Russia under pressure for capture and treatment of whales

Call for mammals in ‘whale jail’ discovered by Greenpeace to be rehabilitated and freed

Explorer and founder of the Ocean Futures Society Jean-Michel Cousteau (centre) and governor of Primorsky Region Oleg Kozhemyako (left): Mr Cousteau is leading a team to assess the jailed whales in Srednaya Bay. Photograph: Yuri Maltsev

Explorer and founder of the Ocean Futures Society Jean-Michel Cousteau (centre) and governor of Primorsky Region Oleg Kozhemyako (left): Mr Cousteau is leading a team to assess the jailed whales in Srednaya Bay. Photograph: Yuri Maltsev

 

Russia is facing growing international pressure to close its so-called “whale jail” in the far east of the country and return scores of ailing sea mammals to the wild.

French marine biologist Jean-Michel Cousteau will arrive at the facility on the coast of Russia’s Primorye region on Saturday to assess the welfare of some 87 beluga whales and 10 orcas – otherwise known as killer whales – and plan for their eventual rehabilitation.

However, his mission comes too late for four infant whales that have disappeared during captivity and are widely believed to be dead.

The discovery by Greenpeace of a cluster of icy pens crammed with orcas and belugas in Srednaya Bay near the Russian far eastern port of Nakhodka last October sparked a public outcry both in Russia and abroad. Greenpeace has accused four companies of illegally capturing the whales for sale to oceanariums in China, where a single beluga can fetch more than one million dollars. But the immediate concern is for the health of the sea creatures.

Animal rights activists say the lives of the whales are hanging in the balance after being held in cramped, dirty conditions for more than six months with no room to swim about. Photographs circulating on social media show some whales suffering from skin infections and lesions or lying belly up and irresponsive in their enclosures.

Leonardo DiCaprio has urged his Twitter followers to campaign against Russia’s inhumane capture of the whales. A petition launched by the Hollywood star on change.org has gathered more than 1.4 million signatures.

Return to wild

Other international celebrities including Queen Noor of Jordan, US actor and animal rights activist Pamela Anderson and Russian supermodel Nataliya Vodyanova have written an open letter to Vladimir Putin, appealing to the Russian president to return the whales to the wild and involve foreign experts in their rehabilitation.

Mr Putin, who has supported various campaigns to protect endangered species, ordered his government in February to resolve the whale dispute and spare the sea mammals any “further unnecessary suffering”.

As usually happens when the Kremlin intervenes, Russian law enforcers have set to work to find the culprits. Prosecutors in the Russian far east have pressed charges against four companies for breaching national fishing regulations to capture the whales, while local investigators have launched a probe into possible animal cruelty.

International advice

In Moscow, the environment ministry has taken the unusual step of seeking international advice on an ambitious project to rehabilitate the captured sea creatures.

Jean Michel Cousteau, the son of the legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, is leading a team of 10 marine experts that plans to spend the coming week assessing the condition of the jailed whales in Srednaya Bay and understanding how best to help. There’s no quick fix to the problem, Mr Cousteau told reporters in Moscow on Thursday. The whales will need assistance to find their families and be taught how to fend for themselves in the wild. “It could take years. We don’t know,” he said.

Greenpeace activists warned that shadowy traders may still be plotting to hold back some of the whales for smuggling to China. Russia has skirted an 1982 international moratorium on commercial whaling by allowing the capture of limited numbers of sea mammals for research and scientific purposes.