We have just heard that the Russian government has issued a statement indicating that they will likely move soon to release 11 orcas and 87 beluga whales from sea pens, where they have been kept captive in the east coast Bay of Srednyya, south of Vladivostok, since being caught last summer in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk.
Originally, these animals were caught by four Russian companies (that are linked, according to reports) for sale to aquariums in China. The government declared the permits issued to be illegal and blocked the sale and export to China, and have further denied issuing new permits to capture cetaceans in 2019.
The International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) of Earth Island Institute has been working with Russian conservationists on the problem of captures of wild orcas and beluga whales for captivity for several years.
“Through hard work in Russia and around the world, the illegal captures of orcas and belugas being held in Russia have been stopped and their sale to China cancelled.” stated David Phillips, Director of IMMP. “Now the final critical step of returning this huge group of orcas and belugas to the ocean is looking likely to proceed. This would be a spectacular breakthrough, ending a cruel and calamitous capture operation.”
Russian conservationists have worked to release the orcas and beluga whales in Russia's "Whale Prison", as well as blocking new captures for the captivity trade. Here, an art installation protesting the captured orcas. Question still remain about how to go about freeing the 11 orcas and 87 beluga whales in inadequate and crowded sea pens.
The Head of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Dmitry Kobylkin, made the announcement on Friday, Feb. 8th.
Mr. Kobylkin stated: “We have done a lot of work with various departments. The attention of caring public, ecologists, residents of the region was very import. Today, there is every reason to assert that the release of marine mammals – hostages of the situation in the Bay of Srednyya in Primorsky Krai, will occur in the very near future. The interdepartmental working group, together with experts, scientists will give an opinion on the phasing of the release after examination of the animals.”
The inspections will take place by the State Inspectors of Rosprirodnadzor (The Federal Service for Supervision of Use of Natural Resources), together with representatives of the Amur Basin Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, the Investigative Committee for the Khabarovsk Territory and experts from research institutes.
It is not clear yet whether Western scientists and experts might be brought in to consult with Russian government scientists, as generally Russians have little experience with live release of captive cetaceans.
IMMP coordinated a January 31st letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin signed by Jean-Michele Cousteau, Dr. Roger Payne, Charles Vinick and IMMP Director David Phillips, offering to help the Russian government free the whales, as all of the signers worked with Keiko, the orca whale and star of the hit movie “Free Willy”, to successfully return him to the wild in Iceland.
Nor is it clear just how the releases will be done. In addition to cuts and scarring from ice damage and frostbite visible on orcas in the sea pens, some of the beluga whales were not weaned when they were captured and may still be dependent on milk. The quality of the water in the sea pens is quite poor, showing high bacterial counts and over-crowding. So some of the whales may not be able to be released, but it is unclear what is to be done with them until they can be rehabilitated, given the poor quality of the sea pen facility. See: http://savedolphins.eii.org/news/entry/first-photos-and-inspection-of-russias-whale-prison-raises-alarm
The companies that caught the whales are in trouble with Russian prosecutors. Cetaceans can be kept in captivity in Russia only for purposes of scientific research and public education, not sale to China. And a second case is reportedly being opened over the degraded water quality found in the sea pens.
IMMP and our Russian colleagues will continue to push for an end to the captivity trade of wild orcas and beluga whales in Russia and urge the government to release the animals currently in the “whale prison” as soon as possible.
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