ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia Aquarium has lost a legal battle to import 18 beluga whales from Russia, a federal judge ruled Monday.
The aquarium sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in September 2013 after the federal agency refused to grant a permit to import the whales. U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg said in a 100-page ruling that the agency properly reviewed the aquarium's permit application through the lens of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The 1972 law prohibits the capture of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens elsewhere and generally doesn't allow the import of marine mammals, although there are some exceptions, including one that allows animals to be imported for public display.
Aquarium officials were reviewing the decision, spokeswoman Jessica Fontana said in an email.
The government agency, known as NOAA Fisheries, is pleased with the ruling, spokeswoman Connie Barclay said in an email.
The aquarium, which has said the whales are needed to strengthen the gene pool of whales in captivity in the U.S. and for research, argued the agency's denial of its permit application was arbitrary and capricious.
The 18 belugas are from the Sea of Okhotsk in northern Russia and were collected by scientists there in 2006, 2010 and 2011. They currently live in the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia. Some of the whales would have lived at the Georgia Aquarium while others would have been loaned to aquariums in Chicago and Connecticut and Sea World facilities in Florida, Texas and California.
In denying the permit, NOAA Fisheries said the aquarium failed to show that the import of those whales would not be likely to have a negative impact on the stock of whales where they were captured. The agency said it had also determined the import would likely cause more belugas to be captured from that stock in the future.
NOAA Fisheries also said some of the whales in question were too young when they were captured and may have still been nursing, which violates the law.
The aquarium disputed those claims, saying it had done a comprehensive study of the whale population in the area and that the young whales were independent of their mothers by the time of capture.
The aquarium studied of the sustainability of the captured beluga whales, but NOAA Fisheries "found significant and troubling inconsistencies in Georgia Aquarium's data and uncertainty associated with the available information regarding the abundance and stability of this particular whale population," Totenberg wrote.
NOAA Fisheries has said its decision applies only to this particular permit request and that future requests could be granted if they meet the requirements.