Recommendations to take 10 more killer whales from the Russian Far East in 2014 were made yesterday, 19 March 2014, by TINRO, the Pacific Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography— much to the dismay of scientists who have been studying Russian orcas now for 14 years as part of the Far East Russia Orca Project, supported by WDC.
A total of 6 killer whales (now revised, according to TINRO, from 7 reported earlier) were taken in two captures in the Okhotsk Sea in August and October 2013. One other killer whale, the one known as “Narnia”, was captured in 2012. Narnia and a male were shipped to Moscow in December 2012 and at least another two orcas were subsequently shipped to China, to a new facility at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom.
In October 2013, the State Ecological Expertise of Russian marine mammal scientists agreed to recommend zero quotas for killer whales for 2014. This carefully prepared recommendation came as a result of the large number caught in 2013, and the need to re-evaluate quotas based on the existence of at least two orca ecotypes and potentially many populations, or breeding units, the sizes and viabilities of which have yet to be determined.
This recommendation, however, was rejected by Russian Federal Fisheries, and, in a highly unusual move, Fisheries said that they would seek additional “ecological expertise”. The TINRO suggestions are the exact same quota number that Fisheries has issued for the past several years, no change at all. In any case, the matter will now be considered at public hearings in Vladivostok on April 17, and additional scientific expertise will be obtained before Federal Fisheries in Moscow awards the orca capture quotas for 2014.
Removing top predators from ecosystems— especially when you are focusing on prime young females—is a very risky proposition. Current Russian estimates for orcas in the Okhotsk Sea are wild guesses, at best. However, even if the breeding units were in the thousands, I think it is becoming clear to more and more people around the world that orcas are too large, too social, too wild, and should never be captured, that they belong in the wild.
On the other side of the North Pacific from Russia, in the Northwest USA and off the west coast of Canada, some killer whale populations such as the southern community have been declared endangered after repeated captures more than 40 years ago. Other problems such as lack of food, polluted waters, and potentially traffic and noise in their environment may also be compromising their recovery now. In 1976, Sea World captors were thrown out of Puget Sound and US waters forever after herding the orcas with seal bombs in full view of Washington State government officials and scientists and conservation biologists attending an orca conference.
Unfortunately, the Russian orcas in the Okhotsk Sea are being captured in remote areas where there are few people to defend them.
Meanwhile controversy continues to surround the seven orcas captured in the Okhotsk Sea over the past two years. Information on exact numbers captured, identities of pods, sizes, sexes and the present status and condition of the captured whales has proved impossible to obtain.
I think that it is high time that the Russian Fisheries and the aquariums holding these whales make this information public and transparent. At the same time, they must take the only prudent course of action which is to postpone any more captures until substantial studies on the abundance, distribution, existence of ecotypes and populations in the Okhotsk Sea and the Russian Far East have been completed.
How you can help
Please sign our petition asking President Putin to stop orcas and beluga whales being taken from the wild in Russia.
— Erich Hoyt, Research Fellow, WDC and co-director, Far East Russia Orca Project
Photo of wild orcas © Tatiana Ivkovich, Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP)