A Win for Whales?

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration denies the Georgia Aquarium’s request for more beluga whales

August 07, 2013

Beluga whales swim in icy Arctic waters near the coast of northern Russia.

On Monday, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) rejected the Georgia Aquarium’s request to import 18 whales that were captured off the coast of Russia.

The Georgia Aquarium, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is the world’s largest aquarium. It is already home to four belugas, or white whales. In 2012, the aquarium requested 18 additional whales to help people learn more about the species and improve breeding efforts.

A law says that belugas can only be brought into the U.S. and put on display if there is an educational reason for doing so, they are captured without being hurt, and their capture doesn’t harm the local population of whales. Under this law, NOAA denied the aquarium’s request.

“Naturally, this is deeply disappointing to the dedicated Georgia Aquarium scientists and animal care professionals who have worked so diligently to help ensure the sustainability of beluga whales in human care at our facility and others in North America,” the aquarium said in a statement, upon receiving the news that their request had been denied.

In a letter to the aquarium, NOAA said that the proposal did not meet guidelines under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the importation of marine animals without a permit. In order to receive permission, the aquarium had to prove that the import would not harm the population of belugas living near Russia. NOAA says that the live capture of the whales has contributed to the population’s significant decline.

The Great Debate

Belugas are smart, social animals that live in groups called pods. “Belugas are very important to our polar oceans,” Michael Payne, who works for NOAA, told TFK. “They’re a key member of the whale family in those waters.”

Visitors observe a beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium. Last year, the aquarium asked permission to import 18 more whales for public display.

Visitors observe a beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium. Last year, the aquarium asked permission to import 18 more whales for public display.

More than 210 belugas currently live in aquariums and zoos around the world. Many people believe that keeping belugas in captivity will help aquarium visitors learn about the species and will help scientists protect it. But many people and animal rights groups believe belugas should stay in the ocean to survive. Critics of keeping belugas in captivity say that the whales are being used for entertainment, instead of to help their survival. These groups are celebrating NOAA’s decision.

The Georgia Aquarium has 60 days to appeal the decision in court. “We remain committed to working on behalf of beluga whales and all marine life through education, conservation, exceptional animals care, research and public display,” the aquarium’s statement says.

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