The final 21 belugas that were being kept in 'whale jails' in Russia's far east have been released
It was suspected that the 87 belugas and 11 orcas were being kept in these ‘whale jails’ for illegal sale to Chinese theme parks, where just one whale could be sold for up to £6 million. It is thought that some of the animals had been held in the enclosures in Srednyaya Bay in Russia’s far east since July 2018 and their capture (which was likely to be illegal) was linked to four private companies, all of which were connected to one individual.
In summer 2019 officials began to release the whales in phases to a rehabilitation centre with the last of the orcas being set free in June and according to reports, the final 21 belugas were released from captivity on Sunday (10th November 2019).
It has now been reported that Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Alexey Gordeyev has promised that the country will tighten their laws that allows cetaceans to be help for scientific and educational purposes – a loophole which these four companies were abusing which allowed them to apparently legally capture these whales for sale to China. However, a Russian court eventually ruled that the company’s permits were in fact illegal and they were forced to pay huge fines.
According to the Agence France-Presse (AFP) , activists and scientists have criticized the way Russian officials handled to release of these animals, specifically keeping the details a secret, not allowing any observers to see the release and only freeing a small number of animals at a time ‘rather than all of them together which would boost their survival odds’.
Oceanographer Jean-Michael Cousteau, the son of the late Jacques Cousteau, and Charles Vinick worked with Russian Officials as part of the Whale Sanctuary Project, to assess the whales whilst they were being held in the ‘whale jail’ and formulate a release plan. In a joint statement they revealed the belugas had been released in Useniya Bay near the Lazovsky Nature Reserve in Russia’s far east.
However, activists criticised that this was ‘not ideal for the belugas, since this is not their normal habitat or the area where they were captured’. The whales are also at risk of poaching from North Korean fishing boats that roam these waters.
Causteau and Vinick admitted that, although circumstances may not be perfect, ‘releasing the cetaceans is the best outcome for the cetaceans themselves’ and have called on the Russian government to intensely monitor the animals for six months after their release.
Although in recent years keeping cetaceans in captivity has fallen out of favour, it is expected that within the next two years over 30 oceanariums will open in China, increasing the demand for whales like these. ORCA believe that no cetacean should be kept in captivity and we hope that soon all whales and dolphins can live freely in the wild and we can continue to learn about them by observing them in the open ocean.