ATLANTA — The Georgia Aquarium has lost a legal battle to import 18 beluga whales from Russia, a federal judge ruled Monday.

The aquarium sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in September 2013 after the federal agency refused to grant a permit to import the whales. U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg said in a 100-page ruling that the agency properly reviewed the aquarium’s permit application through the lens of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The 1972 law prohibits the capture of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens elsewhere and generally doesn’t allow the import of marine mammals, although there are some exceptions, including one that allows animals to be imported for public display.

The aquarium, which has said the whales are needed to strengthen the gene pool of whales in captivity in the U.S. and for research, argued the agency’s denial of its permit application was arbitrary and capricious.

The 18 belugas are from the Sea of Okhotsk in northern Russia and were collected by scientists there in 2006, 2010 and 2011.

They currently live in the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia. Some of the whales would have lived at the Georgia Aquarium while others would have been loaned to aquariums in Chicago and Connecticut and Sea World facilities in Florida, Texas and California.

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