ATLANTA - A US court hearing on the fate of 18 beluga whales captured in Russia is expected on Friday to pit federal regulators against the Georgia aquarium seeking to bring them to the United States.
US environmental officers have said that moving the whales to the United States would hasten the depletion of the wild beluga whale population and violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which is suing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries service, says that its efforts will help the beluga whales.
Also known as white whales, belugas normally swim in Arctic or sub-Arctic waters and are classified as endangered in some areas and as "near threatened" worldwide, according to the Georgia Aquarium.
Aquarium lawyers told the US district court in Atlanta that marine biologists will study the whales, and their public display will promote public education and conservation efforts.
The aquarium sued the government in September 2013 for the right to acquire the whales, which were captured in 2006 off the coast of northern Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk and are currently in the care of Russian scientists.
This will be the second time the case has appeared before US District Judge Amy Totenberg, who last August heard arguments when the aquarium sought access to internal government documents that led up to the denial of its permit.
Up until March 2013, the project seemed to have been given the green light from NOAA, according to court documents filed by the aquarium. The judge has not yet issued a ruling.
If the aquarium, which already has three belugas, succeeds in bringing the whales to the United States, some would remain in Atlanta on display and the others would go to marine facilities across the country including SeaWorld parks and other aquariums, the permit application said.
SeaWorld has come under scrutiny for its killer whale shows.
Scott Higley, a spokesperson for Georgia Aquarium said "the decision will be based on what is best for the collective beluga population in accredited facilities in North America. They will only go to accredited facilities that already care for belugas." Two baby beluga whales born at the aquarium have died since 2012, although their deaths have not been raised as an issue in the case.
If the permit is denied, the whales' fate would remain in the hands of Russia. No final court decision is expected for several months