Drone footage above the Russian coast has spotted more than 100 whales and orcas trapped in tiny underwater prisons.
The animals are captive in small enclosures, with just enough room to swim a few feet. Estimates say that the number of marine captives’ number about 90 beluga whales and 11 orcas. This is the biggest “whale jail” to ever be discovered.
Activist groups, like Whale and Dolphin Conservation, have raised an outcry against the cruelty of keeping marine life in cages, especially considering where these animals are most likely bound.
Recent footage has captured cranes lifting whales from the enclosures and transferring them to other receptacles, presumably to be transported to other locations. Some of the animals have stayed in these enclosures for more than four months.
The capture of cetaceans for purposes of entertainment is illegal.
There are strict laws governing the capture and breeding of cetaceans. Wildlife conservation groups suspect that this whale jail is operating outside the law and providing marine life to ocean theme parks in China.
Although it is highly illegal, a single whale can fetch more than $6 million. China is currently developing a large number of ocean theme parks, which makes the country the most likely destination of the captive marine animals.
It is absolutely illegal under international law to trade cetaceans for the purposes of entertainment. Adults only may be captured for science or education. However, people around the world frequently disobey these laws, and their actions are devastating the whale population all over the oceans.
But there are other concerns with the whale jails.
Four companies have joined up to capture these whales, and they have a history of illegal whale exportation. Between 2013 and 2016, they were found to have exported 13 orcas to China.
Companies have a variety of ways of slipping beneath the notice of the law or finding loopholes to make their work technically legal. Some of these include “renting” marine life rather than outright selling it since there is no legal provision forbidding this.
Currently, the companies claim that the whales are being held for legal purposes. Video footage seems to show otherwise, though. The unnamed companies have already drastically outstripped the number of animals they received permission to capture earlier in 2018.
Aside from the legality of the capture and containment, the condition of the whale jails is still under speculation.
Lawyers are looking into the conditions to find out whether the whales are being treated humanely and have everything they need. They will also determine whether the animals are undergoing any inhumane treatment. Activists from Greenpeace Russia have already expressed outrage at the treatment of the animals, calling the imprisonment “torture.”
On top of all of these issues, there are other concerns. The enclosures are so small and hold such a high number of animals that many experts are worried that not just adults are being contained.
The capture of juvenile whales is illegal for any purpose under international law. What’s more, it opens many new concerns about the ability of these species to continue to grow.
Whale populations are headed for trouble if humans don’t step in.
“Catching them at this tempo, we risk losing our entire orca population,” said Greenpeace Russia research coordinator Oganes Targulyan. “The capture quota now is 13 animals a year, but no one is taking into account that at least one orca is killed for every one that is caught.”
These species are already threatened by extinction for a variety of reasons. While some of these threats include elevating ocean temperatures and a lack of food sources, most of the danger to the future of marine life comes directly from humans. Despite international laws and efforts, many whales are still hunted and captured for entertainment, supplies, or food.
It’s not just in Russia that the problem exists. On the other side of the world, the North Atlantic right whales are alarming experts with new migratory patterns and an almost total lack of newborns. What is more, they continue to be found dead — 18 of them between June 2017 and April 2018. This is the largest death event scientists have seen in the species, and they’re concerned.
Some of the whales showed signs of dying from blunt force trauma, most likely from being run over by ships. Whales also frequently are injured by fisherman’s ropes. About 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales have scars from becoming snared in fishing ropes. If they cannot get free, whales run the danger of drowning.
Even if they manage to escape, they can die of infection or injuries. North Atlantic right whales’ numbers have dwindled to about 450, and there are only 100 females of breeding age. Experts say that in 25 years, the species may be gone for good.
There are even more concerns about orcas.
Orcas are in particular danger of extinction, not just in Asia, but around the world.
“The very first thing we should be doing is holding the line, and not increasing threats and harms that are already there, clearly we don’t want to be adding to the problem,” said Paul Paquet of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in Sydney, B.C. “There is an urgency here that is not well-appreciated; they are certainly in jeopardy.”
Commercial whaling has been around for more than 300 years.
The commercial whaling industry has been destroying the whale population around the world for hundreds of years. While commercial whaling is now internationally banned, that doesn’t stop many companies.
But there are even more threats facing marine populations worldwide. Increased human presence on the ocean has brought trash and construction into the water. Climate change is decimating their food sources. All of this means that they are malnourished, in danger of injury, and forced to change their migration and breeding patterns.
Another significant problem is noise pollution. Deep-sea drilling, shipping, oil production, and other ocean construction disturbs quiet ocean environments. Whales rely on their sensitive hearing to find prey and communicate with its pod. Manmade construction equipment can cause hearing damage and make it difficult for them to find food.
Experts have dire warnings for the future of whale populations.
In July 2018, after an orca named J50 was presumed dead from slow starvation, the Center for Whale Research made a statement discussing the human involvement in the dwindling population.
“The message brought by J50, and by J35 and her dead calf a few weeks ago, is that the [southern resident killer whales] are running out of reproductive capacity and extinction of this population is looming, while the humans convene task forces and conference calls that result in nothing, or worse than nothing, diverting attention and resources from solving the underlying ecological problems that will ultimately make this once-productive region unlivable for all.”
There is no telling what the future holds for cetaceans. But a starting point is to shut down any companies that are actively harming or trading them.
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