For the past decade and more, a single capture team in the remote east of Russia, on the southern shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, has been removing an average of 20 live beluga whales a year from the summer feeding population in Sakhalinsky Bay. These whales are sold to aquariums and oceanariums in Russia and abroad (mostly in China). Belugas tend to follow their mothers to the same feeding areas as they mature, meaning these captures have been negatively affecting maternally related groups.
Up through 2012, the removal rate had been steady and it was generally believed that incidental mortality during captures was low. Nevertheless, there were concerns expressed, by bodies such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee, that the removals were not sustainable at the local level (there was risk that maternal groups could be reduced in number, although the overall Sea of Okhotsk population might not be affected). In addition, AWI and other animal protection groups expressed concern about the welfare of the animals during capture and transport.
In 2012, Georgia Aquarium applied for an import permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for 18 wild-caught Russian belugas. This permit was eventually denied, but AWI and others warned that even the possibility that the United States might open as a market for these whales could cause captures to explode. To our dismay, that has come to pass.
For the first time, three teams were competing to acquire whales during the 2013 capture season. Collectively, they captured 81 belugas and transported them to holding facilities or customers. An additional 30 or more whales, many mere juveniles, are believed by researchers to have been killed during capture operations, due to the efforts of multiple boats scrambling to secure animals with nets and lines. This total number of removals was certainly unsustainable, and the increased number of deaths was a welfare nightmare.
AWI will continue to work with colleagues in Russia to end this brutal trade in belugas.