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Whale and Dolphin Trafficking Heads East

Four more orcas have now been confirmed to have been captured in Russian waters for ocean amusement parks and aquariums. That makes seven total captured in the past 2+ months in two separate captures in the Sea of Okhotsk—the massive far eastern inland sea of Russia, lying due north of Japan. Having spent time with these wild, beautiful orcas, I feel personally, as well as professionally, depressed about these developments.

The first 2013 capture happened in mid-August. The three orcas, or killer whales, were taken by a Russian catching team, the same team that caught a female orca in the same general area at the same time last year. For the past year, that young female — someone named her Narnia and the name stuck — has been swimming alone in a tiny makeshift pen near Nakhodka (Vladivostok area), awaiting her fate. The rumors have consistently pointed to her eventual transfer to Moscow.

As reported on the website and russianorca facebook page, these three captured orcas include a young male, juvenile female, and mature female. They are suspected to be transient-type orcas who feed on marine mammals because mainly the transient-type is found in this area. There is no information on the original size of the pod or family group that they have been forcibly taken from.

The three whales were transported in trucks for more than 620 miles (1000 km) south to the net enclosure near Nakhodka in the Vladivostok area. When Narnia met her new cellmates, the three captives were reportedly in poor condition after the transport, refusing to eat. The trainers could do nothing. Finally, we heard that Narnia herself tried something. She brought fish to the three captives and gave it to them.

This is not the first time one captive has helped another in the same situation. In my book Orca: The Whale Called Killer, I relayed the story of Charlie Chin (M1), a big male from the transient M pod, who encouraged a female in the pod to eat salmon after more than 2 months of refusing to eat and with a third member of their pod having just died from starvation. At that time (1970), we didn’t know about transient-type orcas and that fish were not part of their usual diet.

This second 2013 capture of four more orcas by the same Russian company comes as an even greater shock, as the extent of the captors’ greed is exposed. This capture occurred further south off Sakhalin Island. There is no news yet on the orcas’ health, the size of the original pods they were captured from and whether other orcas were killed in the process, whether these are also transient-ecotype marine mammal eaters or fish-eaters.

Of the eight orcas now all thought to be in Nakhodka, an 8-year-old male and a 4-year-old female are rumoured to have been offered for sale abroad. According to reports, a Chinese park is interested.

That leaves Narnia, a mature female and four more orcas of unknown sex and size, at least two of whom are thought to be heading for Moscow in November to be placed in an Oceanarium which is being built in the All-Russia Exhibition Centre. The mature female would appear to be the mother of the other two who may be exported. If they are separated, the capture industry will have split up yet another orca family. The other four captured more recently are thought to be from a different pod.

This marks the fourth known orca capture in Russian waters. Besides last year’s capture of Narnia and this year’s capture of seven whales, another orca was captured near the Amur River in the Sea of Okhotsk in 2010 but then escaped from the capture net in the middle of the night.

As early as 2002, the Utrish Dolphinarium attempted to capture an orca off Kamchatka but it was not until 26 Sept. 2003, that they managed to corral some 32-37 resident-type orcas from Hooky and Humpy’s pod as well as other known pods, as identified by researchers from our Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), supported by WDC, Animal Welfare Institute, and Humane Society International. We were devastated when we discovered that, during the capture, one young female became entangled in the nets, suffocated and died. A second young animal, sex unknown, also became entangled but it is not known if this youngster survived.

A third orca, a female, was hauled on to the deck of the ship and after nine days in a holding pen was flown 7,000 miles (11,270 km) across Russia to the Utrish Marine Station on the Black Sea. The captive female died just 13 days after transfer on 19 October 2003. The cause of death was reported as abscess pneumonia, due to the Pseudonomas bacteria but we suspect that the stress of separation from her family and so much travel was partly to blame.

Soon after these captures in eastern Kamchatka waters, the area was no longer given quotas for capture. For nearly a decade, this may have kept wild orcas safe, as the logistics of working from the open Sea of Okhotsk were at least initially more difficult than off eastern Kamchatka, and the orcas were probably fewer in number or at least more spread out

In the last few years, however, the Sea of Okhotsk seems to be supplying the world’s aquariums with belugas, and now orcas, too. Many more belugas have been taken than orcas. Note these two species are unobtainable in other capture locations. The worldwide whale and dolphin capture trade marches on, replacing those whales who die in captivity as well as servicing the demand at new aquariums. And all of this happens with mostly unknown effects on wild populations. We do know that some populations of orcas who were captured in the Northwest US and Canada now have endangered status, partly due to the intensive captures 40 years ago.

For this reason, FEROP and other Russian researchers have recommended that the orca annual catch quotas be reduced from 10 per year to zero, requesting that detailed assessments be made of the resident- and transient-type populations present in Russian waters. FEROP’s argument was that killer whales could not be managed as a single species because the residents and transients are distinct entities. This has been put forward as a recommendation from the state ecological commission and we will know soon if the Federal Fisheries Agency accepts the recommendation and issues a zero quota.

Worldwide, there are now some 52 orcas being kept captive, some of them born into captivity. When will the captures and the captivity circus shows stop? Probable answer: When the public refuses to visit the Sea Worlds, Marinelands and other facilities displaying these large social mammals. The keeping of whales and dolphins is banned in India, Cyprus, Slovenia, Croatia, Chile, and Costa Rica; a few other countries such as the UK have ended the practice but not banned it. Whale and dolphin captures no longer happen in the waters of Europe, Australia-New Zealand, and North and South America with the exception of Cuba and Honduras. The captures are mainly coming from Japan and Russia. The whales and dolphins are being sent to three main countries: Russia itself with 17 marine zoo facilities, Japan with 54 and China with about 50 and growing fast. The US has “only” a handful of facilities, notably the Sea World chain of aquariums, which has seen declining visitor numbers and profits in the first half of 2013. France, Spain and a few other countries also have facilities that keep whales and dolphins captive, but the huge growth in the industry has moved from the West where it started in the 1950s and 1960s, to the Far East.

Having spent 40 years researching whales and dolphins in their natural habitats and watching them in more than 50 countries, I firmly believe that these animals are too large, too social, too wild to be kept in confinement. To see them wild and free in their natural habitat on a whale watching tour or from a land-based lookout, is something far more memorable and exciting than what’s on offer at any amusement park. Along with whales and dolphins, there are certain natural wonders — the Grand Canyon, Kamchatka volcanoes and the Serengeti Plains, — that cannot and should not ever be displayed in an amusement park setting. Instead of being brought to us and being spoon-fed, if we want to see natural wonders, we need to go on their terms. Enjoy whales and dolphins in films, books and on youtube, make a special trip to see them on holiday, but let’s keep them out there living wild and free.