Keeping Russia's Orcas Wild and Free

By Erich Hoyt Co-Director, Far Eastern Russia Orca Project, and Vanessa Williams Conservation Manager, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

With support from the Animal Welfare Institute, the Far Eastern Russia Orca Project (FEROP) of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) has recently completed another successful field season. For the past three summer seasons, following a short pilot project in 1999, our largely Russian field team-aided by two Orca experts; Japanese biologist, Hal Sato; and Canadian ecologist, Erich Hoyt-has been studying the Orcas (also known as killer whales) living in the waters off Kamchatka, on the vast and remote eastern coast of Russia.

The project truly is pioneering. Erich and Hal were particularly eager to discover whether the Russian Orcas would be as charismatic as the northern resident population of Orcas they had previously studied off British Columbia, Canada (also home to the WDCS Orcas adoption project). So far, the answer to that question is a definite yes! The team has now photo-identified 150 different mothers, calves, and bulls living in a number of family groups in our main study area. Conducting many hours of patient research from land as well as from the research vessel has enabled the investigators to develop a vivid picture of the Orcas' daily lives. In cold Russian waters, shadowed by snowy volcanic peaks, these incredible animals feed on salmon and mackerel, mate, and play. Orcas are sociable creatures and live in strongly-bonded family groups. Analysis of sound recordings made by the FEROP team demonstrates that our study animals even communicate using their own dialect, in the same way that Canadian Orcas do. All the findings to date-on the Orca's diet, foraging, and socialising behaviour, as well as their communication-suggest that these Russian Orcas, too, are a largely "resident" population.

Last year, for the first time, the researchers also conducted a sightings survey along the entire east coast of Kamchatka. They found many more Orcas (more than 250 in all), photo-identified many of them, and made interesting sightings of humpback, gray, and fin whales. Plans for the 2003 field season include expanding both sea and land-based surveys and observations. Work has already begun on creating a digital photo-identification catalogue for the study Orcas (a first for this species). The team has been busy presenting its findings-to-date at several important conferences in Russia, Canada, and last autumn's Orca Symposium in France. It is vital to reach as many people as possible-the international scientific community, the Russian authorities, and the general public both in Russia and internationally-as until recently, very few people had heard about these Orcas. Yet, they attracted the attention of one sector-the captivity industry, which believed that Orcas living in such remote waters would make easy pickings. Orcas are big business: wild-caught Orcas can net their captors a cool $1 million apiece. In the summer of 2001 and again last summer, the Russian authorities gave permission for up to ten Orcas to be captured for marine zoos and aquariums. Several capture attempts-thankfully, unsuccessful-have been made by captors working for aquariums in Japan and elsewhere.

Sadly, the threat of capture looms large this summer, with the news that the Russian authorities have once more set quotas for the capture of ten Orcas. The new quota, issued in November 2002, also expands the potential capture areas to include eastern Kamchatka and the northern Sea of Okhotsk.

WDCS is spearheading an urgent campaign, supported by many of the world's most prominent Orca scientists, to keep these Orcas where they belong, in the wild. At present, the main scientific arguments against capturing Orcas off Russia are that these are almost unexploited populations, and we still know little about them. This is a substantial argument from the conservation perspective-but not to those who seek to capture and exploit Orcas. It is essential, therefore, that our field researchers continue to amass detailed information on these Orcas, so that we may help counter any moves to capture the species in Russian waters.

The Russian government has set a quota for the capture of up to ten Orcas from its waters for 2003. Any Orcas captured are likely to be exported abroad for display in marine parks or aquariums. Please help our efforts to stop captures of Orcas in Russian waters by writing a polite letter to:

Vitaly G. Artyukhov
Minister of Natural Resources
Bolshaya Grouzinskaya Street, 4/6
123812 Moscow
Russian Federation.

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