AWI Petition Approved: Russian Beluga Whales to Receive US Protection

In early April, the US National Marine Fisheries Service proposed designating the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River population of beluga whales in Russia as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). This proposal is in response to a 2014 petition filed by AWI and its allies—Cetacean Society International, Earth Island Institute, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation—after Georgia Aquarium attempted to import 18 of the whales for display in the United States.

NMFS initially denied Georgia Aquarium’s import permit application, but was sued by the facility. After AWI intervened in the suit on behalf of NMFS, the court upheld the agency’s decision (see AWI Quarterly, fall 2015). Despite this major victory, however, the possibility remained that other facilities, or even Georgia Aquarium itself, could apply again for import permits. A depleted designation, however, would eliminate this possibility, even for belugas from this stock already in captivity.

For many years, Russia has allowed captures from this population for the purpose of public display within Russia and in overseas facilities, including within China. Since 1992, in fact, the region has been the only regular source of wild-caught belugas for public display worldwide.

At present, fewer than 4,000 individuals are thought to remain in the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River stock—less than 30 percent of the stock’s estimated pre-exploitation population level. The MMPA authorizes NMFS to designate as “depleted” marine mammal species or stocks that are below their optimum sustainable population (OSP). Historically, NMFS has considered a species to have fallen below its OSP if it falls below 60 percent of its estimated historic population level.

Once the depleted designation is finalized, the rule will also help US agencies promote stronger protections for this population of belugas.

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