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Commerce secretary sued in plan to move whales for research

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FILE - In this Feb. 28, 2015 file photo, a visitor views a beluga whale at the Mystic Seaport Aquarium, in Mystic, Conn. Animal rights advocates have filed a lawsuit in an effort to stop the aquarium from acquiring five more beluga whales for research, saying they would be harmed by the long voyage and losing their relationships with other belugas they've lived with at an aquarium in Canada. (Gregory Payan via AP,File)

HARTFORD, Conn. – An animals rights group is suing in federal court to stop a Connecticut aquarium from acquiring five more beluga whales for research, saying they would be harmed by the trip from Canada and by being torn from long-term relationships with others of their species.

Friends of Animals, based in Darien, Connecticut, filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which approved the research permit that allows Mystic Aquarium to import the belugas from Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Mystic Aquarium is already home to three beluga whales, which are known for their white color and vocal sounds. In Mystic, they live in a 750,000-gallon outdoor habitat that the aquarium calls the largest in the United States. The five whales in Canada were born in captivity.

Aquarium officials say the permit is the first of its kind and will allow them to conduct noninvasive research that is vital to help boost endangered and depleted beluga whale populations.

Friends of Animals is suing over the granting of the research permit, which the group claims violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Protection Act because government officials did not adequately address the potential harm to the belugas of being moved to Mystic.

“Moving these belugas inflicts two distinct traumas on them,” the group said in a statement. “It tears them away from deep familial and social relationships that they have formed with the dozens of other belugas at Marineland, and the long and foreign voyage on trucks and airplanes emotionally and psychologically scars them.”

Stephen Hernick, a lawyer for Friends of Animals, added, "Not only is it unprecedented for the government to issue a permit to import members of a depleted species of belugas for purported research, it is illegal.”

Friends of Animals says research on belugas can be done in the wild, which is happening in waters off Alaska, where the population is critically endangered. That research is being led by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The NOAA is overseen by the Commerce Department.