Russia Says It Will Try to Free Almost 100 Whales Held in ‘Jail’
MOSCOW — Almost 100 captive whales seized by the Russian government in the country’s Far East before they could be exported to Chinese marine parks will be evaluated as a first step toward freeing them, officials said on Thursday.
The mammals have been held in what became known as the “whale jail” — watery pens in Srednyaya Bay near the Russian city of Vladivostok. The whales, which can fetch millions of dollars depending on the species, had been captured off Sakhalin Island last summer and fall by four companies linked to one businessman.
Dmitri N. Kobylkin, Russia’s minister of natural resources, said the sheer number of whales in need of release was unprecedented. In the past couple of decades, captured whales have been released only individually or in small numbers.
“There has never been such a situation before in the world,” Mr. Kobylkin said at a news conference, adding that a summer release would increase the animals’ chance of survival.
“We want to keep the priority on the health of the mammals,” he said.
The Russian government invited Jean-Michel Cousteau of the Ocean Futures Society and Charles Vinick, the executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, to visit the captured whales to help develop a release plan and improve their living conditions. There have been disagreements among Russian scientists about the best course of action.
“Each animal is an individual and has to be treated like an individual,” Mr. Vinick said.
“Like us!” added Mr. Cousteau, son of the famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, and himself a veteran ocean explorer and environmentalist. Mr. Cousteau and Mr. Vinick are due to start working in Vladivostok on Friday.
Unlike in most previous such releases, the 10 orca and 87 beluga whales have been in captivity for a relatively short time. They are babies or very young, so one key question will be to what extent they are able to fend for themselves or work together, Mr. Vinick said.
“Their ability to survive on their own if the gates were just opened is limited,” he said. The whales will be evaluated for physical ailments such as skin diseases, as well as for signs of their ability to exist in the wild, such as how dependent they are on being fed by hand.
The idea is to try to release them as close to where they were captured as possible in hopes that they can reunite with family or at least older whales that will teach them the lessons they have missed. Some might be released together; some might take much longer to be ready.
“It might take years; we don’t know yet,” Mr. Cousteau said. “It depends on each and every one of them.”
The story of the penned whales first emerged in October, when local activists and a news website in Vladivostok, VL.ru, blew the whistle on the large numbers of animals in the “whale jail.”
Chinese marine parks pay up to $ 3.5 million for an orca and around $ 150,000 for a beluga, according to RIA Novosti, an official Russian news agency. Russia exported 15 killer whales to China between 2013 and 2017, the agency said.
The revelation of the penned whales in Srednyaya Bay prompted an investigation that found that permits to capture the whales had been issued illegally. A criminal case was opened. Among other things, Russian law forbids capturing whales from a group with babies.
In January, the Russian government announced that it had taken custody of the whales. Then President Vladimir V. Putin ordered a special commission to determine their fate. It began working last month, and the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment invited Mr. Cousteau and Mr. Vinick for their expertise.