A Whale of a Decision: The Obama Administration Turns Down Georgia Aquarium’s Permit On Whale Importation

220px-Beluga_premier.gov.ru-3It is with great joy that I can report the decision of the Obama Administration to turn down the controversial permit application of the Georiga Aquarium to import 18 beluga whales captured and held in Russia. I have had the honor of serving as lead counsel with the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Environmental Law Clinic of The George Washington University Law School in representing an international consortium of scientists, environmentalists, and organizations in challenging the permit application and preparing for litigation to block any permit issuance. My colleague GW Law Professor Joan Schaffner, Director of the GW Law Animal Welfare Project, has joined me in this representation with a team of GW law students, including Tyler Sniff, one of our Shapiro Fellows and a recent graduate. The Administration and specifically the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) deserves to be commended for this decision to protect the whale population from continued depletion by these live capture operations. Here is the press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

For weeks our team has been standing by to file an emergency injunction to prevent the shipping of these whales within minutes of the permit issuance. The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta was prepared to put these whales on aircraft for a hazardous flight and they knew that it would be an advantage to get the whales into transit as soon as possible in light of the expected challenge.

The plaintiffs in this action include the Animal Welfare Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Cetacean Society International, Earth Island Institute, and Heritage Expeditions Limited, a renowned ecotourism company, as well as several individual plaintiffs.

This permit would have been the first in twenty years to permit the import of any wild-caught cetacean for public display purposes. It would have given this live capture industry an effective U.S. endorsement for the unsustainable and expanding international trade in live-captured beluga whales and other cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Many such whales go to to public display facilities around the world with little or no expertise in caring for these animals.

Beluga whales are highly social and intelligent animals. In the wild, they roam for hundreds of miles, but in captivity, languish in tanks and frequently live only a fraction of their wild life spans. Regarding the potential legal challenge, experts would have submitted declarations detailing the environmental, animal welfare, and public policy problems posed by the permit and the live capture and captive maintenance of cetaceans.

beluga-Pt-Defiance_robin_angliss_300A Russian company with a long and controversial record in the live capture of beluga and killer whales, Utrish Dolphinarium, Ltd., arranged for the capture of these whales from the Sakhalin Bay-Amur Estuary region of the Russian Sea of Okhotsk. Utrish planned to fly the up to 3,300-pound beluga whales from Anapa, Russia to Liege, Belgium, where they would await export to the United States. After this 40-hour ordeal, the Georgia Aquarium would have distributed the beluga whales to other aquariums for confinement in tanks for entertainment purposes.

Live capture is one of the most serious threats facing the stressed and likely depleted Sakhalin-Amur stock of beluga whales. The whales are easy prey for the live-capture team, which forces beluga whales into nets, relying on their close family relationships to ensnare entire pods. Reports indicate that the team captured several nursing mothers and juvenile whales, and is responsible for the death of a newborn calf during one of its capture operations.

We are incredibly relieved and thankful in the wake of this decision of the Administration. While we still have 18 beluga whales being held in abusive conditions in Russia, the decision today will protect this species from further depletions by denying the U.S. market for such captive whales.

It is my sincere hope that the Georgia Aquarium will reconsider this ignoble effort taken against the views of many experts and animal rights activists around the world. The aquarium has a committed population of supporters in the Atlanta community. This decision gives environmentalists in that community the opportunity to resume a dialogue with the aquarium to seek a change in its position on such live capture operations. People should contact the aquarium and ask that they respect the decision of the Administration in the best interests of this species.

We are prepared to support the Administration in court if the Georgia Aquarium challenges this decision. To challenge such a decision (made in the interests of sustaining the whale population) would be a shocking act for any institution claiming to support aquatic life and ecosystems. Today we have a true victory for beluga whales and for the environment to cherish and, if necessary, to defend.

Congratulations to all of our courageous plaintiffs and hardworking team members, particularly our leading animal welfare expert and co-counsel Joan Schaffner. Many of our plaintiffs have been working for years — tirelessly monitoring the situation and objecting through the administrative process. Thank you for your commitment and dedication on behalf of these magnificent creatures. Tyler Sniff also deserves a great deal of praise for his coordination of the plaintiffs and extraordinary research and drafting work on our planned filings. Finally, thanks again to NMFS, NOAA, and the Obama Administration.

Jonathan Turley

Here is the letter denying the permit: NMFS GA_denial_letter_final

33 thoughts on “A Whale of a Decision: The Obama Administration Turns Down Georgia Aquarium’s Permit On Whale Importation

  1. A Whale of a decision…indeed!

    ‘Blackfish’: The troubled lives of captive killer whales
    A review of “Blackfish,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s often-shocking documentary that reveals the dark side of keeping orca whales in captivity.
    By Moira Macdonald
    Seattle Times movie critic

    “When you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home,” says a professor and former whale trainer in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s often-shocking documentary “Blackfish,” speaking of the intelligence and personality of captive killer whales. Later in the film, they’re called something else: ticking time bombs.

