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Nixed Whale Importation Fought by Aquarium

(CN) - The Georgia Aquarium wants a federal judge to let it import 18 beluga whales from Russia where they were carefully captured in the Sea of Okhotsk.

Russian experts captured the whales legally and humanely between 2006 and 2011 in the sea's Sakhalin-Amur region, off the east coast of Russia, according to the complaint in Atlanta, Ga.

The Georgia Aquarium, which opened in 2005 and was named as the world's largest in the 2011 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, says the whales are currently being held at Russia's Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station.

Before seeking a permit, Georgia Aquarium says it ascertained that the collection did not adversely affect any beluga whale population. It did so by sponsoring a $1 million "a multi-year research program that was conducted by the A. N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Science to evaluate the genetic relationships, migratory patterns, and status of the Sea of Okhotsk beluga whale populations," according to the complaint.

That study allegedly found that the average annual removal of 20 beluga whales from the Sea of Okhotsk from 2000-10 is less than 1 percent of the population group in the Sakhalin-Amur area from which the whales were collected and is below the allowed potential biological removal for that group.

Having done its due diligence, the aquarium applied for a permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in June 2012, according to the complaint.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied the application this past August, claiming that the sought-after importation might increase the demand for the live capture of beluga whales and contribute to the decline of their wild population.

"We determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit," the NOAA said in a statement at the time of the denial. "There are ongoing, legal marine mammal capture operations in Russia that are expected to continue, and we believe that issuance of this permit would contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock for the purpose public display in the U.S. and worldwide, resulting in the future taking of additional belugas from this stock."

But the aquarium insists now that its permit application was deemed "inadequate because it contained no information about the population trend of beluga whales found in the Sea of Okhotsk."

Slamming the NOAA's methodology in calculating the allegedly declining beluga populations, the aquarium says that the NOAA and NMFS "manipulated the data."

The aquarium also says that one of the proposed purposes of the import "is to increase the breeding population of beluga whales held at accredited North American public display facilities such that no further permits for importation or collection will be sought by such facilities in the foreseeable future."

Importation of the whales would improve the genetic diversity of belugas living in American captivity and "directly increase the opportunities for research that will benefit species in the wild and the care of stranded animals," according to the complaint.

The Georgia Aquarium says that the research will help ensure the sustainability of the population of belugas for decades.

"These non-intrusive studies will help scientists better understand, among other things, the effects of climate change on belugas, how noise in the marine environment from shipping resource extraction, etc. affects belugas, and how allowable fishing levels may affect the prey needs of belugas," the complaint states. "Without the import of the 18 beluga whales, it will not be possible to conduct this research on a larger population and on a more statistically valid basis."

Only some of the whales would remain in Georgia if imported, the aquarium says, noting that others would go to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn.; and SeaWorld parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando Aquarium.

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) defended the permit denial and noted its disappointment in the aquarium's decision to file suit.

"Georgia Aquarium's decision to challenge this sound and meritorious decision reflects a disregard for the integrity of the MMPA and the vulnerability of this population of wild belugas," the group said in a statement. "Public opposition to this proposed import was overwhelming and, in combination with the strong science and evidence supporting a negative impact on the future of the affected population that underpinned the agency's decision, calls into question Georgia Aquarium's commitment to conservation principles."

The aquarium seeks reversal of the denied permit so it can import the whales.

It is represented by Daniel Diffley with Alston & Bird.

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