Russia to release killer whales in new habitat, despite expert advice

Moscow (AFP) –


Russia is set to free controversially captured killer whales over the next month, but not return the animals to their original habitat despite expert advice, a scientist said Wednesday.

Instead the animals will be released from their pens in Russia's Far East and may "disrupt vacationers" at resorts nearby, said Vladislav Rozhnov, who was involved in talks over their fate.

Nearly 100 belugas and orcas were captured last summer and kept in small pens by commercial firms who had planned to deliver them to aquariums, including in China where the industry is booming.

Ten killer whales, or orcas, will be released "in late May to early June," Rozhnov said during a briefing at the Russian environment ministry.

He said it would be better to transport them, as Russian and foreign scientists have advised, but this has been deemed too costly.

Instead they will be freed near their captivity location near the town of Nakhodka -- over 1300 kilometres (800 miles) south from where they were caught in the Sea of Okhotsk.

Here there is a risk that the whales will "stay near the pens where they were fed" and bother humans.

"Science gives recommendations, but the decision is taken by government authorities," said Rozhnov, who heads the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Environment and is part of a council on the fate of the whales together with other agencies.

"We hope that the released animals will go north and return to their native waters," Rozhnov said.

Russian officials last month met with US-based conservationists experts Jean-Michel Cousteau and Charles Vinick, who visited the facility with the killer whales and 87 beluga whales, also captured last year.

Rozhnov said there was no precise decision on the beluga whales.

In a statement Wednesday, Cousteau's team said releasing them near the facility where they are being held carries a "high number of significant risks", including potential conflict with people and boats in the area due to "aggressive behaviours observed in some of the orcas".

Such a release "leads to likely long-term costs and diminished potential for survival," the team said in a statement, advising once again to take the whales where they were captured following an "acclimatisation period" in remote enclosures.

Russia is the only country still catching wild orcas and belugas, and the murky trade of marine mammals has boomed in recent years together with the aquarium industry in China, which uses Russian animals in its new marine parks.

The fisheries agency has defended the capture as a legitimate industry, though scientists argue it threatens the species' populations.