Georgia Aquarium Application to Import 18 Beluga Whales (File No. 17324)
Result of Court Case
On September 28, 2015, the U.S. District Court of Atlanta upheld NOAA Fisheries' decision to deny Georgia Aquarium's request for a permit to import 18 beluga whales under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Here is the full text of the judge's decision.
Under limited exceptions to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), zoos and aquaria can apply for a permit from NOAA Fisheries to import or capture marine mammals for public display. Specific criteria from the MMPA and NOAA Fisheries regulations must be met to obtain a permit under one of these exceptions.
The Georgia Aquarium submitted an application for an MMPA permit on June 15, 2012. This application (File No. 17324) requested authorization to import 18 beluga whales from the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia to the United States for the purpose of public display. These animals were previously captured from the Russian Sea of Okhotsk.
The application requested that animals be imported and legally held by the Georgia Aquarium. Some of the animals would be transported to other U.S. partner facilities under breeding loan agreements. These facilities included Sea World of Florida, Sea World of Texas, Sea World of California, and Shedd Aquarium. On September 1, 2015, Sea World announced on their website that they would not accept any of the belugas listed on the permit application.
What was NOAA Fisheries' decision on this permit application?
NOAA Fisheries denied the Georgia Aquarium’s request for a permit to import 18 beluga whales to the United States for public display.
We used criteria set forth in the MMPA and our regulations, as well as our consideration of the public comments received, to make our decision. We denied the permit application for the following reasons:
- We were unable to determine whether the proposed activity, by itself or in combination with other activities, would likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock. We believe that it is likely that total removals from this stock have exceeded the total net production on an annual basis resulting in a small, but steady and significant decline over the past 2 decades. We believe the ongoing live-capture trade since 1989 may have contributed to a cumulative decline over the past two decades, and we considered this in combination with other past, present, and foreseeable future actions.
- We determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit. There are ongoing, legal marine mammal capture operations in Russia that are expected to continue, and we believe that issuance of this permit would contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock for the purpose of public display in the U.S. and worldwide, resulting in the future taking of additional belugas from this stock.
- We determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1.5 years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.
What does this decision mean for future permit applications?
This decision is not a statement by NOAA Fisheries against the applicant, public display, or the live-capture of animals for the purpose of public display. The MMPA provides specific exemptions for public display, provided specific criteria are met. NOAA Fisheries determined that for this application, not all of those criteria were met. The Georgia Aquarium or any other facility may still submit future applications to import or capture marine mammals for public display, and NOAA Fisheries will consider those applications based on the requirements of the MMPA and our regulations.
Draft Environmental Assessment (EA)
NOAA Fisheries made a preliminary decision that an EA was the appropriate level of analysis to conduct under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for this application. A draft EA [pdf] was prepared to assist the agency in making a decision by analyzing the potential adverse impacts on the species resulting from the importation of these beluga whales. The draft EA was available for review and comment concurrent with the application. The EA [pdf] was revised based on the recommendation to deny the permit and resulted in a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).
Public Comment Period
NOAA Fisheries’ regulations require that notices of all permit applications be published in the Federal Register for public review and comment for 30 days. Because of increased public interest, this application and the draft EA were made available for comment for 60 days. The public comment period closed on October 29, 2012.
All comments received are a part of the public record and are posted for public viewing on regulations.gov.
We received approximately 9,000 comments on the application and draft Environmental Assessment. These comments included specific concerns about the application as well as general comments against displaying and breeding belugas in captivity.
What are some examples of specific concerns about this application and the general comments NOAA Fisheries received?
The comments that were most helpful to our decision-making process addressed the specific MMPA and regulatory criteria that we must use to make a decision and discussed why the commenter felt the application did or did not meet them.
The comments we received pertaining to humaneness determinations (capture and transport), the age of the animals at capture, the status of the Sakhalin-Amur beluga stock, and the effects of the ongoing capture operation on beluga stocks were directly related to the MMPA issuance criteria and considered further in the decision making process.
In general, comments regarding opposition to captivity were not considered substantive as the MMPA allows for public display of marine mammals. Also, the comments we received related to the care and maintenance of marine mammals in captivity fall under the purview of the Animal Welfare Act and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, so we were unable to respond to them as part of this process.
NOAA Fisheries held a public meeting to inform interested parties of the proposed import and solicit comments on the application and accompanying draft EA.
The meeting was held on October 12, 2012, from 2-5 p.m. at:
NOAA Science Center
1301 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910
138 people attended the meeting, and 30 people provided oral comments.
- Application [pdf]
- Addendum to Application [pdf]
- Translated Russian Capture Permits [pdf]
- Federal Register Notice (77 FR 52694)
- Draft EA [pdf]
- Georgia Aquarium's Response to Marine Mammal Commission Comments [pdf]
- Georgia Aquarium's Response to Public Comments [pdf]
- Revised Transport Plan [pdf]
- Denial Letter and Decision Memo (including NOAA Fisheries' response to comments) [pdf]
- Final EA and FONSI [pdf]
- U.S. District Court Decision [pdf]
Beluga Inventory Report Summaries
- All U.S. Facilities [pdf]
- Georgia Aquarium [pdf]
- Sea World of Florida [pdf]
- Sea World of Texas [pdf]
- Sea World of California [pdf]
- Shedd Aquarium [pdf]
- Mystic Aquarium [pdf]
U.S. Facility* Number of Belugas Currently Maintained Georgia Aquarium 4 Sea World of Florida 4 Sea World of Texas 8 Sea World of California 5 Shedd Aquarium 6 Mystic Aquarium 4
*this list includes all U.S. facilities currently maintaining beluga whales (as of August 24, 2012)
Updated: September 29, 2015