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."
The Animal Welfare Institute -- along with the Cetacean Society International, the Earth Island Institute and Whale and Dolphin Conservation -- has been lobbying NOAA to designate the belugas as "depleted" since 2014, when they submitted a petition to the agency in response to the Atlanta-based Georgia Aquarium's attempt to import 18 of the whales caught in the Sea of Okhotsk in 2012.
A federal appeals court denied the aquarium the necessary import permits in September, 2015, TakePart reported.
The Georgia Aquarium said it does not have any further comment on the case when asked for a reaction to the new proposal.
"We remain interested in the species, however, and will continue to work with Belugas bred in human care," spokesman Martin Gray said. "Georgia Aquarium will no longer take wild caught mammals except in the case of rescued animals which are placed with us by government agencies after they are deemed unsuitable for release."
While the Endangered Species Act offers stronger protections for species facing graver threats, Rose emphasized that it's important to use the MMPA to designate animals as depleted, as it's "helpful for the animals to be offered protections before their situation is dire."
"As we become aware of marine mammal populations and species that meet the criteria for 'depleted,' wherever in the world they may be, we will consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether to file a depleted petition," she said.