Decades before captive orcas started falling sharply out of fashion in the West, U.S. authorities had stopped allowing their capture in the wild. But many say the practice is alive and well — it has simply moved east.
Activists say Russia is the new frontier for catching wild orcas, an industry fueled by the growing demand for the crowd-wowing marine mammals from aquariums and theme parks in Russia and China.
Information about where orcas are caught and held is sketchy. Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), a nonprofit organization based in the United Kingdom, estimates that at least 16 orcas have been captured between 2012 and 2015 from the Sea of Okhotsk, off the coast of eastern Russia between Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. WDC believes that at least three orcas, which are also called killer whales, but are actually a type of dolphin, are in Moscow, and that Russia has exported at least seven to China.
WDC says the United States has 25 orcas in captivity, Europe has 10, Japan has seven, and South America has one. Russia didn’t have any orcas on display until a Moscow park called the “Mosquarium” opened in August 2015. It now has three orcas, according to WDC. There are 58 of the animals in captivity worldwide, the organization says.
In North America, orcas were routinely captured off the coast of Washington state and the neighboring Canadian province of British Columbia before Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972.
“They took a lot of animals out of there, so much so that the populations in the United States are now listed as an endangered species,” said Mark Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project, a program run by the Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit organization in Berkeley, California.
U.S. public opinion on orca capture took a dive after the 2013 release of the documentary film "Blackfish," which chronicled the killing of a SeaWorld trainer by an orca that had allegedly experienced severe stress in captivity. SeaWorld's net income dropped to $5.8 million in the second quarter of this year, compared to $37.4 million in the same period in 2014. Days ago, SeaWorld San Diego announced that it plans to phase out its current orca show.
With pressure against orca capture rising in the U.S., activists say the industry migrated to Iceland, then Japan, and now Russia.
“Everywhere else there are easily approached orcas, like in the U.S. or Iceland, has become a no-go zone,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C. “One by one the places where they used to be caught are closing their doors to the captures, so Russia is now the Wild West.”
Orca-hunters have been operating in waters off Russia where they were already capturing Beluga whales, activists said.
“Where [the orcas] were caught was in the same area, not the same exact place, but the same area as the beluga captures. So our understanding is, one of the beluga capture operations just started to take orcas,” Rose said.
“Globally, no one but Russia and China is buying orcas yet,” Rose said. “As for why anyone would want to get involved in this trade, a single orca can sell for up to several million dollars. That’s all the why you need.”
The Russian government regulates orca capture and in 2015 set a quota of 13 as the total allowable take for the year, the WDC said, citing figures from the Ministry of Agriculture. "Quotas were for 10 orcas annually until this recent increase to 13, which has us very concerned," Courtney Vail, WDC's campaigns and programs manager, told Al Jazeera in an email.
Researchers and activists say they have found it difficult to get exact orca capture numbers from the Russian government, and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration doesn’t routinely assess orca stocks outside of U.S. waters, said Kate Brogan, a spokeswoman for the NOAA.
Rose said researchers know almost nothing about the orca population in the Sea of Okhotsk. “Nobody is studying them. That’s the problem,” she said. “It is the least-regulated, least-sustainable place to be doing it, but that is also the only place that’s doing it. … They’re issuing quotas and permits about a population about which they know nothing. And they don’t seem to care.”
The Russian government’s Ministry of Agriculture had not replied to a question about the number of orcas caught in Russia at the time this article was published.
Numbers from China, believed to be a burgeoning market for captive orcas, are also hard to come by. Hu Chunmei, a project coordinator based in Beijing working for the Endangered Species Fund, said that, according to the organization’s sources, a theme park called Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in the southern city of Zhuhai has seven young orcas, both males and females. Hu also said Chinese marine parks have at least 18 beluga whales from Russia.
“There is no announcement about the orcas and beluga whales presently. And we have no more information about the orcas and beluga whales,” Chimelong Ocean Kingdom said, in an email to Al Jazeera in response to questions about whether the theme park has captive orcas or belugas.
No U.S. aquariums are known to have tried to import orcas captured in Russian waters. The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has attempted to bring in 18 belugas captured in the Sea of Okhotsk, but the NOAA in 2013 denied the required permit. The aquarium sued the NOAA over the denial in 2013 and lost.
NOAA said that it denied the permit partly because it was unable to determine if the importation would adversely impact wild beluga stocks, and that five of the belugas were captured when they were so young that they were still nursing.
Eighty-one beluga whales were caught in the Sea of Okhotsk in 2013. Thirty-four more were believed to have died as a result of the capture operation. Seven died in temporary holding tanks, according to a 2014 paper presented to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission in Bled, Slovenia, the WDC said. The paper was written by Russian researchers Olga Shpak and Dmitri Glazov, from the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Activists and experts said capturing marine mammals could have a devastating effect on species numbers. Orcas give birth only once in every three to seven years, according to NOAA.
"It's very easy [to catch wild orcas] if you go in there and you just take a few baby animals out that you're going to hold in captivity,” said Palmer of the International Marine Mammal Project. “You have this big gap where there isn't any generation going forward."