Russian officials agree to free 'whale jail' animals

Maria ANTONOVA
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The captured marine mammals have been held in enclosures at a holding facility near the eastern port town of Nakhodka

The captured marine mammals have been held in enclosures at a holding facility near the eastern port town of Nakhodka (AFP Photo/Sergei PETROV)

Moscow (AFP) - Russian officials said Monday they will work towards freeing all orca and beluga whales from a notorious facility in the east of the country, after a visit by US-based marine mammal advocates.

Nearly 100 whales captured for sale to aquariums have been kept in small pens for months in what the media has nicknamed a "whale jail" in the Russian Far East, as the campaign to release them gathered strength and went global.

Kremlin-backed Far Eastern governor Oleg Kozhemyako on Monday announced that he has "made a decision to free the animals into the wild," after meeting noted environmentalists and campaigners Jean-Michel Cousteau and Charles Vinick who visited the facility last week.

"Our goal is to release all of them," said a joint statement by Kozhemyako, Cousteau and Vinick.

Cousteau, the son of celebrated French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, is the founder of the US-based Ocean Futures Society, while Charles Vinick heads the Whale Sanctuary Project and has worked on rehabilitation of captive orcas in the past.

Cousteau told AFP by phone from Vladivostok that he believed "many of the animals will be released" but that it will take time to identify the right decision for each animal.

"If some are sick we will take care of them," he said.

He said dolphinariums should move away from using marine mammals and instead use technology to "connect the public to the ocean through 3D projections" as well as encourage seeing the animals in the wild.

The "whale jail" has exposed the lack of legislation in Russia regulating capture of marine mammals, with companies abusing catch permits for "educational purposes" only to proceed to sell the animals to the captivity industry, notably in China where it is booming.

- 'It's a battle' -

Russia is the only country that catches wild orcas for aquariums, with each animal fetching $6 million or more in what is a very opaque market.

The conditions in the facility in Nakhodka, which contains 10 orcas and 87 beluga whales, are "not conducive to their long term health," said Vinick.

"The pens are small and crowded, the depth is too shallow," he told AFP.

"In general, most of the animals are stable," though they have developed skin conditions, he said.

Four firms captured 90 belugas and 11 orcas last summer. Three belugas and one orca have disappeared since that time.

Scientists have taken probes and audio data from the animals and will continue working with the Russian side, Vinick said.

As a first step, the facility should be expanded, and animals' attention should be redirected from humans feeding them, he said, so that they spend more time in the water and limit exposure to air and sun.

On Thursday, Russia's environment minister said that releasing the animals in the winter would be too dangerous. "Now we are in summer, and this work can and must be done."

But environmentalist Dmitry Lisitsyn, whose group Sakhalin Watch has called for their release for months, said the government has not even filed a legal complaint to seize the animals from the companies keeping them.

"A legal decision is a decisive factor (in freeing the animals), and it doesn't exist," he said, concerned that when summer comes, officials will say their hands are tied.

"It's a battle," he told AFP. "It's possible that the forces behind the captive companies are just killing time."