It was a blow to the captive display industry and indicates a turning tide in public and governmental attitudes toward keeping such creatures in tanks for human enjoyment.
Limited importation of some wild-captured marine mammals for public display is permitted under US's 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), but this was the first request for import in more than 20yrs (new arrivals in today's aquariums are typically rescued animals or those bred in captivity.).
The US govt ruled "...that the import will likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock...the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorised by the permit... five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approx 1.5yrs old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent."
Most of the 9,000 public submissions were against the importation.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation says, despite what the aquarium and its partners (the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and SeaWorld) say, "...the permit does not support conservation, but rather significantly jeopardises belugas in the wild by perpetuating and instigating ongoing captures for display facilities. Even more appalling, they targeted vulnerable and depleted populations, including nursing mothers and dependent calves."
Georgia Aquarium execs, thinking the permit a done deal, were taken aback. They warned, without presenting any evidence, that this "places the long-term global sustainability of an entire species in limbo. The animals would help ensure the sustainability of beluga whales in human care in the US for the purposes of education, research, and conservation." Riiiiiigghhtt...
What happens next is not clear. The applicants could appeal. Failing that, these gentle white whales (now living at Russia's Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station) may be sold to countries without MMPAs.
But animal welfare activists want them rehabilitated to the wild.