The Russian government is currently assessing recommendations from several organizations for the rehabilitation and release of the 97 orcas and beluga whales who were captured last year in Russian waters and are being held in sea pens in Srednyaya Bay.
The following press release highlights the observations and recommendations that our Jean-Michel Cousteau/Whale Sanctuary Project team has submitted to the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute on Fisheries and Oceanography, which coordinates implementation of fishery research plans and programs in the Russian Federation.
A .pdf copy of this press release, in Russian and English, can be accessed here.
Jean-Michel Cousteau/Whale Sanctuary Project Team Recommendations for Release of Orcas and Belugas from Srednyaya Bay
Released in Russia on May 15, 2019
A team of world-renowned international and Russian scientists and marine mammal specialists, led by Jean-Michel Cousteau, has prepared detailed recommendations for VNIRO and the Ministry of Natural Resources for the release of orca and belugas, currently held in captivity in Srednyaya Bay, into their natural habitat.
The team underscored that there are numerous reasons to believe that release of the orca and belugas held in Srednyaya Bay would be successful if conducted responsibly and with the welfare of the animals at the forefront of their rehabilitation and release. The team also said that any release must be preceded by a period of rehabilitation, designed specifically for the demands of the release strategy and the individual welfare needs of each cetacean.
The team evaluated three different options for potential release of the orcas and belugas. The team also provided an overview of transport and release options and key considerations for successful release.
The team determined that release of the orcas and belugas in reported capture (or adjacent) locations near associated wild populations and available prey yields the highest prospects for successful long-term survival. This approach has the highest likelihood for successful social reintegration, the highest likelihood of successful foraging, is the most scientifically robust option, and takes into account the widest range of welfare considerations for long-term success.
A second option, if capture records are not accurate, is to release the orcas and belugas in strategic locations based on records of conspecifics and prey availability. This approach provides benefits of suitable habitat with suitable prey availability, and whales released near conspecifics, increasing the chance that they could potentially integrate into the wild groups.
The team reviewed a third option – release directly in Srednyaya Bay – and identified a high number of significant risks. Although this approach is logistically simple and inexpensive, this approach includes risks of challenges with negative behaviors and habituation of the orcas and belugas, including the potential for them to keep returning to the area. The cetaceans may develop nuisance behaviors, such as removing fish from lines and nets. Additionally, aggressive behaviors observed in some of the orcas at the Srednyaya Bay facility may continue post-release if the animals are released in the nearby area, which could pose a concern for people and small vessels. Release in Srednyaya Bay is least likely to allow for social reintegration, leads to likely long-term costs, and diminished potential for survival of the cetaceans.
Following its review, the Jean-Michel Cousteau/Whale Sanctuary Project Team recommends:
- Complete health assessments, medical diagnostics, and treatment of any ailments prior to release to prevent transmission of unknown pathogens to wild populations;
- Rehabilitation in advance of release for both the orcas and belugas;
- Transport to reported capture (or adjacent) locations near associated conspecifics and available prey;
- Acclimatization period in remote sea pens;
- Release from remote sea pens;
- Post-release monitoring.
The team stated that for maximum chances of success, it is imperative that release of all releasable orca and beluga happen during the 2019 summer season. Due to the tight timeline to accomplish release this year, a decision regarding release and implementation of a responsible strategy needs to be initiated as quickly as possible.
“The science is clear,” said Jeff Foster, Scientific and Field Team Leader for the Jean-Michel Cousteau Team. “Releasing the orcas and belugas in or near their capture locations would be the most responsible approach, and provides the highest likelihood of successful release and long-term survival.”
“The Russian Government has an opportunity to be a global environmental leader by releasing the orca and beluga in a responsible way,” said Jean-Michel Cousteau. “I am confident that Russian government officials, when they look at the science, will decide on what’s best for the orcas and belugas – to release them back to the habitat from where they came. That will be a great day for the ocean, and for our humanity.”