Russia Has Captured 100 Wild Whales To Sell To Marine Parks

There are 90 belugas and 11 orcas — and time is running out.

For 90 belugas and 11 orcas, life has become one miserable event after another — and things aren’t getting any better for the cetaceans.

Over the summer, Russian traders drove boats into the open ocean to capture these wild belugas and orcas so they could sell them to marine parks in China. (In the past, U.S. facilities have also obtained cetaceans from Russia; the most recent request, by Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld, was denied by federal officials in 2015.) Sadly, marine parks, dolphinariums and swim-with-the-dolphin programs are becoming increasingly popular in China, which means there’s a growing demand for animals to fill their tanks — and Russia and Japan are usually the countries that supply this demand.

Holding pens for belugas and orcas
The holding pens for the belugas and orcas in Srednyaya Bay | Facebook/Russian Orcas

“The capture operators are apparently using ‘purse seining,’” Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), told The Dodo. “They encircle a group of spooked whales with small chase boats. One of these boats drops a net into the water when the whales are huddled together and draws it around the group. The bottom of the net has a line attached and is pulled closed. This is ‘pursing’ — turning the net into a big bag, basically, with the whales inside.”

Once the animals are caught, the operators will pick and choose which animals they want to keep. They’re particularly interested in juveniles between 3 and 4 years old, Rose explained.

Captive orca inside pen
One of the orca inside a holding pen in Srednyaya Bay | Facebook/Russian Orcas

“They then pull the top of the net tighter and tighter until they have corralled off the whale they want … wrestle it onboard with the net or a stretcher, and release the rest,” Rose said. “Sometimes animals get entangled in the net and drown. Or they may exhaust themselves trying to ram through the net and suffer from capture myopathy, a condition that is essentially being exhausted to death — their hearts can simply stop beating.”

“The trauma and distress these animals experience during captures is not opinion or emotion — it is fact,” Rose added. “They suffer intense stress-related reactions and their mortality risk spikes sharply soon after capture and then again after transport — they don’t get accustomed to the process. The decimated pods may experience similar stress and trauma — their offspring are being taken from them.”

Captive orca in holding pen in Russia
Facebook/Russian Orcas

After the trauma of the capture process, the belugas and orcas are taken to a facility in Srednyaya Bay, near Nakhodka, Russia, where they’re kept in tiny holding pens until the traders secure buyers, and it’s time for them to be moved to China.

“The holding pens … are not very large — I’d say no more than 30 to 40 feet on a side, and probably only about 10 to 20 feet deep,” Rose said. “If they stay there through the winter, ice can form on the top of the water and they have to break through to breathe.”

It’s actually illegal in Russia to capture and sell cetaceans for commercial purposes, but the individuals and companies orchestrating this trade have found a loophole — they claim to be trading the animals for educational purposes only, which enables them to get the appropriate trade permits from the CITES Management Authority in Russia, Rose explained. It’s also not entirely clear who is driving or prohibiting from this trade.

Captive belugas inside tank at Chinese mall
Belugas on display at Grandview Aquarium in China | China Cetacean Alliance

“This is why we emphasize so strongly that the education these facilities offer is either nonexistent or wrong … [and] that most facilities do nothing for conservation and in fact often harm conservation efforts by participating in this live trade,” Rose said.

When it comes time for the cetaceans to be transported to China, they’re put into slings, placed in boxes half-filled with water and hoisted by crane onto the cargo holds of planes. When they finally arrive at their destination, many of them end up dying, Rose said. However, China will likely cover up any such mortalities.

Beluga being forced to perform show
A beluga being forced to perform at Grandview Aquarium in China | China Cetacean Alliance

“China claims that so far there have been zero mortalities among the orcas that have come from Russia — 15 animals so far,” Rose said. “I just find that very hard to believe. This is a situation where we have to trust the word of the authorities and I simply do not.”

If you want to help these belugas and orcas, and try and stop this trade, Rose urges everyone to speak up about this issue. It’s also important to not support marine parks that keep whales or dolphins captive, especially if they make them perform.

“Publicize what is happening, as much as possible, on social media,” Rose said. “We need to make the Chinese government embarrassed about their participation in this cruel and unsustainable trade.”

You can support investigations into the global cetacean trade by making a donation to the Animal Welfare Institute.