Last year, in November, drone footage revealed over 100 whales kept in cramped enclosures in a bay near the Sea of Japan port town of Nakhodka – Russia’s Far East. The captivity of these poor creatures in cages has been dubbed “whale jail”.
The video triggered a wave of criticism so big that the case has drawn the ire of President Vladimir Putin, the public, and international film superstars. There was a petition to release the whales, shared by actor Leonardo DiCaprio on social media, which has gathered more than 900,000 signatures online; and actress Pamela Anderson posted an open letter to Putin on her website.
“As you know, people around the world have become increasingly concerned about marine biodiversity, and about the health and vitality of whales in particular. News about the ‘whale jail’ near Nakhodka, the icy conditions, and the suffering of the orca and beluga whales is causing international concern.”
The fact that Russia has no direct ban on the catching of such animals has complicated matters. There are specific circumstances in which they are allowed to be caught – for scientific and educational purposes.
A total of 11 orcas and 87 beluga whales are in the “whale jail”, held in cruel conditions. They were intended for sale to aquariums and Chinese buyers, according to The Kremlin. The seemingly affiliated companies have previously been fined for illegal capture and have a history of selling the animals to amusement parks abroad.
The United States stopped catching wild orcas back in the 1970s following negative publicity. Therefore, China has heavily relied on Russian exports to support its popular aquariums. It is illegal for Russian companies to sell captured whales to other countries but the price for one is around 6 million dollars on the black market so they do it anyway.
Putin had personally stepped in to handle the matter. The FSB, Russia’s federal security service, brought charges against four companies on Monday for breaking fishing laws, TASS reported. It cited the FSB as saying:
“Expertise showed that the animals were kept in unsatisfactory conditions, and must be released into their natural habitat.”
Activist Nina Zyryanova told the AP:
“There are very small chain-link pens, 12 to 15 baby whales are put there and have to be on top of each other. Although these animals are native to the Arctic, they must move, hundred kilometers a day, to stay warm.”
Now, recent news claims that the Russian authorities have ordered the release of the whale prisoners, but there is no mentioning as to when it will happen. Delays are due to the issue of how to release the whales without harming them.
Cold weather is one of the obstacles to freeing the whales without causing them any harm. Ecology Minister Dmitry Kobylkin said:
“We are doing everything we can. No one objects to releasing the orcas, but the most important thing is to release them properly.”
However, the petition (change.org) states:
“This is the largest number of sea creatures to ever be held in small temporary enclosures. Some of them have been there since July. Independent experts are seriously worried that the animals will die if they are kept in these conditions much longer. Whale babies who have not received enough mother’s milk will not survive the winter.”