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Russia will free nearly 100 captive whales from "prison" after public outrage

After months of public outrage, Russian authorities ordered the release of nearly 100 beluga and orca whales held captive in Russia Thursday, The Associated Press reports. Environmental activists have been trying to get the whales released for months, garnering the attention of the public, celebrities and President Vladimir Putin. Last week, Putin ordered authorities to investigate the case and release the whales. 

The whales are being held in cages in the southeast part of Russia in Srednyaya Bay near the Sea of Japan port town of Nakhodka. Images of the "whale jail" first appeared last year, shocking the public. Originally, 90 beluga whales and 12 orca whales were believed to be held at the facility, but local prosecutors said that three belugas appear to have escaped. Additionally, environmentalists reported the disappearance of one orca early last month. The whales were discovered living in cruel conditions in anticipation of being sold to Chinese aquariums. Most of them have been held in captivity since summer 2018. 

"There are very small chain-link pens, 12 to 15 baby whales are put there and have to be on top of each other," activist Nina Zyryanova told the AP. "Although these animals are native to the Arctic, they must move, hundred kilometers a day, to stay warm."

Captive orcas and belugas in Russian Far East
Captive orcas and belugas in Srednyaya Bay Yuri Smityuk

According to a change.org petition to release the whales, this is the "largest number of sea creatures to ever be held in small temprary enclosures." The petition — which has received close to one million signatures — calls on the Russian government to release the whales into their natural habitat as soon as possible. "The belugas need to be transferred to responsible people that will feed them, rehabilitate them and release them into their natural habitat when they are ready," the petition states.

The whales have also attracted celebrity attention. "Join me in speaking out against the inhumane capture of orcas and belugas in Russia," actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio tweeted Tuesday, along with a link to the petition. Pamela Anderson also spoke publicly about the situation, writing an open letter to Putin on the Pamela Anderson Foundation website Sunday. 

"As you know, people around the world have become increasingly concerned about marine biodiversity, and about the health and vitality of whales in particular," Anderson wrote. "News about the 'whale jail' near Nakhodka, the icy conditions, and the suffering of the orca and beluga whales is causing international concern." Anderson asked that Putin personally order the release of the whales back into the wild. 

The whales made headlines in November 2018 after drone footage of the facility went viral. Shortly after, regional authorities opened an investigation into the illegal capture of the animals. The animals are still being held in the small, crowded "whale jail" enclosures while authorities figure out how to safely release them. Russian officials have charged four companies, which appear to be affiliated, for violating fishing laws. The companies have previously faced fines for illegal capture and have a history of selling animals to amusement parks abroad.

Captive orcas and belugas in Russian Far East
Captive beluga whales in Srednyaya Bay Yuri Smityuk

The Border Guards Department suspects that the four companies captured the whales illegally, according to the AP. Border guards also confirmed activists' suspicions that the whales are being kept in inhumane conditions in a marine containment facility. While the whales are owned by four separate companies, company records and court filings indicate that they are affiliated. In an interview with Russian state TV in late 2018, a spokesperson for the facility denied allegations of poor treatment of the whales. The guards did not specify when the whales will be released from captivity. 

"We are doing everything we can," Ecology Minister Dmitry Kobylkin told Russian state news agency TASS, according to Reuters. "No one objects to releasing the orcas, but the most important thing is to release them properly." During a meeting held by the Ministry of Natural Resources Monday, representatives unanimously concluded the importance of minimizing further harm to animals during efforts to return them to their natural environment. 

It is illegal to capture whales except for "scientific" and educational purposes, following a worldwide ban on commercial whale hunting in 1982. However, these whales were believed to be captured for sale to Chinese amusement parks, where they can sell for as much as $6 million. The United States stopped catching wild orcas in the 1970s following negative publicity, so China heavily relies on Russian exports to support its popular aquariums.