Drone found 90 belugas & 13 orcas allegedly held pending sale to China
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia––Responding to international outrage over drone video showing 90 belugas and 13 orcas in small holding pens in Srednaya Bay near Nakhodka, just north of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, the Russian government in 2019 will prohibit whale captures, reports the news web site Pravda.Ru.
Pravda.Ru, whose name means “Russian Truth,” on November 20, 2018 cited a document from the Far Eastern office of Rosprirodnadzor, a Russian government agency name which translates into English as the “Federal Service for Supervision of Use of Natural Resources.”
Pravda.Ru is a privately owned online descendant of Pravda, a newspaper founded in 1903 that from 1912 to 1991 was the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Pravda.Ru has no association with the Pravda newspaper of today, published by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and is known for flamboyant tabloid-style reporting, but Pravda.Ru coverage of policy matters is believed to reflect Kremlin perspectives.
Rosprirodnadzor reportedly acted in direct response to the drone video of what Pravda.Ru called a “whale jail.”
The drone video reached global media after Vladivostok marine mammal advocate Masha Netrebenko posted it to Facebook.
The Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti reported that a local animal rights activist believed to be Netrebenko complained to police “after unknown individuals stopped her from taking a picture of Srednyaya Bay.”
The Vladivostok-based state-owned television network Primorye TV aired the drone video soon afterward.
Captors lacked permits
RIA-Novosti and the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta both reported that subsequent investigation by the Vladivostok environmental prosecutor’s office found that the four fishing companies allegedly involved in operating the “whale jail” lacked the appropriate permits to capture and hold orcas and belugas.
“Their capture is a serious violation of the Russian law. Therefore a criminal case has already been initiated,” said Pravda.Ru.
Meanwhile, “A correspondent from the local Primamedia news agency managed to capture video that appears to show killer whales being moved from one tank to another, possibly preparing them for transportation,” CNN reported.
“Unethical” and “economic crime”
The whales’ captors are believed to have been intending to sell the orcas and belugas to Chinese exhibition venues.
Fumed Novaya Gazeta, “Where is it written that the biological resources of the country can be scattered left and right? Leaving aside, temporarily, the ethical side of the question––yes, the capture and commercial exploitation of whales and dolphins is terribly unethical––their capture is also an economic crime,” amounting to a multi-million-dollar theft of Russian natural resources.
Some western news reports mentioned that the orcas and belugas had been held at the Srednaya Bay facility since July 2018.
Sea of Okhotsk
The four companies keeping them are, however, believed to have been the same companies who captured more than 260 belugas in the Sea of Okhotsk, northeast of Srednaya Bay, in 2006 and from 2010 through 2013
Many and perhaps most of those belugas, along with eight orcas captured in 2012 and 2013, were transferred to the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the Black Sea, pending sale to foreign facilities including Ocean Park in Hong Kong and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
Ocean Park announced in 2010 that it would exhibit “dolphins” from the Sea of Okhotsk, but cancelled the plan under public pressure in August 2011.
The Georgia Aquarium applied for U.S. federal permits to import 18 belugas from the Sea of Okhotsk in June 2012, after investing about $2 million over five years to study the Sea of Okhotsk beluga population. Much of the research was produced by a consortium also including Sea World, the Mystic Aquarium, Kamogawa Sea World in Japan, and Ocean Park.
The Georgia Aquarium import scheme was scuttled in 2015, after the aquarium lost a multi-year court battle. No belugas have been captured in the wild and brought to the U.S. for exhibition since 1992, when the Shedd Aquarium imported four from the vicinity of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.
The Russian government officially issues permits to capture marine mammals only for educational or scientific reasons, but in 2012 reportedly allowed the capture of a then-record 44 belugas, and in 2013 authorized the capture of 18 belugas for scientific research, plus 245 more for sale to marine parks and aquariums. Independent observers confirmed the capture of at least 81.
What became of all of those belugas is unclear.
Thirteen belugas are known to have been exported to the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom marine mammal park in China between 2013 and 2016.
Numbers right but ages wrong
The remaining 68 or more belugas captured for sale in 2013, plus perhaps some belugas born in captivity, may be the belugas videotaped at Srednaya Bay. The numbers would appear to be about right.
But Russian media said that the orcas and belugas found at Srednaya Bay were short of sexual maturity, including 11 whales total who were under one year old.
Earlier, in the 1990s, Russia exported dozens of dolphins originally captured and trained for military use to exhibition facilities, chiefly in the Middle East.
That commerce, however, apparently ended around twenty years before TakePart editorial director for environmental issues Todd Woody warned in 2016 that “China’s seemingly insatiable demand for whales and dolphins [for exhibition in at least 50 new marine mammal parks] is driving a shadowy international trade in the capture of wild marine mammals.”
Woody mentioned the acquisition by Chinese facilities of “209 wild bottlenose dolphins since 2010, along with dozens of other dolphin species,” and “as many as 114 wild belugas from Russia.”
Woody also accused Chinese demand of “keeping in business the brutal annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. Taiji has supplied at least 70 dolphins to Chinese marine parks over the past four years,” Woody wrote, citing data from “Ceta-Base, a nonprofit that tracks the marine mammal trade.”
Orcas in China?
Noted Woody, “No killer whales [orcas] so far have appeared at any marine park in China. Yet records from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species show that seven killer whales have been exported to China from Russia since 2013. The Chinese government has confirmed to activists that nine killer whales have been imported from Russia to Guangdong province,” where Chimelong Ocean Kingdom is located.”
According to the British-based Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society, “Chimelong Ocean Kingdom holds nine orcas, Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World another four, and two more individuals are at Wuxi Changqaio Ocean Kingdom. They were all caught in Russian waters between 2013 and 2016.”
Two belugas going to sanctuary
The first releases of marine mammals from Chinese facilities, meanwhile, brokered by the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society, are anticipated in spring 2019.
The project involves two 12-year-old female belugas, Little Grey and Little White, who were acquired by the British firm Merlin Entertainments when it added Changfeng Ocean World, of Shanghai, China, to an international portfolio of 127 theme parks, 18 hotels, and seven destination resorts.
Philosophically opposed to keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, Merlin Entertainments is helping to fund construction of a sanctuary for the two belugas “in a secluded bay on the island of Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands, located off the southern coast of Iceland.”
“Limited & discreet viewing”
“The sanctuary will offer limited and discreet viewing of the whales for visitors to help offset long term running costs,” according to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society, but “this will be very carefully controlled to ensure the two whales are not disturbed in their new and very natural environment.”
Pending transfer, says the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society web site, the belugas “are taking part in a special training program designed by a team of world leading veterinarians and cetacean experts to help them adjust for the journey ahead, as well as to adapt and acclimatize to North Atlantic waters.”