The decision ends a multiyear effort by the Georgia Aquarium to draw a curtain on a de facto two-decade ban on importing wild-caught marine mammals for display.
After "careful review," the NOAA Fisheries regulatory agency said the applicant had failed to demonstrate conclusively that the deal would not adversely affect the population of whales from which the Russians took the belugas, and said it could encourage the capture of more whales.
In a blow to Russian arguments that its captures are humane, the U.S. agency went out of its way to note that five of the animals in question are young enough to have been sucklings when they were caught, probably pulled from their nursing mothers' sides.
The decision underscores a prohibition on the import of whales and other sea mammals spelled out in the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 which, with some exceptions, bans the "take," harassment, or import of such animals or related products.
The Georgia Aquarium's application thus represented the latest challenge to opponents of the display of marine mammals caught in the wild, with the last wild-caught marine mammal to have gone on display in the U.S. in 1993.
The ghostly white belugas are among the most striking and charismatic of whale species and among the first to be kept in captivity, though they tend to garner less public attention than the larger black-and-white killer whales and their close cousins, the dolphins. The belugas chirps and songs have earned them the moniker "canaries of the sea." There are thought to be between 31 and 35 captive belugas currently in North America.
NOAA Fisheries, along with the rest of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is part of the U.S. Commerce Department.
It made its finding after an extended debate that pitted anticaptivity scientists and activists against scientists and breeders within the increasingly embattled world of aquarium theme parks.
NOAA Fisheries says it based its decision on three specific factors:
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.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Tom Balmforth at the height of the U.S. debate last year, marine biologist Dmitry Glazov, who is involved in captures and the regulation of whale catches in Russia, said that Soviet-era and other studies showed the Sea of Okhotsk population from which Russia is capturing whales was "growing."
The NOAA Fisheries finding appears to challenge the scientific basis of such a conclusion.
American cetacean researcher Erich Hoyt, author of the book "Orca: The Whale Called Killer" and "The Performing Orca: Why The Show Must Stop,"(as well as a new book on "Weird Sea Creatures") calls the NOAA decision "a wise one" for belugas and their kin. In an e-mail response to RFE/RL, Hoyt, who's also a research fellow at WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, says "whales, dolphins and porpoises are too large, too social, too intelligent and self-aware to be subjected to capture and captivity."
"On the other hand, in Russia, I don't think that we know enough about those particular belugas as well as other cetaceans, in terms of their numbers and breeding units, to be capturing them. The Russian scientists are trying to do their job and have made recommendations to modify or stop the captures in some cases but the Ministry in Moscow, in charge of setting quotas for captures, has so far ignored this advice. For the "whale industry" in Russia, there is a lot of money to be made, so they are only too eager to take up the quotas. They may engage scientists but not necessarily listen to their advice, or attempt to selectively buy the advice that they want to hear."
The critically acclaimed U.S. documentary film "Blackfish" -- which focuses on Tilikum, a killer whale captured off the Icelandic coast in 1983 and since involved in the death of three people -- has highlighted the plight of orcas and other intelligent and normally free-roaming animals in captivity at marine parks and within the booming global trade in marine mammals.
Russia, meanwhile, appears eager to profit from the widening market for intelligent marine mammals for oceanariums and theme parks around the world. Its eastern seaboard in particular gives it relatively easy access to whale and dolphin populations in the Sea of Okhotsk and other waters of the western Pacific Ocean.
Beluga whales are included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "red list of threatened species," citing climate change, ship strikes, pollution, prey availability and predator migrations, and continued hunting among the greatest challenges to the species. Some of that adversity is bound to increase as seafaring countries race to exploit northern passages opened up by the melting of Arctic ice.
Its Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station facility at Anapa, on the Black Sea, plays a central role as Russia is "rapidly becoming the largest supplier of wild marine animals to facilities around the world," according to Marine Connection, an advocacy group for the humane treatment of whales and dolphins.
Marine Connection's director for captivity issues, Margaux Dodds, was quoted as calling the rejection of the beluga sale "an excellent example of public opinion helping to stop these beluga imports."
India's Environment and Forests Ministry recently took the unprecedented step of banning dolphinariums, going so far as to cite the "personhood" of dolphins in nipping a creeping industry there:
Back in the United States, the NOAA Fisheries had received thousands of messages from the public and took the rare step last year of extending the public debate period ahead of its beluga ruling.
The NOAA website quotes Sam Rauch, an acting assistant at the fisheries regulator, as saying: "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. 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."
Georgia Aquarium planned to display some of the 18 animals it wanted to import -- 10 females and eight males -- and lend others out for breeding efforts at John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and at three locations in the Sea World chain of theme parks, which comes under intense critical scrutiny in "Blackfish," a film by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
NOAA Fisheries says its decision "is not a statement by NOAA Fisheries against the applicant (eds: Georgia Aquarium), public display, or the live-capture of animals for the purpose of public display" but rather a decision based on "specific exemptions" and "specific criteria." It adds that the "Georgia Aquarium or any other facility may still submit future applications."
Georgia Aquarium reportedly left open the possibility of appealing the decision and called the development "deeply disappointing," according to the "Orlando Sentinel."
Captivity's defenders argue that the loss of so few animals in cases where "stocks" are deemed healthy poses no risk to a population's well-being. They also say scientific and educational benefits offset the negative aspects of captivity for a few individuals.
-- Andy Heil