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U.S. Takes Milestone Stance Against Whales In Captivity

When the Georgia Aquarium needed new beluga whales, the 18 belugas caught from the wild waters of Russia between 2006 and 2011 seemed like a great option. When the aquarium ran into problems getting a permit to import the whales, in 2013 it simply decided to sue the U.S. government, claiming it had the right to acquire the whales.

But a federal judge ruled Monday that this was simply not going to happen.

"Like something out of a Russian spy novel ... Georgia Aquarium launched a wholesale attack on NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service), accusing the Agency of 'cooking the books' to fabricate its rationale in a deliberate and conspiratorial effort to deny Georgia Aquarium's import permit," federal judge Amy Totenberg wrote.

The plans had been to use the beluga whales - who were caught in the Sea of Okhotsk and were last reported to be held in Russia's Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station - in a breeding program with SeaWorld, helping to produce more captive belugas for exhibits. But earlier this month, with the court case still pending, SeaWorld reversed its decision to use the belugas. SeaWorld publicly admitted their change in policy, taking a slight stance on wild-caught animals, and animal advocates called the move one of the biggest effects of the 2013 documentary "Blackfish" so far.

"We are thrilled with the court's ruling," said Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). "The MMPA [Marine Mammal Protection Act] was enacted to protect marine mammals from harm and exploitation and that is exactly what it has done in this case. The US will thankfully not be part of the unsustainable and inhumane trade in belugas out of Russia."

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Where it used to be that no one batted an eye about catching intelligent marine mammals from the wild and putting them in tanks, with yesterday's ruling, animal lovers are rejoicing at the change in tide. "This is good news for whale conservation worldwide," Tyler Sniff, an attorney for AWI, told Reuters.

While the Georgia Aquarium can still appeal the case, the 18 beluga whales will remain in Russia - for now.