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Russian officials say will free 'whale jail' animals

Nearly 100 orca and beluga whales captured for sale to aquariums have been kept in small pens dubbed a "whale jail" in the Russian Far East
Nearly 100 orca and beluga whales captured for sale to aquariums have been kept in small pens dubbed a "whale jail" in the Russian Far East AFP
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Moscow (AFP)

Russian officials said Monday they will work towards freeing all orcas and belugas from a notorious facility in the east of the country, after a visit by US-based marine mammal advocates.

Nearly 100 orca and beluga whales captured for sale to aquariums have been kept in small pens for months in what the media nicknamed a "whale jail" in the Russian Far East, as the campaign to release them gathered strength and became global.

Kremlin-backed Far Eastern governor Oleg Kozhemyako on Monday announced that he has "made a decision to free the animals into the wild," after meetings with US advocates Jean-Michel Cousteau and Charles Vinick who visited the facility last week.

"Our goal is to release all of them," a joint statement put out by Kozhemyako, Cousteau and Vinick said.

Cousteau, the son of celebrated ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, is the founder of Ocean Futures Society, while Charles Vinick heads the Whale Sanctuary Project and has worked on rehabilitation of captive orcas in the past.

Cousteau told AFP that he believed "many of the animals will be released" but that it will take time to identify the right decision on each animal.

"If some are sick we will take care of them," he said.

He said dolphinariums should move away from using marine mammals and instead use technology to "connect the public to the ocean through 3D projections" as well as encourage seeing the animals in the wild.

The "whale jail" has exposed the lack of legislation in Russia regulating the capture of marine mammals, with companies abusing catch permits for "educational purposes" only to proceed to sell the animals to the captivity industry, notably in China where it is booming.

Russia is the only country that catches wild orcas for aquariums, with each animal fetching $6 million or more on the opaque market.

On Thursday, Russia's environment minister said that releasing the animals in the winter would be too dangerous. "Now we are in summer, and this work can and must be done."

But environmentalist Dmitry Lisitsyn, whose group Sakhalin Watch has called for their release for months, said the government has not even filed a legal complaint to seize the animals from the companies keeping them.

"A legal decision is a decisive factor (in freeing the animals), and it doesn't exist," he said, concerned that when summer comes, officials will say their hands are tied.

"It's a battle," he told AFP. "It's possible that the forces behind the captive companies are just killing time."

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