Showdown coming Friday in Georgia Aquarium’s fight to import whales

Georgia Aquarium on Friday will take on a federal agency as well as a group of world-renowned environmentalists and celebrity activists, as it argues its case for importing 18 beluga whales from Russia.

In 2013, the Aquarium sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service for blocking the plan to bring the whales here. A U.S. district judge Friday will hear arguments from both sides.

Allied with the government is a formidable coalition. Members are Dr. Jane Goodall of the Goodall Institute; oceanographic explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, marine biologists Sylvia Earle, Ingrid Visser and Janet Mann; environmental lawyer Tim Eichenberg; dolphin expert Dr. Denise Herzing; neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino; Charles Vinick of the Ocean Futures Society and Dr. Masha Vorontsova of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Also in the group are  actors Kim Basinger, Edward Norton, Hayden Panettiere, Shannen Doherty and Fisher Stevens; marine photographer Bob Talbot; filmmakers Gabriela Cowperthwaite and Louie Psihoyos; and magician David Blaine.

Beluga whale Maris and her calf were among the belugas already on display at the Georgia Aquarium. The calf later died.

Beluga whale Maris and her calf were among the belugas already on display at the Georgia Aquarium. The calf later died.

They said that the whales have been removed from an already depleted wild population, and that if the aquarium prevails, decades of efforts to protect marine mammals would be threatened. In court filings, they also say that while Georgia Aquarium suggests that belugas in marine parks thrive, it backs that argument by citing an unpublished review paper by a trade organization promoting captive animal displays.

Firing back, the aquarium has said the group is seeking only to capitalize on members’ celebrity status. Its lawsuit, filed in 2013, says that bringing in the whales would help diversify the gene pool and that it sought a permit to bring them in only after sponsoring a multi-year peer-reviewed research program that determined collection of the whales by Russians did not adversely affect the population in the wild.

Federal law, it says in the lawsuit, “recognizes that [public[ display provides an important educational opportunity to inform the public about the esthetic, recreational, and economic significance of marine mammals and their role in the ecosystem.” Its website claims the whales swim carefree at the Georgia-Pacific Cold Water Quest gallery.

Oral arguments are scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. at the Richard B. Russell Building and U.S. Courthouse at 75 Spring Street in Atlanta.


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