ATLANTA (AP) -- The Georgia Aquarium said it filed a complaint Monday in federal court in Atlanta seeking to overturn the denial of its application to import beluga whales from Russia.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries denied the aquarium's application in August. The aquarium's lawyers write in the court filing that they are bringing the complaint under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and they ask a judge to order that a permit be issued as soon as possible.
Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries, formerly known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, said Monday evening in an email that the agency was just finding out about the complaint and would need to review it before commenting. But the agency did express concern about the circumstances of the whales' capture when they denied the permit.
"The Georgia Aquarium clearly worked hard to follow the required process and submit a thorough application, and we appreciate their patience and cooperation as we carefully considered this case," Sam Rauch, acting assistant NOAA Fisheries administrator, said in a statement at the time. "However, under the strict criteria of the law, we were unable to determine if the import of these belugas, combined with the active capture operation in Russia and other human activities, would have an adverse impact on this stock of wild beluga whales."
Officials said they also learned that five whales that were proposed for importation were less than 2 years old when they were captured between 2006 and 2011. The younger whales may still be nursing and are not yet independent, officials said.
The aquarium applied in June 2012 to import 18 whales as part of an initiative aimed at improving the genetic diversity of belugas living in American captivity. Georgia Aquarium zoologists say that will help ensure the sustainability of this population for decades.
"Maintaining and studying sustainable, genetically diverse populations of marine mammals in accredited zoos and aquariums is essential to raise public awareness, foster connections and generate insights that sustain conservation-dependent species such as belugas," Brian Davis, vice president of education and training at the Georgia Aquarium, said in a statement.
The 18 belugas originate from the Sea of Okhotsk in northern Russia and were collected by scientists there in 2006, 2010 and 201. They currently live in the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia. If the permit is granted, they would be brought to accredited zoos and aquariums in the U.S.