In summer 2018, 101 whales—90 belugas and 11 orcas—were captured in a single operation in the Okhotsk Sea and held in a sea pen complex near Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East. All of them were young and were to be sold to marine theme parks in China and Russia. This facility became known as the “whale jail,” and drone footage of the whales languishing in tiny pens went viral on international social media. A global outcry ensued, and AWI helped organize and draft two letters from international scientists urging Russian authorities to end these captures and work to release the orcas back to their families (see AWI Quarterly, summer 2019).
In the end, the Russian government prohibited the sale of the captured whales and ordered their release. Several Russian environmental groups and their international allies (including AWI) continued to pressure the government to protect the whales of this region, especially the orcas, which probably number fewer than 240 in the area where the captures have occured. In the past eight years, as many as 40 members of this mammal-eating orca population have been captured and sold to facilities in Russia and China, killed during capture, or captured and released to an unknown fate—this constitutes more than 16 percent of the population in a very short period, a horrifically unsustainable number.
In March 2020, the Russian government announced it would list 14 mammals on its endangered species list, also known as the Red Book, the first new listings made in over 20 years. Two of those were marine mammals—the Caspian seal and all mammal-eating orcas in Russian waters. This includes those in the Okhotsk Sea, meaning these intelligent predators are now safe from being permanently separated from their families and sold for commercial purposes.
This achievement would not have been possible without the passionate calls for protection from animal lovers around the world. The Russian government listened to those voices. Now we must do the same for fish-eating orcas (found in more remote areas in Russian waters) and the belugas in the Okhotsk Sea.