Russian officials order release of 100 captive whales held illegally after online pressure from actor Leonardo DiCaprio

The Kremlin said five baby walruses, 11 orcas, and 90 baby beluga whales were kept in inhumane conditions by owners of the facility who planned to sell them to aquariums in China


                            Russian officials order release of 100 captive whales held illegally after online pressure from actor Leonardo DiCaprio

Russian authorities have reportedly been ordered to release 100 captive orcas and beluga whales after an online petition that was pushed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio received thousands of signatures. The images, which show the magnificent animals held illegally in cramped enclosures on the Pacific coast of Russia, received furious backlash since they first emerged last year. The Kremlin said that five baby walruses, 11 orcas, and 90 baby beluga whales were being kept in inhumane conditions by the owners of the facility who planned to sell them to aquariums in China.

The FSB, Russia's federal security service, brought charges against the four companies for violating fishing laws. The animals, however, are still stuck in the "whale prison" as authorities are trying to follow proper protocols to have them all released into the wild, Mirror Online reported.



 

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin, said in a statement last week that President Vladimir Putin had personally visited the site to handle the matter. He then ordered the environmental and agricultural ministers to "determine the fate" of the animals by March 1.

Ecology Minister Dmitry Kobylkin was cited by local media on February 28 as saying: "We are doing everything we can. No one objects to releasing the orcas, but the most important thing is to release them properly." He also mentioned that it was the cold weather that was one of the hurdles in releasing the whales without causing them any harm.

An aerial view of pools in the marine animals' adaptation centre where illegally caught 11 orcas and 90 belugas that were to be sold to Chinese amusement parks are being kept, in Srednyaya Bay near the city of Nakhodka in Russia's Far East (Source: Yuri Smityuk/TASS via Getty Images)
An aerial view of pools in the marine animals' adaptation centre where illegally caught 11 orcas and 90 belugas that were to be sold to Chinese amusement parks are being kept, in Srednyaya Bay near the city of Nakhodka in Russia's Far East (Source: Yuri Smityuk/TASS via Getty Images)

DiCaprio wrote on February 26: "Please sign this petition and join me in speaking out against the inhumane capture of orcas and belugas in Russia." The actor called on his 19 million followers on the microblogging site to sign the petition for the release which received more than 900,000 signatures.

The four companies that were charged were previously fined for the illegal capture of the whales and have a known history of selling the marine animals to amusement parks internationally. The Border Guards Department said that it has suspicions that the four companies captured the animals illegally.

The officials also confirmed all the environmentalists' claims that the whales were kept in cramped conditions at the marine containment facility in Srednyaya Bay, near Vladivostok, and that they need to be released immediately, reported Daily Mail.

Beluga whales in a pool in the marine animals adaptation centre where illegally caught 11 orcas and 90 belugas that were to be sold to Chinese amusement parks are being kept, in Srednyaya Bay (Source: Yuri Smityuk/TASS via Getty Images)
Beluga whales in a pool in the marine animals adaptation centre where illegally caught 11 orcas and 90 belugas that were to be sold to Chinese amusement parks are being kept, in Srednyaya Bay (Source: Yuri Smityuk/TASS via Getty Images)

 

Whales are reportedly worth a lot of money on the black market, allegedly costing a little more than $6 million each. Activists believe that these animals were captured to be sold to amusement parks in China. Laws in Russia only allow for the capture of whales for scientific purposes.

One of the companies reportedly unsuccessfully sued the Federal Fishery Agency in 2017 after it refused to issue the company a quota for capturing the unidentified marine animals.

The ruling in 2017 showed that the company had a standing contract with a company in the north-east of China and that the company wasn't able to prove that the animals would be kept in good conditions or used for educational purposes. The city of Weihai in the Shandong province reportedly hosts an ocean amusement park. The charges came after footage revealed a crane lifting one of the whales out of a tank at the high-security facility close to the city of Nakhodka on Russia's Pacific coast, which is not far from the Chinese border.

Greenpeace activists and supporters rally in Moscow on February 16, 2019, demanding the release of orcas and white whales held at a holding facility in the town of Nakhodka (Source: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Greenpeace activists and supporters rally in Moscow on February 16, 2019, demanding the release of orcas and white whales held at a holding facility in the town of Nakhodka (Source: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Campaigning journalist Masha Netrebenko said: "The scale of what is happening here is shocking. From the air, we saw that there are loads of white (Beluga) whales in enclosures built in the water. The helicopter couldn't go very low — because when it was less than 100 meters above the ground, it was entirely losing control. Apparently, these businessmen are so prepared that they even installed jammers. But the picture I have seen has deeply shaken me."

Netrebenko also claimed that there is a facility nearby that deals with trading seals. She added: "I have seen orcas, white whales and whales in the ocean many times and can be confident that only the ocean can be their home, not these tiny enclosures where intelligent creatures are stuffed like fish in a tin. I don't know who you need to be to put them here and …. to allow trading them as soulless pieces of meat."



 

The journalist now claims that the trade was for "big money" and that it is a "profitable business tied to people particularly close [to the Kremlin]". The exact links to these high places in the country, however, are still unclear. Netrebenko also said that orcas are "the only living creatures apart from humans" which have strong family instincts. She concluded: "Orcas also feel very strongly about each other and can even die from sadness if something happens to a member of their family."