The import would also likely result in future captures and allow the import of animals who were nursing when captured, the agency argued.
The judge in the case last year allowed several animal welfare and conservation groups to join the litigation on the side of NOAA Fisheries. The groups argued the import of the belugas would harm their decades-long efforts to conserve and protect marine mammals and urged the judge to uphold the denial of the aquarium's permit application.
A group that includes actors Kim Basinger, Shannen Doherty, Edward Norton and Hayden Panettiere and film producer Jean-Michel Cousteau — as well as environmentalist a number of scientists, filmmakers and conservationists — argued in a court filing that marine mammals should not be removed from the wild for purposes of public display.
No marine mammals have been captured in U.S. waters and none captured in foreign waters have been brought directly to the U.S. for more than two decades, and if the aquarium is granted a permit "the example set by the U.S. in applying rigorous standards, protective of the species and the animals, would be destroyed," they argued in their court filing.