A spokesperson from the Russian government has announced plans to release dozens of belugas and orcas thought to be illegally held in "whale jails" off the Pacific Coast – though they are yet to confirm exactly when that will be.
Drone footage emerged last November, showing more than 100 cetaceans cooped up inside cramped underwater cells (dubbed "whale jail") close to the southeastern city of Nakhodka. While the capture of these whales is not illegal per se, it is strictly permitted for scientific and educational purposes under Russian law.
As campaigners have already pointed out, it seems unlikely these animals were destined for research. Instead, it is believed they have been caught and kept to sell off to amusement parks in the Far East where they are worth a fortune and can fetch up to millions of dollars. The four companies involved – Bely Kit, Afalina, Oceanarium DV, and Sochi Dolphinarium – have, between them, already shipped 13 orcas to China between 2013 and 2016, an investigation by local media and investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta found. According to National Geographic, a legal representative for Bely Kit confirmed it has plans “to deliver the animals to aquariums in Russia and abroad” this year. What's more, activists are saying the companies are holding infant whales, a practice that is fiercely forbidden in all cases.
"There are very small chain-link pens, 12 to 15 baby whales are put there and have to be on top of each other," activist Nina Zyryanova told The Associated Press.
"Now it’s getting colder every day. Although these animals are native to the Arctic, they must move, a hundred kilometers a day, to stay warm."
In December three beluga whales disappeared, suspected to have died. In February an orca also disappeared, and despite the company in charge of the facility reporting it as having escaped, experts who have seen the enclosure up close have said that is virtually impossible and it's likely it too died.
Now, the Border Guards Department has said that they believe these companies are acting illegally and have issued charges against them. The decision, announced Thursday, follows an investigation and an order from renowned animal lover Vladimir Putin demanding the government looks into the "whale jail" and reviews policy on the capture of marine mammals. However, exact details on how and when they will do so are, for the moment, lacking.
It also comes in the wake of a change.org petition, involving celebrities including Leonardo Di Caprio and Pamela Anderson and signed by close to a million people, which called for the release of the belugas and orcas trapped in the facility.
"This is the largest number of sea creatures to ever be held in small temporary enclosures. Some of them have been there since July," the petition states.
"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."