Aquarium won't appeal after losing battle to import belugas

AP News
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Posted: Nov 17, 2015 5:18 PM

ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia Aquarium has decided not to appeal a federal judge's ruling that effectively prevents it from importing 18 beluga whales from Russia, officials said Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ruled in September that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service properly applied the Marine Mammal Protection Act in denying the aquarium's permit to import the belugas. The federal agency, known as NOAA Fisheries, argued the aquarium's application failed to meet some requirements of the 1972 law.

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.

The aquarium, which had argued the whales are needed to strengthen the gene pool of whales in captivity in the U.S. and for research, said the agency's denial of its permit application was arbitrary and capricious. After NOAA Fisheries denied its permit application, the aquarium filed a federal lawsuit in Atlanta.

"We believe we were right but at the end of the day there's a judge and a court and that decision was out of our hands," aquarium CEO Mike Leven said in a phone interview. "We're very sad that it ended this way, but it's time to move on."

The appeal would likely have taken a long time, during which the whales would remain in their temporary home in Russia, Leven said. It's in the whales' best interest to get them into more permanent homes, and the aquarium will help with that as much as possible, he said.

The aquarium will have spent about $9 million on legal fees, maintenance, travel and transportation since it began the process of trying to import the whales in 2010.

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. If the Georgia Aquarium had prevailed, some of the whales would have lived at the Georgia Aquarium while others would have gone to other American aquariums.

The Georgia Aquarium is home to two beluga whales, Grayson and Qinu. A third beluga, Maris, died suddenly last month.