Bringing beluga whales to the United States required an import permit issued from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA/Fisheries). The average timeframe for a permit to be reviewed and approved, or denied, is a few months.
Georgia Aquarium filed a permit application in 2012 to import 18 beluga whales at the request of NOAA. During a hearing that allowed public comment on the application, more than fifteen science, academic, conservation and animal welfare experts spoke to support Georgia Aquarium’s permit request. Throughout the permit application process, we were given every indication and encouragement from NOAA that our permit would be approved.
Through collaborative discussions with the agency, NOAA Fisheries led us to believe that approval of our permit was imminent. After nearly a year of extensive application review, an issued environmental assessment report, and drafting a permit, they suddenly and surprisingly changed course and denied the permit. The denial was not in accordance with the law, but was due in part to intense animal extremist pressure.
Permit denial was arbitrary, capricious and not accordance with the law.
Committed to educating the public about this species, the aquarium sought to overturn the permit denial by filing a complaint in a U.S District Court in Georgia against NOAA Fisheries and the Department of Commerce. The aquarium requested to supplement the record with more than 20 documents that had been deliberately withheld by NOAA Fisheries for consideration by the court pertaining to a complete environmental assessment showing issuance of the permit complied with the law.
Unfortunately, the motion to supplement the record was denied. In September 2015, The U.S District Court issued a 100-page document denying the permit application, giving Georgia Aquarium 60 days to decide if we wanted to appeal that decision.
By this time, the beluga whales had been held at Utrish Marine Station for two additional years. As a result of the court’s decision, their fate was now uncertain.
It was our understanding an appeal would have dragged the process out longer while the animals waited in limbo. Throughout this process, we’ve had to make many difficult decisions, but we’ve always done what’s right for the animals.
In November 2015, the aquarium decided not to appeal the court’s decision.