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US Government Denies Russian Beluga Import Permit

After nearly 10 months of deliberation, NOAA’s decision to deny the import permit is based upon Georgia Aquarium’s failure to demonstrate that the import will not have a significant adverse impact on belugas in the wild and that the import will not likely result in the taking of belugas beyond those authorized by permit. In addition, five of the belugas proposed for import were likely still nursing and dependent upon their mothers upon capture, a direct violation of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The global capture and trade in whales and dolphins for public display continues to threaten their survival and welfare in the wild. With the denial of this permit, NMFS has recognized this activity as a significant threat to individual beluga whales as well as the larger marine ecosystem, indicating that ongoing live captures have contributed to the decline of this population over the past two decades. As importantly, denial of this permit further endorses the overwhelming public sentiment against this activity.

“WDC commends NOAA’s decision to comply with the letter and spirit of the law, effectively blocking US participation in the global capture and trade of whales and dolphins which has led to the untold suffering and devastation within whale and dolphin communities worldwide,” stated Courtney Vail, campaigns and programs manager for WDC.

The removal of live whales and dolphins from the wild for captive display is equivalent to deliberate killing, as the animals are no longer available to help maintain their natural populations. Captures are violent, and cause distress, physical harm, and even death to not only those animals captured, but for the ones left behind. In addition, the stress of transport across thousands of miles may result in injury or death. Removal for captivity also represents a different kind of death for these animals—a permanent life of sensory, social and physical deprivation in concrete pools.

This permit request by the Georgia Aquarium signals a noteworthy departure from how US facilities have been acquiring whales and dolphins for public display over the past several decades and represents the direct involvement of US facilities in the appalling international trade in beluga whales. “Commissioning the captures of these belugas from the wild in advance of seeking permission and from an ocean thousands of miles away was a failed attempt to circumvent legal protections and public scrutiny,” continued Vail. “It also reveals that captive beluga populations are not self-sustaining, and future captures are inevitable unless the captivity industry finally concedes that it is no longer ethically, scientifically or politically justified to take these animals from the wild to stock their facilities.”

The fate of these 18 belugas remains unclear. Although this decision may work to end a portion of the trade in wild-captured belugas by blocking US sources of demand, the capture and trade will continue as long as annual capture quotas are approved and international buyers await fulfillment of their orders. Because the permit decision may still be challenged by the Georgia Aquarium within the US legal system, a coalition of plaintiffs, including WDC, stand prepared to continue to fight this ill-conceived effort to import wild-captured belugas.

Rob Lott, WDC’s Policy Manager states “Concern remains for the welfare of the 18 belugas still held captive in Russia and the continuing interest some Asian countries, particularly China, show in sourcing wild-caught belugas for public display. WDC will take our campaign to the Russian government calling on them to stop all live captures and to immediately investigate rehabilitation and, where possible, release options for these animals.”

Although we call for the rehabilitation and release of these belugas to native waters if feasible, the possibility for their recapture guarantees that a final solution will be politically and practically complex. We seek an end to the further acquisition of whales and dolphins from the wild for captivity and permanent sanctuary for those that remain.

About George Berry

George is a member of WDC's Communications team and website coordinator.