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Outrage as first orca is captured in Russian waters


1st October 2003

Far Eastern Russia Orca Project

WDCS has just received news of the capture of a female orca, or killer whale - the first known capture from a population living in one of the remotest regions on Earth.

The 5-metre female was captured on Friday September 26th, 2003,
in Avacha Gulf, Kamchatka, Eastern Russia, by captors working
for the Utrish Aquarium on the Black Sea. The following day, she
was transferred to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky where she is currently
being held in a sea pen in the bay, but the indications are that the
female will shortly be moved to the Utrish Aquarium.

WDCS has long feared that such a capture would take place. For the past three years - despite strong representations from WDCS and orca scientists and experts all over the world - the Russian authorities have issued capture permits, although previous capture attempts have been unsuccessful. This year, the captors have permits to capture up to 10 orcas (4 from the Kamchatka region, the remaining 6 in Sakhalin and Ohkotsk districts) and they are expected to continue trying to catch more orcas throughout October. WDCS is very concerned about the possibility of further captures, as well as the welfare of the captured orca and the effect her capture will have on the remaining members of her family group.

WDCS has a special interest in the orcas of Kamchatka. Since 1999, WDCS, along with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), has funded the (FEROP), a long-term Russian-Japanese-British initiative. The project has also received funding support from Cetacean Society International (CSI), Project Thursday's Child/Earth Island Institute, and the Animal Welfare Institute, in the US, plus the Sacher trusts in the UK and the Klüh Foundation in Germany. Breathing life into what was a previously unstudied population, this pioneering project has used photo-identification techniques to reveal the presence of at least 151 orcas resident in the main study area of central Avacha Gulf - sadly now also a capture site. Acoustic analysis has enabled valuable comparison of call types, variations and use, helping to establish kinship among local pods and communities.

All the findings to date, on the orcas' diet, foraging and socialising behaviour, as well as their communication - suggest that these orcas are a largely 'resident' population, comparable to those resident off British Columbia, Canada, and Washington State, USA, and likely possessing the same strong social bonds.

In 2001, a letter signed by more than 25 international orca scientists was presented to the Russian authorities asking them not to allow any orcas to be captured in Russian waters. The letter warned of the possible consequences of taking individuals from populations about which very little is known and for which any removals would have seriously negative implications.

In addition, there is no previous experience of capturing and keeping orcas in Russia. Any animals targeted are likely to suffer greatly from stress and potential harm during the capture itself and during the subsequent ordeal of long-distance transportation to the final captive facility. Those animals remaining in the pod are also likely to be traumatised by the capture process. The long-term danger is that Russian waters will become a regular source of orcas for the captivity industry, with disastrous consequences for the individuals and populations targeted.

WDCS is asking the Russian authorities to make public the full facts surrounding this first orca capture in Russian waters.

Orcas in captivity - Source: WDCS

Orcas are the largest dolphin, found mainly in colder waters of the world's oceans. As top predators in every ecosystem, they are intensely social and live in small, tightly-bonded family groups, or pods, that stay together for life. The populations in the best known areas number fewer than 300 whales. In the wild, the average lifespan for females is 50 years, with some living to 80 years. The average lifespan for males in the wild is 30 years.

Commercial orca captures began in the 1960s and Sea World quickly became the world's leading procurer of orcas. Since then, many orcas have died and suffered greatly during captures and in captivity for Sea World's multi-million dollar orca displays.

Since 1961, and not including this latest capture, 134 orcas have been captured from the wild and put on display in marine parks and aquariums around the world. Their striking black-and-white appearance, large size and the fact that these intelligent animals can be easily trained to perform tricks to entertain public audiences have made them popular choices for aquariums in North America, Europe and Asia. Sadly, though, these animals suffer greatly in captivity and the history of orca captivity is one of frustration, aggression, illness, failed pregnancies and premature death. In fact, of the 134 orcas captured in the wild, 110 are now dead. The average survival time in captivity of these 110 individuals was less than six years.

Captive breeding has increased the numbers held in marine parks around the world but of 63 known pregnancies in captivity, only 26 captive-born orca calves have survived. Today, the entire captive orca population totals 49 animals kept in 12 marine parks in five countries. Many countries, including the United Kingdom, have given up display of these animals. Countries that have seen severe reductions in the number of orcas in their waters due to capture, such as the USA, Canada and Iceland, have halted orca captures.

In captivity, orcas suffer physical and mental problems. In addition, they can be dangerous and have caused fatal injuries to each other and to trainers. They are deprived of their families and their ability to hunt and catch their food, confined to a relatively tiny pool where they do tricks to amuse the public. On average, orcas captured in the wild survive fewer than six years in captivity.

Meanwhile, many countries around the world are developing whale-watching enterprises focusing on wild orcas, rather than turning orcas into circus performers. Orcas, wherever they are found, have become some of the most popular whales in whale-watch operations, with many positive benefits for education, science and local communities. Around Vancouver Island alone, in US and Canadian waters, approximately 400,000 people a year watch orcas from boats or shore-based parks, spending $75 million USD in total revenues. WDCS urged Russia not to allow captures to go ahead and encouraged the government to support the whale-watching possibilities for orcas and other whales in Russia waters. WDCS, which has assisted in the sensible development of whale watching in Iceland, the Caribbean, and other countries, has even offered to send a special delegation to Russia to help develop Russia's vast potential for marine tourism.

Source: WDCS

Please see: Far Eastern Russia Orca Project