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NOAA denies permit application to import 18 wild-caught belugas

By Elizabeth Batt     Aug 6, 2013 in Environment
Silver Spring - Faced with one of the most contested permits ever, NOAA has denied Georgia Aquarium's application for the import of 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia.
An application for an MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act) permit submitted by Georgia Aquarium on June 15 2012, to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been denied. The permit requested authorization to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, to the United States for the purpose of public display.
After more than a year of deliberation, the federal agency announced today that it was denying the permit. NOAA Fisheries said that it had based its decision, "on requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA)," and "concluded that the application did not meet several of the MMPA permit criteria."
Those criteria according to NOAA, were as follows:
NOAA Fisheries is unable to determine whether or not the proposed importation, by itself or in combination with other activities, would have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale stock, the population that these whales are taken from;
NOAA Fisheries determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit;
NOAA Fisheries determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1½ years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.
As the first application for a permit to import recently caught wild marine mammals in more than 20 years, it was also the most contested. Thousands of cetacean advocates and a plethora of marine mammal conservation groups opposed the import. Petitions flooded across social media and by Oct. 2012, public comments in the Federal Register numbered 4,000 plus, with the majority of statements in opposition to the import.
Georgia Aquarium requested to bring the belugas into the U.S., and then transport them to other partner facilities such as SeaWorld of Florida, SeaWorld of Texas, SeaWorld of California, Shedd Aquarium and Mystic Aquarium.
Objections to the potential importation were vociferous and well-formed. At a public meeting held by NOAA at its headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. last October, Georgia Aquarium staff appeared alongside paid temps rumored to have been paid $22/hr to stand in line and attempt to fill seats. It was seen as an attempt by park executives to prevent oppositionists from speaking at the meeting.
Courtney Vail, the Campaigns and Programs Manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), told Digital Journal shortly after the meeting:
There is something unseemly about hijacking the public process, and attempting to stack the deck by filling up spaces with uninterested bystanders who were there just to fill up spaces. More of them means less of us.
Vail added that she was struck by the arrogance of the marine mammal industry and in particular, David Kimmel, the president of Georgia Aquarium who suggested that dissenters target congress.
"I remind NMFS (with great emphasis)," Vail told NOAA Fisheries, "that according to the permitting regulations, it is the applicant, not the public, and not the regulatory agencies (NMFS; National Marine Fisheries Service), that must prove or demonstrate that these criteria are being met."
According to NOAA, the aquarium failed to meet this criteria. For those who believed that permit approval could set a dangerous precedent for all wild beluga populations, it is a massive victory.
The Orlando Sentinel reported Georgia Aquarium's response to the decision as, "deeply disappointing." The facility, which never returns any beluga whales back to the wild, added, "the decision places the long-term global sustainability of an entire species in limbo." The aquarium said it has not decided whether to appeal NOAA's decision.
For further information on NOAA's ruling, the decision memo is available online.
A new petition coordinated by Fins and Fluke is asking the Russian Department of Fisheries and Utrishskiy delphinarium to allow a panel of experts to rehab and release the 18 wild-caught beluga whales. The organization said, "we feel these animals have endured enough stress just with their capture alone to last a lifetime. Many successful programs have allowed wild-caught captives to be released back into the ocean."
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