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U.S. Wants to Put the Kibosh on |Russians’ Beluga Sale

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service proposed Tuesday to designate the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River population of beluga whales in Russia as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to forestall attempts to export them for display. The action was spurred by a 2014 petition jointly filed by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Cetacean Society International, Earth Island Institute (EII) and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), and follows on a failed appeal filed by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta after the NMFS denied their beluga import permit.

In June 2012, the Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit under the MMPA to import 18 beluga whales from Russia for public display. The whales were to have been distributed between the Georgia Aquarium, Sea World Orlando, Sea World San Antonio, Sea World San Diego, Mystic Aquarium and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, according to the appeal.

The NMFS denied the import permit due to the likely adverse impact on the species' population, the likelihood that more than the 18 whales would be removed from the stock, and the likelihood that nursing or non-independent young whales would be taken.

Georgia Aquarium appealed the permit denial in 2013 on the basis that the decision was capricious and arbitrary.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg disagreed, noting that the aquarium's "wholesale attack on NMFS, accusing the agency of 'cooking the books' to fabricate its rationale in a deliberate and conspiratorial effort to deny Georgia Aquarium's import permit" was "like something out of a Russian spy novel," in her 2015 decision supporting the agency's permit denial.

The four conservation organizations also supported the NMFS in the legal action, and then filed their petition to ensure that further permit requests would be forestalled.

"The beluga whale population in the Pacific is facing a number of threats, including pollution, killing by local native groups, and, in the not too distant future, the disruptions caused by global warming," Mark J. Palmer, associate director of EII's International Marine Mammal Project, said. "Catching beluga whales for a shortened life in captivity should not continue for these vulnerable populations."

Belugas are small white whales, averaging 13 feet long, weighing about a ton and a half, and are extremely social. Unlike other whales, they have a flexible neck because the cervical vertebrae are not fused. This feature, along with their flexible foreheads, or melons, allows them to be more expressive, and therefore desirable for public display.

Cook Inlet belugas in Alaska are already listed as a depleted stock under the MMPA and are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. All belugas are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix II.

Using genetic information, aerial surveys, telemetry data, and "expert decision making procedures," the NMFS determined that the Sakhalin/Amur population of beluga whales is a "depleted population stock" under the MMPA, meaning it is below its optimum sustainable population level. Furthermore, importation for public display of any marine mammal designated as depleted is prohibited under the act, according to the agency.

Unfortunately, the fate of the whales, already captured for the Georgia Aquarium by Utrish Dolphinarium, Ltd, a Russian company "with a long and controversial record in the live capture of whales," according to AWI, is unknown. They have been held at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the Russian coast of the Black Sea, according to the appeal.

The U.S. is not alone in desiring belugas for entertainment. Other countries, including China, seek beluga whales for public display.

"The decision to designate the Sakhalin-Amur belugas as depleted should encourage Russian authorities to reconsider this trade and allow this beleaguered population to recover," Courtney Vail, campaigns manager for WDC, said. "Hopefully this action will serve as a signal that science and the precautionary principle can work hand-in-hand to guide international protection of extremely vulnerable populations of marine mammals outside of U.S. waters."

Comments on the proposed rule are due June 6.

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