The U.S. Is Taking A Major Step Toward Ending Beluga Whale Captivity

The U.S. may outlaw the import of some threatened beluga whales residing in Russian waters, NOAA announced Tuesday.

Under the proposal from NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. would use the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to designate belugas living in the Sea of Okhotsk on Russia’s Pacific coast as “depleted,” or below their optimum sustainable population. Such a designation would make it illegal to import any of these belugas into the U.S. for the purpose of public display.

“NOAA Fisheries is responsible for protecting whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions and, as necessary, taking measures to restore these species and stocks to their sustainable populations,” NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Connie Barclay told The Huffington Post.

Since 1992, the whales in this region have been the only regular source of belugas caught for public display around the world, according to the Animal Welfare Institute, one of the conservation groups that petitioned the U.S. for better protections for the animals. According to the group, the beluga population in the area is currently below 60 percent of its historic size.

If the proposal is approved after a 60-day public comment period, it will mark the first time the U.S. has used the MMPA to declare a marine mammal population living entirely in foreign waters as depleted, Barclay said.

That’s a big deal, conservationists say.

“This is definitely a precedent-setting decision,” Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, told HuffPost over email. “While of course the MMPA has no jurisdiction in foreign waters, if this population of belugas is in fact designated as depleted, then the relevant US agency now has a tool to use to approach the Russian government and offer assistance, expertise, and ideas to recover this population.”

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