It 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.
A 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.
Here is the letter denying the permit: NMFS GA_denial_letter_final