The suspects are already in Siberia ––where else can they go?
MOSCOW, VLADIVOSTOK–– Responding to orders from Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Russian agency for border security has reportedly brought criminal charges against four related companies for allegedly illegally capturing and holding more than 90 beluga whales and as many as 13 orcas in sea pens at a facility called the Centre of Marine Mammals Adaption in Srednyaya Bay, north of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.
The Centre of Marine Mammals Adaption is believed to have been trying to arrange sales to marine mammal parks in China, in apparent violation of international agreements governing whale transactions.
Reportedly not first offense
Reported Associated Press on February 28, 2019, “The companies [involved in operating the Centre of Marine Mammals Adaption], which appear to be affiliated, have previously been fined for illegal capture and have a history of selling animals to amusement parks abroad.
“One of the companies,” Associated Press added, “unsuccessfully sued the Russian Federal Fishery Agency in 2017 over its refusal to issue it a quota for capturing unidentified marine mammals. The 2017 ruling shows that the company had a standing contract with a company in China’s northeast and that the company was unable to prove that whales would be kept in good conditions and used for educational purposes.”
Will belugas & orcas be released?
The Russian agency for border security “confirmed environmentalists’ claims that the belugas need to be released,” Associated Press said, but “did not specify when it will happen.”
The Siberian Times reported on February 7, 2019 that an “appeal to rescue the whales and set them free was sent to Vladimir Putin by French environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, 80, and three other leaders of the Free Willy/Keiko Project, that returned the orca Keiko to home waters in Iceland.
Said Cousteau, “We are hopeful the Russian government will work to release the orcas and belugas back to the ocean where they belong, but the task of doing so is daunting.”
Cousteau and the co-signers of the letter offered their help in returning the orcas and belugas to their home waters, The Siberian Times said.
Exposed by drone video
The presence of the belugas and orcas in Srednyaya Bay became internationally known after Vladivostok marine mammal advocate Masha Netrebenko in November 2018 posted drone video of the Centre of Marine Mammals Adaption 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.
Captures stopped, but captives remained in sea pens
The Russian news web site Pravda.Ru reported soon afterward that the Russian government would soon prohibit marine mammal captures. Pravda.Ru 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.”
(See Drone video moves Russia to halt orca & beluga captures.)
But the belugas and orcas remained at the Centre of Marine Mammals Adaption for another four months––except for one orca and three belugas who either escaped or died in February 2019.
The remaining whales “appear to be suffering tremendously,” Sakhalin Environment Watch director Dmitry Lisitsyn told National Geographic correspondents Natasha Daly and Maria Antonova in early February 2019.
“Authorities invited Lisitsyn, marine mammal researchers, and veterinarians to visit the facility on January 18 and 19, 2019, to assess the animals’ health,” wrote Daly and Antonova.
“Lisitsyn said 15 of the belugas are babies who likely hadn’t yet been weaned off their mothers’ milk when they were captured,” Daly and Antonova added. “All the belugas seem to be in distress, he said. He explained that workers at the facility regularly break up ice as it forms in the pens so the animals can surface, which they must do to breathe and stay alive. The belugas are ‘used to living in ice,’ he said. ‘But they’re not used to being held in a 12-by-10-meter [space] with men crashing shovels over their heads.’”
Frostbite, fungi, & bacterial infection
Lisitsyn “captured video showing several orcas with skin lesions on and around their dorsal fins,” Daly and Antonova continued. “Lisitsyn and marine scientists who reviewed the footage say that the lesions could be frostbite from exposure to prolonged cold, a fungal or bacterial infection stemming from the stagnant water, or both.”
Daly and Antonova mentioned, about two weeks before one of the orcas at the Centre of Marine Mammals Adaption disappeared, that “Denisenko, Lisitsyn, and others are particularly concerned about one young orca named Kirill, who acted very lethargic and exhibited extensive skin lesions.”
Much larger captures in the recent past
The companies now facing charges are believed to be the same that 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.
But 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.
“Educational & scientific reasons”
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 from Russia to the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom marine mammal park in China between 2013 and 2016.
The remaining 68 or more belugas captured for sale in 2013, plus perhaps some belugas born in captivity, who would be the babies Lisitsyn described, may be the belugas at the Centre of Marine Mammals Adaption. The numbers would appear to be about right.
The Centre of Marine Mammals Adaption saga confirms a 2016 warning by TakePart editorial director for environmental issues Todd Woody 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 said that Chinese facilities had acquired “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.”
Where did the orcas sent to China go?
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.”
Since 2016, however, China appears to have closed the door to further whale imports from Russia, at least enough that Centre of Marine Mammals Adaption was caught with considerable unsold inventory.