March 21, 2017
The boat circled a pod of killer whales feeding peacefully on fish. The crew had already pursued several different whale groups over the past few days with no success. After 10 failed capture attempts, the hunters knew their targets weren’t easy prey. So this time, the crew was patient and kept circling to lull the animals into complacency.
When the whales seemed calm enough, the crew flung the encircling nets, and quickly realized how many animals they faced: about 20 whales, adults and calves, frantically swam around inside the enclosure. Within minutes, the animals discovered escape routes and rushed to break free.
“The adults moved toward the stern and began to escape over the net. They did it in an amazing way: a killer whale would come right up to the floats, and then roll over its back, upside down,” a crew member later recalled, in a written account of the capture. “At the same time, the young animals dashed to the ship’s bow and tried to force through [any gaps].”
The net emptied fast, but the hunters lucked out. One youngster’s pectoral fin got stuck between a float and the steel rope at the top of the net. The divers on deck, paid to jump into the water and help lift captured animals onto the boat, were scared by the killer whale’s might; they froze until other crew members reportedly forced them into action. When the nets lifted, another body appeared—a small one. Tangled deep down in the net, the calf had died. “Being busy with the first one, we didn’t notice the other one and it drowned,” the crew member said. They cut the net and dumped the body into the ocean.
A video of the ordeal shows another whale getting entangled in the net as it attempts an escape. As the whale splashes and struggles, ramming its head against the floats, one captor yells, “It’s tangled, it’s tangled! It will drown!” A second crew member calmly replies, “It doesn’t matter, we’ll get another one.”
This 2003 hunt for killer whales off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s far east, the first capture in Russian waters for commercial purposes, echoes earlier hunts oceans away. In the 1970s, aquariums—from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Orlando, Florida, to Mexico City—scrambled to net killer whales in European and North American waters. As star marine megafauna, killer whales lured in a paying audience who, at the time, thought little of how the animals lived or that performing for the crowd might not keep the animals free from boredom. Eventually, public sentiment shifted. First against hunting, then—helped along by American documentaries Keiko: The Untold Story in 2010 and Blackfish in 2013—against whales in confinement, period.
Whales remain in captivity in the West, but facilities have been closing over the past few years. In Russia, as well as China (which buys whales from Russia), more facilities have been opening. “The general public in China and Russia is a bit out of step with the Western sensibilities in terms of animals,” says marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC. “They are where the Western world was 40 to 50 years ago.”
Killer whales in the Sea of Okhotsk and surrounding waters off Kamchatka, are caught in a different zeitgeist than their cousins an ocean away, and it’s killing them.
In China, the marine theme park industry is surging. According to a 2015 report prepared by the China Cetacean Alliance, Ocean Theme Parks: A Look Inside China’s Growing Captive Cetacean Industry, China has 39 operational ocean theme parks, housing 491 cetaceans from 11 different species, and it’s building 14 more parks. “The Chinese don’t capture killer whales, but they are willing to pay a pretty penny for them,” says Erich Hoyt, codirector of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) and a research fellow with the United Kingdom’s Whale and Dolphin Conservation. The cost of a live killer whale is, at minimum, US $1-million, a price tag that gives Russian whalers more than enough incentive.
In 1999, Hoyt, who has researched whales and dolphins all over the world, started FEROP with two collaborators, codirector Alexander Burdin and Japanese researcher Hal Sato. It began as a pilot research project on the killer whales inhabiting the northwest Pacific Ocean, a group that wasn’t being studied at all. He brought Russian scientists onboard and trained them in photo identification and other techniques.
Monitoring captures of any kind is very difficult in Russia. The Kamchatka Peninsula, which occupies 370,000 square kilometers, is essentially a wild frontier. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the east, the Sea of Okhotsk to the west, and the Bering Sea to the northeast, the peninsula is reachable only by plane, boat, or helicopter. Kamchatka has historically been a few man’s land, rich with wildlife and fish, and where hunting and fishing have always been a part of life. Whale hunting is illegal in Russia today, except for members of the indigenous tribes that live along the coast of the Chukchi and Bering Seas. Government regulations, however, permit capturing whales for “scientific, cultural, and educational purposes,” within an allowable quota. According to FEROP, regulators often ignore the quotas recommended by the organization, advice that’s based on scientific facts established by marine mammalogists. In the past, when FEROP recommended a quota of zero, the regional fisheries managers at the Pacific Fisheries Research Center (TINRO-Center) and the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography—which view marine mammals, including whales, as a fishery resource—allowed around 10 captures.
Today, three captured killer whales perform in shows at the new Moscow aquarium, Moskvarium, which opened in 2015. Russian killer whales have also been sent to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, one of the world’s largest aquariums, in Zhuhai, in China’s Hunan Province: two in 2013, five in 2014, and two in 2015. The whales were finally shown to the public in February. Some of the whales remained unseen for two years before they were put on display for the public, making animal rights activists all over the world worry that some may have died, unable to adjust to captivity, Rose said. Luckily, all the animals were still alive. “Assuming, of course, that these nine orcas are the original nine, which can’t be confirmed,” Rose notes.
It will be hard for the general public to understand the killer whales’ true fate through the haze of entertainment without educational efforts in both countries. Westerners might be more informed of the ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity, but that knowledge is fairly recent. Throughout most of history, the human interpretation (at least in the Western canon) of these creatures and their behaviors has been exceptionally flawed: killer whales have been cast as brutes, a distasteful animal in the realm of animal stories, more foe than friend, more bully than buddy. Education, and, ironically, captivity helped change perceptions . . .
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