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Bottlenose dolphins © Christopher Swann

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Groups Welcome Federal Agency’s Decision to Protect Russian Beluga Whales

Beluga whale in captivityWhale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Cetacean Society International (CSI), and Earth Island Institute (EII) lauded the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for its proposed designation of the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River population of beluga whales in Russia as depleted under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). A depleted designation would make it illegal to import any belugas from this population into the United States for public display. The proposed rule must undergo a 60-day public comment period before it is finalized.

In 2014, the groups submitted a petition to designate this population of belugas as depleted after Georgia Aquarium, a U.S. facility, attempted to import 18 of the whales in 2012. The science clearly showed that the population was well below 60 percent of its historic size, and therefore depleted under MMPA criteria. The groups supported NMFS’ decision to deny Georgia Aquarium’s import permit and intervened on behalf of the agency after it was subsequently sued by the facility. While a September 2015 court ruling finally upheld the agency’s decision, the possibility remained that other facilities, or even Georgia Aquarium itself, could apply again for import permits. A depleted designation would eliminate this possibility, even for belugas captured from this stock that are already in captivity.

“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,” stated Courtney Vail, campaigns manager for WDC. “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.”

“We are thrilled with this decision,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI marine mammal scientist. “These belugas may be in Russia, but what we do here in the United States sets an example for authorities responsible for marine mammal protection everywhere. This decision sends a strong message that this country will not be part of an unsustainable and inhumane trade in live belugas.”

A designation will also provide a framework for U.S. agencies to promote stronger protections for the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River population of belugas. Russia has allowed captures from this population for the purpose of public display for many years. Many of the captured whales are used in Russia’s domestic facilities or are shipped to China and other destinations every year.

“NMFS’ decision helps to demonstrate our nation’s resolve not to support the international trade of species and populations in peril,” said William Rossiter, CSI executive director for advocacy, science and grants. “It would be wonderful if this decision influences other nations, but it’s absolutely imperative for the United States to declare ‘not here, not now.’”

“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,” stated Mark J. Palmer, associate director of EII’s International Marine Mammal Project. “Catching beluga whales for a shortened life in captivity should not continue for these vulnerable populations.”

To learn more about some of WDC’s work to protect beluga whales, visit here.