The Obama administration threw cold water on the world's largest aquarium this week, rejecting its proposal to buy 18 beluga whales from Russia. It was the first attempt in more than 20 years to import marine mammals recently captured from the wild.

The decision, which is drawing praise from many animal advocates, comes at a turbulent time for marine theme parks. Already beset by criticism since an orca killed a SeaWorld trainer in 2010, the industry is now waging a public relations battle against unflattering portrayals like the new film "Blackfish" and the book "Death at SeaWorld." While much of that controversy focuses on orcas' danger to humans, it has also revived a longstanding debate about keeping such social, intelligent mammals in pens for public display.

The Georgia Aquarium wanted to import 18 Russian belugas for display in Atlanta and at several partner facilities, including three SeaWorld parks and Chicago's Shedd Aquarium. While captive belugas present different issues than captive orcas, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration still deemed the Georgia Aquarium's proposal too ecologically murky. Federal law allows wild cetaceans to be captured or imported for public display, but also imposes limits designed to protect vulnerable species.

"The Georgia Aquarium clearly worked hard to follow the required process and submit a thorough application, and we appreciate their patience and cooperation as we carefully considered this case," NOAA's Sam Rauch says in a statement. "However, under the strict criteria of the law, we were unable to determine if the import of these belugas, combined with the active capture operation in Russia and other human activities, would have an adverse impact on this stock of wild beluga whales."

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service offers three reasons for declining the request:

  • NOAA Fisheries is unable to determine whether or not the proposed importation, by itself or in combination with other activities, would have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale stock, the population that these whales are taken from;
  • NOAA Fisheries determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit;
  • NOAA Fisheries determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1½ years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.
The belugas in question were captured from Russia's Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011, according to NOAA, and currently live at Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the Black Sea Coast. While scientific data about the size and stability of this beluga population are spotty, the agency notes that belugas in general are not well-suited to captivity, and their species is vulnerable to an array of manmade dangers.

"Beluga whales are social animals that typically migrate, hunt and interact together in groups of ten to several hundred in the arctic and subarctic waters of Russia, Greenland and North America," NOAA explains. "Beluga whales face a number of threats including ship strikes, pollution, habitat destruction and entanglement in fishing gear."

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Belugas at the Georgia Aquarium. (Photo: Mike Johnston/Flickr)

In a statement emailed to MNN Wednesday afternoon, the Georgia Aquarium calls NOAA's decision "deeply disappointing." It argues the proposal was not only in full accordance with U.S. and international laws, but would also "help ensure the sustainability of beluga whales in human care" at its facility and others throughout North America.

"Sadly, the decision places the long-term global sustainability of an entire species in limbo," writes spokeswoman Meghann Gibbons. "Throughout this process, we have worked closely with NMFS, and we plan to continue pursuing what options are available to us under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to ensure the ongoing survival of beluga whales."

The aquarium has 60 days to appeal the ruling in U.S. District Court, and its statement suggests it sees legal justification for pushback. "We strongly believe our application presented extensive, research-based evidence which met all requirements of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act under federal law," Gibbons writes, "and illustrated the critical importance of these belugas to ensuring a future for the species globally, while having no detrimental impact on the population of their origin in Russia."

Two belugas have died at the Georgia Aquarium in recent years, along with two whale sharks, prompting some animal-rights advocates to view any expansion plans with suspicion. NOAA received nearly 9,000 comments during the proposal's 60-day comment period last year, many of which expressed doubt about the well-being of captive belugas. (The Georgia Aquarium later issued a lengthy response to a wide range of critiques.)

Activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has gone even further, arguing marine parks and aquaria violate the 13th Amendment by enslaving whales. A federal judge threw out a PETA lawsuit against SeaWorld last year, however, ruling that whales don't have the same constitutional rights as humans. "The only reasonable interpretation of the 13th Amendment's plain language is that it applies to persons, and not to non-persons such as orcas," wrote U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller.

But aside from the ethical implications of keeping intelligent, migratory whales in captivity, NOAA's ruling suggests the capture of wild belugas — which Russia has been doing for more than 20 years — could pile too much pressure onto an already-vulnerable marine mammal. "The ongoing live-capture trade since 1989 may have contributed to a cumulative decline over the past two decades," the agency writes, "and we considered this in combination with other past, present, and foreseeable future actions."

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