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Is a good outcome possible for the jailed whales in Russia?

It’s not often that we report good news from Russia about whales and dolphins. We have been fighting for many years to end the capture of orcas and belugas from Russian waters for the aquarium trade. The bad news continued in 2018, as dozens of whales were illegally incarcerated in holding pens in Srednyaya Bay in Nakhodka after being captured in the Okhotsk Sea in Far East Russia. Pictures of this appalling facility flooded news feeds and it was quickly named the ‘Whale Jail’.

But there have been a number of reports coming out of Russia over the last six months that have has given us cause for hope. In October, the Russian Far Eastern mammal-eating population of orcas were included in the ‘Red Book’ for Kamchatka, a list of species that should benefit from protection from human-induced threats in the region, where the WDC-affiliated Far East Russia Orca Project has been studying orca populations for many years. Not only should this listing offer protection to this population from captures, but it is finally official recognition of the existence of separate fish and mammal-eating populations of orcas in Russian waters, who should not all be considered as one inter-breeding population when considerations about human impacts on them like live captures are being considered by Russian officials.

Then in November, we learned that the Russian government was not going to approve live captures of orcas and belugas in 2019, meaning no captures this year. At the same time we learned that exports of orcas and belugas captured in Russian waters would not be permitted. This really is great news as Russia were exporting a lot of whales. Between 2010 and 2017, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species reports the export of 220 belugas from Russia to China. WDC’s own figures report the export of 15 orcas from Russia to China in the same time period. Hundreds of other whale and dolphin individuals held in China’s burgeoning number of dolphinariums have come from the drive hunts in Taiji, Japan.

A jailed orca breaches in her tiny jail cell
A jailed orca breaches in her tiny cell

And what of the 87 belugas and 10 orcas still held in horrifying conditions in makeshift holding pens in Srednyaya Bay? WDC scientists signed onto a letter sent to President Putin in March, calling for access to be given to whale experts from Russia and overseas to assess the whales and determine their suitability for rehabilitation and release. A team of scientists including Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famous Jacques Cousteau and a marine biologist himself, was subsequently invited to do just that, concluding that with the right kind of rehabilitation and a robust plan, the whales could be successfully returned to the waters in which they were captured with success. An agreement was signed by Governor Oleg N. Kozhemyako of Russia's Primorsky Region, Jean-Michel Cousteau and Charles Vinick of the Whale Sanctuary Project, to begin the process of evaluating them to determine when and how to release them.

We thus held our breath awaiting the response to the plan from the Ministry of Natural Resources. It came, but with disappointing news, in a Ministry press release on May 15th, announcing their decision to fast track the release of the orcas in late May-early June, but not back into their home waters, but instead directly from Srednyaya Bay where they are held, far from home. Plans were less clear for the belugas, although it was suggested a ’first batch’ of three or four belugas could be transported to the Sea of Okhotsk in summer 2019.

Orcas are crammed together in sickening conditions
Orcas are crammed together in sickening conditions

The response from the Cousteau team has been swift, with an immediate statement urging the government to reconsider this release plan for the orcas and instead allow sufficient time for the whales’ behavior to be re-conditioned for life in the wild. They urge the need for detailed health assessments and for the necessary rehabilitation to begin immediately, while plans are made to return the whales to where they were captured, where there are whales that they know and appropriate food sources. We await further response from the Ministry.

It will take a great deal of money and human resources to rehabilitate and return the orcas and belugas to their natural habitat, but with the Russian government’s commitment and a worldwide effort to find the necessary funds, it is hoped this can be achieved. In a further positive step, in April, VNIRO, Russia’s Federal Research Institute for Fisheries and Oceanography, decided not to include orcas in their capture assessment for 2020, meaning there will be no orcas captures in 2020 either. We seem to be so close to ending live whale captures in Russian waters for the international aquarium industry. It would be a tragedy not to spend the necessary effort in helping the incarcerated individuals in the whale jail return safely to the wild.

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