Georgia Aquarium prepares for legal battle for importation of Beluga whales

by: Craig Lucie Updated:

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ATLANTA - The Georgia Aquarium is in a legal fight to import 18 Beluga whales from Russia.

Channel 2's Craig Lucie obtained a 64-page lawsuit that the aquarium filed, researchers say it's necessary to import these whales for conservation, education and breeding purposes.

However, the federal agency that approves the importation of marine animals is worried it will affect the Beluga population in the wild.

The Georgia Aquarium currently has four Beluga whales and only some of the Belugas would remain in the Georgia Aquarium tanks. The others would go to aquariums in Chicago, Connecticut and SeaWorld parks throughout the U.S.

"Public display is so important from the standpoint of educating the public. The public has to be able to come to these facilities because it's human nature that things we see and understand are the things that we care about and help to protect and conserve," says Scott Higley with the Georgia Aquarium.

That is one reason why the aquarium would like to import more of the arctic whales that can reach 18 feet in length and weigh more than 3,500 pounds. Another reason the Georgia Aquarium says winning this importation legal fight is to save the Beluga population currently in captivity.

"We are at a crossroads right now because we have an inopportune distribution of ages and sexes, and it's a real possibility that we could lose this population in human care if we don't take some bold action," says Higley.

But it's the population in the wild that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, is worried about.

In a statement to Channel 2 Action News, NOAA says, "they currently reviewing the Aquarium's complaint."

On NOAA's website it says "the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit and there are ongoing, legal marine mammal capture operations in Russia. We believe that issuance of this permit would contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock for the purpose of public display in the U.S. and worldwide, resulting in the future taking of additional belugas from this stock."

NOAA should respond to the complaint in December or early January.