By Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) - The Georgia Aquarium called off on Tuesday its fight to import 18 beluga whales from Russia and said it would not challenge a federal judge's ruling to block their arrival, handing a victory to U.S. regulators and animal conservation groups.
The decision ends two years of litigation by the aquarium to get federal approval to bring the whales to Atlanta and to other facilities in the United States that had hoped to acquire them, including SeaWorld parks.
Also known as white whales, belugas are common in the Arctic Ocean's coastal waters and also found in subarctic waters, according to the National Geographic website.
According to the aquarium, they are classified as endangered in some areas and as “near threatened” worldwide.
The Atlanta-based aquarium issued a statement criticizing the ruling by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg in September that denied importation of the animals.
“We firmly disagree with the judge’s decision, but the extended appeal process would add to an already lengthy series of legal proceedings, which would not be in the best interest of the animals in Russia,” aquarium officials said.
The aquarium sued the government in September 2013 for the right to acquire the whales, captured in 2006 off the coast of northern Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk. They are currently in the care of Russian scientists.
Totenberg said in her strongly worded decision that the aquarium's legal arguments amounted to “smoke and mirrors.” She noted that the organization had accused a division of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries service of "'cooking the books' to fabricate its rationale" for denying the permit.
The Animal Welfare Institute, which was one of several environmental groups that joined U.S. regulators in opposing the importation, applauded the aquarium's decision.
(Editing by Letitia Stein, Toni Reinhold)