After a long and winding process, a federal court has turned aside Georgia Aquarium’s attempt to import wild beluga whales from Russia. In June 2012, Georgia Aquarium applied for a Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from the Sea of Okhotsk. In August 2013, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied the permit application after strong opposition from AWI and other organizations. In September 2013, the Aquarium sued the agency to overturn this decision. The court proceedings began soon after, with motions and briefs and a successful effort by AWI and three other animal protection organizations to intervene on the side of the government. On August 14 of this year, the court finally heard oral arguments on the merits of the case.
AWI and the other intervenors were present in the courtroom to hear these arguments and represent the many stakeholders who oppose the exploitation of free-ranging cetaceans for entertainment purposes. Our excellent pro bono attorneys with the Atlanta-based law firm Stack & Associates presented a strong case to the judge, supporting the science-based decision originally made by NMFS. The judge asked many questions of all the attorneys, showing a deep understanding of the issues.
On September 29, the ruling came in: a resounding victory for defenders of wild cetaceans. Judge Amy Totenberg found that NMFS followed the statutory mandate of the MMPA in denying the Aquarium’s permit application. In a forceful, maritime-themed ruling, Judge Totenberg concluded that “Georgia Aquarium’s arguments … cast a wide net, but haul in little of substance.” This ruling sets an important precedent, confirming that the burden of proof that marine mammal captures are humane and sustainable rests squarely with the permit applicants.