Discovery Channel is focused on Shark Week right now, but a prominent animal-rights group is all about whales as it celebrates success in an effort to stop the import of 18 belugas for display at a U.S. aquarium.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its decision on Monday, denying the first application in more than 20 years to import wild marine mammals. The action drew applause from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which had pressed for the denial along with actress Kim Basinger.

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service determined that the import operation, requested by Georgia Aquarium, would run afoul of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The park has 60 days to appeal the decision in U.S. District Court.

(Courtesy of NOAA) (Courtesy of NOAA)

In a statement on Tuesday, PETA framed the issue as a matter of constitutional rights, saying the decision “marks the beginning of the end for wretched exhibition of enslaved whales.” PETA has also filed a lawsuit against Sea World that claims the marine-mammal park has denied Thirteenth Amendment rights to orcas.

The Thirteenth Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

A federal judge ruled last year in the Sea World case that whales do not have the same constitutional rights as humans, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

Georgia Aquarium argued in a response to public comments that marine-protection laws allow for public exhibits with ocean-dwelling mammals. “Individuals opposed to public display should direct their comments to Congress, not [NOAA fisheries], with respect to this permit application.”

In denying the Georgia Aquarium application, NOAA said it could not determine whether the importation would have a significant negative impact on the Sakhalin-Amur whale stock; that the operation would “likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit;” and that five of the belugas may have still been nursing at the time of their capture.

The whales were captured from the Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011. Georgia Aquarium sought to import the whales from Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia.

NOAA said its decision was partly based on a determination that Russian capture operations could place additional strain on the beluga population. “The ongoing live-capture trade since 1989 may have contributed to a cumulative decline over the past two decades, and we considered this in combination with other past, present, and foreseeable future actions,” the agency said in a statement.

Beluga whales are migratory animals that hunt and swim in groups of 10 to several hundred in arctic and subarctic waters. Their biggest threats include collisions with ships, pollution, habitat destruction and entanglement in fishing gear, according to NOAA.

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