November 17, 2015
Here at Georgia Aquarium, we have been dedicated to the care and preservation of beluga whales since our founding in 2005. This magnificent species is listed as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is critically endangered in locations such as Anchorage, Alaska. Beluga whales are facing several environmental challenges, such as increased shipping, ocean noise and exploration for natural resources, endangering their natural habitats and overall sustainability.
As a leader in the zoological community, we launched a beluga whale conservation program that aims to create a sustainable population of belugas at accredited zoological facilities in North America, enabling us to continue our scientific research and public education programs with these animals for decades to come. Part of this conservation project is an application to import beluga whales, originating from the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia, to accredited facilities in North America.
As many have come to know, Georgia Aquarium has been diligent in our ongoing efforts to ensure the approval of this import. However, several weeks ago, we learned of the U.S. District Court’s denial of our permit. Although we firmly disagree with the Judge’s ruling, after much consideration we have chosen not to appeal the decision. Extending the appeal process would only add to an already lengthy series of legal proceedings, and we believe our decision is in the best interest of the beluga whales residing in Russia.
We initially submitted a permit application to NOAA in 2012, but after almost a year, the request for the permit was denied. Below is a more detailed timeline of our beluga whale import application process from beginning to present:
March 2011: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) peer-reviewed and validated five years of research confirming that the acquisition will have no detrimental impact on the population of beluga whales in the Sea of Okhotsk.
June 2012: Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) to import beluga whales to the United States that had previously been collected from Sea of Okhotsk.
October 2012: Georgia Aquarium participated in a hearing that allowed public comment on the import permit application. More than 15 science, academic, conservation and animal welfare experts spoke in favor of Georgia Aquarium’s permit request.
August 2013: Despite already completing its extensive permit application review process, issuing an environmental assessment report and drafting the approval permit, NOAA Fisheries suddenly reversed its earlier decision and denied the Aquarium’s permit application.
September 2013: Committed to educating the public about this species, Georgia Aquarium filed a complaint in a U.S District Court in Georgia against NOAA Fisheries and the Department of Commerce seeking to overturn the permit denial.
August 2014: Georgia Aquarium filed a motion to supplement the record, asking the court to require the release of more than 20 documents deliberately withheld by NOAA Fisheries. These records pertain to NOAA Fisheries’ original decision to approve the import and a complete environmental assessment showing that issuance of the permit complied with the law. The records also pertain to meetings and discussions that led to the sudden reversal and denial of the permit, and NOAA’s research showing their population counting methods were arbitrary and have never been used before or since.
December 2014: The motion to supplement the record was denied. Georgia Aquarium filed a motion with the court arguing that — based on the facts before NOAA — their permit denial was arbitrary, capricious and not in accordance with law. Georgia Aquarium asked the Judge to invalidate the permit denial and to order that the permit to import the whales be issued.
August 14, 2015: Georgia Aquarium participated in oral arguments to ask the court to uphold the MMPA and its strong support of zoological institutions, and order issuance of a permit to bring the belugas into the U.S. as soon as possible.
September 28, 2015: The U.S District Court issues a 100-page document denying the permit application and allowing Georgia Aquarium 60 days to decide whether to appeal that decision.
November 17, 2015: Georgia Aquarium makes decision not to appeal the court decision.
Georgia Aquarium will continue to focus on our important work at the Aquarium and in the wild to understand how we can best preserve the beluga whale species. We have an abiding interest in the preservation of beluga whales everywhere and remain committed to furthering our knowledge about this extraordinary species.