Beluga whales get their day in court

In a Russian marine research station along the Black Sea, 18 ghostly white beluga whales swim in tanks.

Their fate could be decided by a federal judge in Atlanta.

On Friday, the Georgia Aquarium will try to convince the court that the whales should come to the United States where they’d be put on display in aquariums in Atlanta and Chicago as well as Sea World parks in Florida, Texas and California.

The plan to import the whales has drawn fervent opposition from those who oppose the removal of the intelligent and highly social animals from their native waters. The federal government in 2013 denied the aquarium’s application saying that approving the permit could open the floodgates for the widespread hunting and capture of belugas and other mammals.

The aquarium sued, arguing the denial was “arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with law.” They maintain that studying the belugas in captivity allows scientists to glean valuable insight into how to best protect them in their Arctic habitats. The species is listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and some stocks are considered endangered.

Filed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, the Georgia Aquarium’s application is the first in more than two decades seeking to import marine mammals captured in the wild. And the eventual outcome of the case could have wide ranging implications for the aquarium community at large. Right now there are just 29 belugas in captivity in the United States.

“We are all watching this closely,” said Roger Germann, spokesman for the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, which would house some of the Russian belugas if they are brought to the United States. “Exactly what the ruling says could mean a lot to what we do.”

Sea Canaries

The Georgia Aquarium opened a decade ago claiming the title as “The World’s Largest Aquarium.” Since then it has been a pillar of downtown Atlanta tourism, attracting more than 2 million visitors a year.

Anyone who has visited the Georgia Aquarium has almost certainly spent some time in front of the 24-foot-deep beluga display watching the creatures glide through water chilled to 59 degrees.

Belugas are nicknamed sea canaries because they vocalize and mimic sounds. They are also intensely social creatures; they move in pods, hunting and interacting in groups.

Four belugas currently call the aquarium home. But the cold water exhibit had a rocky start. Three belugas died soon after the aquarium opened; Marina from complications of old age while Gaspar and Nico — rescued from an amusement park in Mexico — arrived in Atlanta already suffering from significant health issues.

Recent attempts to expand the beluga brood in Atlanta have failed. Maris has given birth twice — in 2012 and again in May of this year — but both calves died soon after birth. A necropsy is pending on the recent death.

The aquarium wants to introduce more belugas into the captive population to make the population in captivity more stable. With the wild population at risk from environmental challenges in the Arctic and other obstacles like increased shipping traffic and food shortages, aquarium officials say it is critical to have a sustainable population of belugas in human care.

“We need to have a diversified gene pool to make this happen,” they said in a statement.

In its legal brief, the aquarium also argued that the the best way to spur conservation and education efforts that could ultimately help animals, like belugas, is to make the animals accessible to humans.

The aquarium had sought the permit under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act which bars the capture and import of marine mammals and marine mammal but there is a limited exception allowing for animals being sought for public display.

From Kim Bassinger to Jane Goodall

A heady roster of scientists, animal welfare activists and celebrities have lent their star power to the fight against the Georgia Aquarium. A friend of the court brief lists actors Kim Bassinger, Hayden Panettiere and Edward Norton as well as noted conservationists Jane Goodall and Jean-Michel Cousteau.

They argue in the legal papers that the case is a “defining moment in the history” of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that stretches far beyond the fate of the 18 belugas at the center of the legal fight.

“The decision also will determine the vitality of the longstanding precautionary principal that the (Marine Mammal Protection Act) should be construed for the benefit of marine mammals, not those who exploit them.”

Critics also say that aquariums are seeking to cash in on the likeable creatures. For $179.95, a visitor can get up close and personal with the belugas at the Georgia Aquarium. At the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, $500 will get you a romantic engagement experience where you can pop the question with belugas looking on and a photographer there to “capture the once-in-a lifetime setting and moment.” ($100 more gets you champagne celebration).

In denying the aquarium, NOAA Fisheries said they were unable to determine whether importing the belugas would have have a significant impact on the whale stock in the region where they were captured.

It also noted that five of the 18 whales were estimated to be about 1 1/2 years of at the time they were captured, meaning they could potentially still be nursing. Mammals still nursing or otherwise dependant on their mothers are banned from import in the United States.

The aquarium disputes that the young whales were still nursing, saying in legal papers that they ate solid food immediately after being caught suggesting they were no longer dependent on their mothers’ milk, court papers say.

The 18 belugas at issue were captured in the Sea of Ohktsk off the northwest coast of Russia between 2006 and 2011. They remain in limbo at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, which is affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Georgia Aquarium said its animal care experts pay regular visits. Still, the accommodations were never intended to be long term.

If the aquarium is thwarted in its efforts to import the whales, The Russian Academy of Sciences, which owns the belugas, would presumably find them homes in another country.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.