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How we’re helping to keep orcas safe from capture in Russia

In 1999, we helped open up whale research in Russia, building a photo-ID catalogue of orcas as well as a Russian team to study them. We called this the Far East Russia Orca Project, or FEROP, and it’s still going strong today. FEROP has trained a generation of young students in photo-ID, acoustic recording and other research techniques.

WDC research fellow Erich Hoyt, together with Russian scientists Alexander Burdin, Olga Filatova and Tatiana Ivkovich are directors of the project. In this guest blog, Tatiana celebrates some good news for orcas in Russia’s seas.

Orcas in far east Russia.

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While preparing for our 21st field season, we have received great news. The Russian federal government has approved the inclusion of mammal-eating orcas into the Russian Red Book of Endangered Species – this is a state document listing endangered species and it is illegal to capture any species that is included in the Red Book.

As a scientist, I know how important research is for conservation. When FEROP started in 1999, nobody knew how easily orcas could be encountered in Avacha Gulf of Kamchatka – the area which became our research site. All our knowledge about orcas in Russia was out of date or, mostly, non-existent.

At first we only encountered fish-eating orcas, but after a few years we began meeting mammal-eaters, a separate ecotype that never associate with the fish-eaters, similar to what has been shown in the well-studied eastern North Pacific, off Canada and the US west coast.

A group of fish-eating orcas in Russia's Far East
A group of fish-eating orcas in Russia's Far East © Hal Sato

In 2012, Russian captors obtained permits to capture orcas in the western Okhotsk Sea. Since then, more than 20 mammal-eating orcas have been captured and sold mostly to Chinese zoos.

My colleague, Olga Filatova, along with other scientists, strongly recommended that mammal-eating orcas belonged in the Red Book. Our project had gathered strong scientific evidence that mammal-eaters never mate with fish-eaters and this was published in international and Russian journals. Our preliminary results also showed that there are only very few mammal-eaters left.

This is a group of the mammal-eating orcas I observed by drone.
This is a group of the mammal-eating orcas I observed by drone.

In 2018, 12 mammal-eating orcas and 90 belugas were captured from the Okhotsk Sea (the same area that the two belugas, Little Grey and Little White had been taken from years earlier). After several disappeared or died, 10 orcas and 87 belugas were kept in small pens for about five months near Vladivostok. Eventually they were released from what became known as the ‘whale jail’ after persistent efforts by Sakhalin Environmental Watch and others within Russia with support from the international community, including WDC. This story made news around the world.

A jailed orca breaches in her tiny jail cell
A jailed orca breaches in her tiny cell

Last month, after the saga and bad publicity of the ‘whale jail’, the Russian ministry agreed with our proposal to include mammal-eating orcas in the Russian Red Book.  It is not quite final yet but we have confidence that it will be confirmed.

We are pleased that the scientific results of our project could be used as a basis for putting the mammal-eating orcas into the Red Book and thus classing them as ‘endangered’ and forbidding their capture. The fish-eating orcas are not in the Red Book but we hope that all of the orca captures in Russia will now end.

I don’t yet know if the coronavirus crisis will prevent our field studies this summer. If it is still not safe to travel, we will postpone our fieldwork and focus on writing papers and working remotely. We will continue our fieldwork as soon as we can.

We are grateful to Whale and Dolphin Conservation as well as our other main sponsors OceanCare, Animal Welfare Institute, and Humane Society International for all their continued support.

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We know that not everyone can give right now. But if you can, every single gift, small or large will really help us continue to work for a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.

The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of WDC.

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