There have been several important developments in the race to find a solution to the problem of 87 beluga whales and 11 orcas now kept in a Russian “whale prison”.
The whales were captured for sale to Chinese aquariums for a life of captivity to entertain tourists, but Russian authorities have determined the permits for the capture were illegal, refused to issue export permits, and ruled out issuing new capture permits for 2019.
However, the Russian government has not taken any action so far to return the orcas and beluga whales to their home pods. Meanwhile, the current sea pen conditions are harmful to the whales. Some of the orcas are showing signs of frostbite and cuts due to sharp ice that forms in the sea pens, and reportedly one orca has “run away,” likely meaning it died and has been disposed of. High levels of bacteria have also been detected, which further threatens the health of the over-crowded beluga whales and orcas.
In another ominous development, the Russian Pacific Fisheries Research Center (TINRO) has announced they are considering capture quotas for live orcas for the summer of 2020. They claim that up to eight orcas “could” be captured without harm to the population, despite limited knowledge of how many orcas live in the area and that all of the orcas caught last summer were from mammal-eating populations of orcas, notoriously difficult to keep in captivity.
The Russian Council on Marine Mammals, following a detailed inspection of the facility, has recommended several important steps that need to be taken immediately for the orcas and beluga whales. They are recommending that the enclosure pens be significantly enlarged, especially for the crowded beluga whales. They also recommend more insulation and heating of the pens, to prevent the pens from freezing over.
Furthermore, the Council stated (as reported by Interfax.russia): “We need to take complete and sufficient measures to limit animal contact with people, and ensure compliance with the legal requirements for hygiene (i.e. sanitation, disinfection, etc.) and organize regular sampling to monitor the animals' health.” If, as hoped, the whales are to be released later in their home waters (which are currently covered with ice), human contact should be minimized. IMMP generally supports this approach, although we believe that reducing human contact should be commensurate to the best interests of the animals and planning for release, understanding that the plan must be flexible according to the needs of the animals and individual variations in care and training.
On a positive note, the Council stated: "This circumstances here make it possible to unequivocally declare the possibility of successfully releasing killer whales and belugas into the wild— if this work is performed by qualified and recognized specialists with practical experience who have sufficient resources on hand for this action.”
However, the Russian government is so far balking at taking action. Some bureaucrats are reportedly claiming that, among other things, the government cannot act to seize the whales or the facility from the owners without a court ruling, which could take months. One Russian official wrongly claims the effort to free the whales is because the United States wants to corner the global market in live orcas and beluga whales for export. This is false – there are no plans nor is it legal to capture these cetaceans in US waters without an elaborate permit process that would likely fail.
Russian conservation groups, working with the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) of Earth Island Institute and other organizations, believe there are more direct ways for the government to take action, rather then relying on the slow court system. IMMP also supports involvement of the NGOs in Russia along with Russian scientists and outside experts for return of the animals to their home pods.
It is not clear if experts from other countries who have direct experience in releasing captive orcas and other cetaceans will be brought into Russia for consultation. The International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) of Earth Island Institute, along with Jean Michel Cousteau and Dr. Roger Payne, have offered our expertise gained during the rehab and release of Keiko, the orca star of “Free Willy.” Keiko is the only captive orca ever rehabilitated and released back into his home waters.
In a word, different branches of the Russian government are saying different things, but action eludes them.
UPDATE: Some Good Rumblings from Russian Ministry of Natural Resources & Environment, posted on their Facebook Page:
Monday 10.10am from the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment
There is a mandate to decide the fate of the whales! Dmitry Kobylkin (the Minister of Natural Resources) held an inter-Ministerial meeting to decide on the fate of the belugas and orcas that are currently being held captive in Srednyaya Bay in the Russian Far East.
Today, on 25 February, there was a workshop at the ministry offices to determine what kind of procedural action should be taken for these marine mammals, which are illegally and temporarily held in Srednyaya Bay in Primorski Territory.
The group attending the workshop included
• the Director of a special department in the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources: Alexey Titovskij
• the Head of Rosprirodnadzor (the Russian State Agency for Monitoring Nature): Svetlana Radionova
• the Director of the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture: Evgeny Katz
• the Deputy Head of the national program known as “Beluga-White Whale”: Dmitry Glazov
• the Head of the Federal Scientific Center on Biodiversity (known as the Ecology Institute): Alexander Sorokin
• various representatives from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Russian Fisheries Agency.
Together they expressed their positions on the possible release of the whales into their natural habitats.
The Russian Minister of Natural Resources addressed the participants of the workshop, and pointed out that a Special Investigative Committee has already brought forward a criminal case and submitted it to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to determine the illegality of the original whale capture last year. In addition the Russian State Agency for Monitoring Nature (Rosprirodnadzor) has also initiated administrative proceedings regarding the manner in which the whales are presently being held in Srednyaya Bay, including possible failure to complete an environmental impact statement for the construction of the facility in question, and the failure to comply with other laws related to the release of untreated pollutants into a water resource.
Science-based findings are now needed to make a final decision on the return of the orcas and belugas to their natural habitat.
During the discussion, there were many different points of view that were aired. But all the government representatives present were unanimous in their conclusion that further harm should be minimized for the animals—by either returning them to their natural environment, or by transferring them to specially-built facilities that can properly handle the animals.
The positions of various experts will continue to be analyzed—including any recommendations that may arise during the criminal case that is now being processed for “lifting the restrictions on the animals.” Collective action should also be taken to develop a "Road Map”— with a full description of all measures needed to be taken to adapt and return the marine mammals to their natural habitat.
In addition, as a result of this meeting, official instructions were issued to strengthen the state regime for overseeing the conservation of aquatic biological resources within the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, and within Rosprirodnadzor. Both agencies are mandated to return to the issue of developing rules for marine mammals held in captivity.
Mr. Kobylkin made the following statement: “Our position has not changed. Illegally caught animals need to be freed from these unsuitable holding pens—and this should be done in a way that is based on scientific experience. We can't make any mistakes in this. This issue lies at the crux of how multiple state agencies and departments need to share certain responsibilities. Hopefully, we will find the ideal solution together. The President of the country is in control of the situation."
We should finally note that the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources is presently looking into the question of whether carnivorous (i.e., non-fish-eating) killer whales should be included onto the Russian Red Book list of endangered animals.
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