Beluga whale, ©NOAA

Court Takes a Stand for Marine Mammals

Recently, an important decision came out of the federal district court for the Northern District of Georgia. A federal judge upheld the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) decision to deny a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales into the U.S. for display at the Georgia Aquarium. This decision is a victory for Defenders and our allies, who joined the case as a “friend of the court” to support the agency’s decision. The verdict not only sets a meaningful precedent for marine mammal protection, but also allows the U.S. to take a stand against a trade doing serious damage to an imperiled group of whales.

Too many captures spell trouble for “canaries of the sea”

“Beluga” comes from the Russian word for white. Although white is a unique color for whales, it is helpful in camouflaging belugas in their icy habitat, which spans the coastal waters of Canada, Alaska, Russia, Norway, and Greenland. Beluga whales are built for frigid water, withstanding water temperatures in the 30s and 40s thanks to their impressive layer of fat, up to six inches thick. Instead of a dorsal fin, beluga whales have a dorsal ridge, which helps them conserve heat and enables them to break through ice to reach the surface for air. The species’ bulbous forehead comes from the “melon,” a malleable organ used in echolocation, functioning in concert with the whales’ acute sense of hearing and varied vocal repertoire. Also known as “canaries of the sea,” belugas squeak, squeal, click, and whistle to communicate, displaying highly intelligent and social behaviors.

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The 18 whales in this case are from western Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk. The group of whales there is known as the Sakhalin-Amur population, the Russian cousins of Alaska’s Cook Inlet belugas. In the early 1900s, beluga whales in this population were hunted by the thousands. Though the hunting has ceased, Sakhalin-Amur belugas still face many threats, especially from human activities. Climate change, oil and gas development, chemical and noise pollution, and overfishing in the region – leaving less prey for the belugas – are all challenges for this population. But the greatest threat to these belugas comes from commercial captures. These operations take live belugas from the wild, maintaining a trade that the population cannot sustain; the whales can also be injured or killed during capture. Today the Sakhalin-Amur population has declined to about 3,961 whales, less than a third of its historic abundance of 13,000-15,000 animals.

Court backs NMFS’ decision to promote marine mammal conservation

Beluga whale pod in the Chukchi sea, ©NOAAIn June 2012, the Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia for public display. In August 2013, NMFS denied the permit because the Aquarium failed to prove that taking these whales from the wild did not harm the wild population, and that if these 18 whales were imported, the company selling them would not simply capture more wild belugas to keep up its supply. The Georgia Aquarium challenged the agency’s decision in court, but it was clear NMFS had made the right call.

On September 28, the court upheld the agency’s decision because:

  • Removing 18 whales from the wild would, individually or in combination with other activities, significantly harm the population. The Sakhalin-Amur stock of beluga whales continues to decline, threatened by many human activities in addition to the ongoing commercial capture operation.
  • Importing these 18 beluga whales could lead to more wild captures, perpetuating commerce in the species and potentially injuring or killing belugas.
  • Several of the whales proposed for import were only 1.5 years old when caught. Beluga calves depend on their mothers for their first three years, and nurse for at least two years. The MMPA does not allow nursing calves to be captured and imported for display.

The ruling came as great news for Defenders’ legal and policy team. We work under the MMPA to protect species like North Atlantic right whales and manatees. Our Alaska office has a long history of working to protect the endangered Cook Inlet population of beluga whales. We’re thrilled to see this law we rely on continue to be successful in conserving marine mammal species, each of which has a vital role to play in our oceans.

Our international team works to combat wildlife trafficking and decrease the United States’ nearly unrivaled consumer demand for wildlife and wildlife products. This case shines a spotlight on another side of this issue: the impacts of legal wildlife trade. Granting this permit would have sent a signal that wild-caught belugas are in demand, leading to more captures that the population cannot support. Instead, this decision sends a strong message that the U.S. should not be in the business of a trade that undermines the survival of a species in the wild. Like the other wildlife species we fight to protect, beluga whales need to be conserved in their natural habitat. With this NMFS decision, as upheld in federal court, the U.S. has set an example on marine mammal protection that we hope will inspire other countries to follow.

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