In China, the market for marine mammals is booming. The country is home to 76 theme parks that revolve around dolphins and other cetaceans, with at least 25 more planned. These parks are a sight to behold, but behind every beluga whale trick show there’s a dark backstory.
The demand for marine mammals to fill these burgeoning theme parks is fueling the illegal capture of cetaceans from the wild. And as the latest twist in the “whale prison” saga unfolding in Russia’s far east near the sea of Japan illustrates, that capture process isn’t pretty.
Last year, roughly 100 whales—a mix of belugas and orcas—wound up in small, crowded enclosures there. They’ve been seen surrounded by sea ice, which threatens them with hypothermia. Now, the Kremlin is finally moving to free these poor creatures, which, allegedly, had been captured illegally by four Russian companies working together to sell them to Chinese aquariums. These animals can be worth millions of dollars each.
Russian authorities first announced last month they would be bringing criminal charges against the companies holding the animals. Russia is the only country in the world that allows the live capture of marine mammals—but for scientific or educational purposes only. Capturing them to sell for entertainment is illegal under its laws.
The animals’ impending freedom follows a visit to the enclosure last week by acclaimed French oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of Jacques Cousteau, whose fascination with the seas helped drive much of their exploration. Jean-Michel will be working with a international team of scientists to figure out how to safely release the 11 orcas and 87 beluga whales that remain within the enclosures, per the CBC.
“An official decision has been taken to release all the animals into the wild,” said Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of the Primorsky region, to the Tass news agency, per the Guardian. “Scientists from Cousteau’s team and Russian scientists will decide when and which animals to release.”
The first step is to create a rehabilitation center near where the animals are now sometime this year, according to Russian news agency Tass. The rest of the plan will follow the center’s development and depend on the health of the animals. Three belugas and an orca disappeared last year, so a criminal investigation is ongoing to find out what happened to them.
Moving the animals, even if for their benefit, will be difficult and poses a new threat to them. Hopefully, these prisoners will eventually return home to the high seas. In the meanwhile, it might be time for international authorities to take a harder look at China’s marine mammal entertainment practices to ensure more of these magnificent creatures don’t suffer.