In August and September of 2018, a crew of seven brave Russian individuals from Sakhalin set out on an expedition to document orca captures for captivity from Russian seas. The month-long expedition, organized by Ocean Friends, centered around Nicholay Bay where these captures take place.
“Russia is the only country in the world that still captures orcas for captivity,” said Vyacheslav Kozlov, the leader of the expedition. “Quotas for 13 orcas have been issued this year… And most of them, if not all of them, will be sold to foreign countries, like China.”
According to their press release, Ocean Friends encountered a wild female orca with a radio tag in her dorsal fin during their expedition. It remains unknown whether this tag was installed legally, whether it was for scientific research or – most troublingly – potentially to help facilitate future captures from the pod. If the latter is true, this is bad news for the wild orcas.
Four organizations have reportedly obtained permits from the Russian government to capture orcas this year, something that is only allowed under Russian law for scientific or educational purposes. However, as Ocean Friends point out, there seems to be little scientific or educational value with capturing orcas and belugas and selling them to other countries. Over the last five years, fifteen orcas and an astonishing 200 belugas have been captured in Russia and sold to Chinese aquariums.
We caught up with team members from the Boomerang Club, founder of Ocean Friends, to ask them about their experience, what they witnessed, and what can be done about this tragic situation.
Can you give us a brief update on what’s happened?
Our Boomerang Club crew just spent a full month traveling to (and around) the Shantar Islands—which are located in the Sea of Okhotsk. By the end of August we had witnessed the capture of 9 killer whales. We have since been told that most (if not all) of these whales will end up in China. However we also have heard that one or several may be sent to the Moscow aquarium (called the Mosquarium).
What has the opposition from the orca hunters been like? Do you know who they are working for?
During our expedition we came across four separate crews that were actively trying to hunt and capture whales. Every one of these boat crews conducted themselves very aggressively towards us (but admittedly they did not “cross the line” and become too violent). They did try to shoot down our camera-drones; and they also made repeated verbal threats, including threats to shoot us, towards our team. Several times they tried to swamp our boats by maneuvering dangerously close to our smaller vessels with their ships. They also raided our private onshore campsite one day, when we were out filming on the open ocean; and in so doing they stole or ruined a lot of our equipment, and left our camp in shambles. In the end, however, there were no physical attacks on our persons.
Can you describe the process of how these orcas are being caught?
On one of the days in which they were out trying to capture whales, we witnessed the following: in a small inlet that feeds out into the larger Constantine Bay, there was a small pod of five whales near to shore. There was a larger capture boat that dropped anchor at the entrance to this inlet. They had placed two catamarans with a long net between them at the outlet to the small bay—after which four smaller speed boats chased after the animals and herded several whales into the nets. The catamarans then drew a circle around the captured whales and cut off their escape.
Is there a relationship between humans and this population of orcas / are there any locals who are opposed to what’s going on?
This is kind of hard to answer. This part of Russia is almost completely empty—there are no villages or people anywhere near to where they capture these whales. Nevertheless, in the nearest towns that are located many hundreds of miles away along the Russian Pacific, the public attitude towards capturing marine mammals is quite negative. We’ve seen a lot of people speak out at various forums and other public gatherings here in Russia. In all honesty, however, our anti-capture movement here in Russia is really in its infancy. We are only at the stage of educating the public about this issue, and explaining why it may be important.
Tell us about the Ocean Friends: Why have you come together and what are your goals?
Our Friends of the Ocean group is united by one common goal: to help protect and preserve our local marine mammal species. Before this summer we had never heard of any effort by anyone to openly monitor the way in which whales are captured here in the Russian Pacific. So when it was officially announced that permits had been issued to take 13 killer whales this year, we decided that we could not sit on our hands any longer, and do nothing this time around!
What is the political climate? Is the anti-captivity movement gaining any momentum in Russia?
As we mentioned above, there is a movement already afoot—but it is still rather undeveloped and mostly disjointed from region to region. It is only now taking shape—but without a real larger plan of action. As for the political climate, it’s all rather complicated. The people or companies who run the capture boats have publicly accused us of working directly for the American government. However, it is encouraging that our Russian border guards (the equivalent to your Coast Guard) have been listening to our pleas, and taking on our evidence, and are now actually taking these “whale-capturing” companies to court!
What can people do to support your mission?
We are asking local people to come out and volunteer with our Club, and work on our various monitoring and other teams. We also need to find a way to connect with activists and other public representatives in China, as well as with lawyers here in Russia who can help us fight against these actions in court. And of course we always need more material support for our work here on Sakhalin Island.
Visit the Ocean Friends' Facebook page to stay up-to-date.