    Prompted by the 2010 death of SeaWorld orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, “Blackfish” looks at the history of killer whales in captivity but focuses primarily on one: Tilikum, a male orca captured in 1982 and subsequently involved in the deaths of three people at marine theme parks. “He’s killing because he’s frustrated and has no outlet,” says an expert in the film. The whale was separated from his family, held captive in tiny pools, left for long periods without stimulation or exercise, attacked by other theme-park whales establishing dominance, forced to perform “behaviors” for food — all of which left him, the film argues, psychotic.

    Tilikum isn’t the only captive whale who’s killed or injured a trainer — we see a long list of incidents, and some harrowing footage of near-fatal whale/trainer interaction (thankfully, we’re not shown any fatal incidents) — but his story provides the film’s backbone, as it unfolds like a nearly unbearable thriller. We hear emergency-call transcripts of Brancheau’s death (“A whale has eaten one of the trainers!,” says someone, barely able to get the words out), and listen as a parade of former SeaWorld trainers discuss their now-troubled relationship with their past work. One watches a clip of herself at a SeaWorld show — announcing cheerily that “Namu is doing this because he wants to!” — and cringes.

    Blackfish – Official Trailer

  2. This is good news, indeed. It is the public that motivates aquariums to purchase these mammals. If the public understood the trauma, and harm done to the species, they might stop patronizing such places.

  3. Hooray JT. Now maybe we can keep Sea World from acquiring any more whales and finally close it down.

  4. The Atlanta aquarium is an odd one. it’s more about spectacle than anything educational (precious little interpretive material). And very expensive. It couldn’t happen to a less worthwhile “cultural” institution.

  5. Excellent news, congratulations! Here’s the question I have though, if the whales have been captured what happens to them now? Are they just farmed out elsewhere in the world or killed or ?

  6. Thanks Nal,

    Good for India. I must admit that I do believe dolphins are sentient creature and killing them is therefore probably murder.

  7. I AM STANDING ON MY CHAIR CLAPPING MY HANDS! It makes me so mad when I see a whale put in a Damn tank….so we can point and say look a whale or look a Tiger!

  8. How does the Obama Administration have anything to do with this decision. Really would like to know why/how the president’s administration has been attached to this decision. I am not trying to knock the administration – but also don’t want to attach the administration to this decision if it had nothing to do with it. As far as I understand this NOAA along with help from the PUBLIC helped in this decision. I am only saying this in respect for all the individuals myself included that commented on this request, and the great people that showed up for the meetings.

  9. Years ago, I visited the zoo in Vancouver BC. There was this exhibit with a polar bear. It walked back and forth and once in a while it knocked a beer keg around. If one wants to see wildlife like that one should be content to view it on film or visit. There is something perverse about locking up animals that are used to traveling hundreds of miles, migrating, and representing freedom. Sealand, zoos, and other exhibitions where animals are used for the amusement of bored humans is telling.

  10. Ken I agree I loath zoos and have also always loathed animsl circus acts. The pretense that they serve as education resources slways seemed nonsensical to me.

  11. Always taking the good fight and winning. Congratulations to all who’s efforts led to this victory.

  12. Now someone needs to close down that live-capture Russian group and release the whales back into the wild where they were captured. And while we’re at it, how about getting long-suffering elephants out of zoos and into sanctuaries?

  13. Terran, because the heads of agencies are all appointed. Presidents or their henchmen can and will fire agency heads, or have agency heads fire lower level dissidents/managers (components of an agency) or not-team-players, when they become inconvenient. They even fire special prosecutors mid-investigation.

    For whatever reason, possibly having nothing to do with the whales, a decision was made to deny the application. Or, the issue wasn’t of enough importance to oppose it. Or the administration wanted to follow the best and most humane advice of its experts. The Administration extends beyond the White House.

    Thank you Tarran for your effort and all of the others that commented and worked to make this possible. This posting by the Professor is the first I have heard about this situation and I’m glad it resolved in your favor and may have started a change if the US policy regarding Cetaceans.

  14. Nice work Professor. Now if wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you do something about getting protections for grey wolves reinstated.

  15. Fantastic News – Great Job to those who worked on this cause!!! May it be the first of many many victories!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. Excellent news for the whales, but please don’t credit the Obaminations. If there was anything in it or them they would have signed the permit in a heartbeat.

  17. Already left a comment trying to indicate the description of this article is indeed false. Obama Administration had NOTHING to do with this – the statements here are mis-representing all the TRUE people involved in giving proper information to NOAA. Although the administration appointed someone to manage NOAA – that was only 4 years ago. By all accounts – and their is proof. Obama does not understand the plight of captured cetaceans. I reference the visit of Obama taking his daughters to the dolphinarium in Hawaii – and them swimming with the dolphins. The goes against all the beliefs of us fighting the captivity industry.

    I completely dislike the representation as being misleading and self-serving of this article pointing to Obama administration deciding not to import.

    WE as the people of United State – must always be diligent and hold our representatives accountable.

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