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ATLANTA (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday blocked the importation of 18 captured beluga whales from Russia in a decision considered a victory for U.S. wildlife regulators and conservation groups.
The ruling prevents the captured whales from being brought to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and other facilities nationally that hoped acquire them, including SeaWorld parks.
"This is good news for whale conservation worldwide," said Tyler Sniff, an attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute, a group that joined with U.S. regulators in objecting to the importation.
The aquarium sued the government in September 2013 for the right to acquire the whales, captured in 2006 off the coast of northern Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk and currently in the care of Russian scientists.
The Georgia Aquarium had no immediate comment, but said through a spokesperson that it was reviewing the decision.
The case was heard in August 2014 and again last month before U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, who issued a written ruling denying the importation of the whales.
Aquarium officials previously said importing the whales would help promote education and conservation of the animals. The federal government contended that the trade of live whales depleted their population.
Totenberg noted in a strongly worded ruling that the aquarium had accused a division of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries service of "'cooking the books' to fabricate its rationale," for denying the permit.
She compared the aquarium's arguments to "something from a Russian spy novel" and noted that "beyond all the smoke and mirrors, Georgia Aquarium's arguments boil down to an attempt to shift the burden of proof to (the government)."
Sniff said that the aquarium had the right to appeal.
The whales will remain in the custody of the Russians, who will control their destiny, he noted.
"For now, the whales aren't coming to America," Sniff added.
Belugas, or white whales, normally live in Arctic or sub-Arctic waters and are classified as endangered in some areas and as "near threatened" worldwide, according to the Georgia Aquarium.
Editing by Letitia Stein and Sandra Maler