As Russian officials met in Moscow to decide the fate of nearly 100 ailing beluga whales and orcas caught in the wild and held in a "whale jail" in the Far East, Hollywood celebrities and animal rights activists continue to urge that the mammals be released.
The Russian government commission of experts that met for the first time on March 12 is tasked with deciding what to do with the 11 killer whales, 87 beluga whales, and five juvenile walruses captured by four Russian companies last year in the Sea of Japan in hopes of selling them to newly built marine parks in China. They are said to fetch up to millions of dollars apiece.
The animals, which routinely travel tens of kilometers a day in the wild, have been kept in small pens in Srednyaya Bay near the Russian port city of Nakhodka since at least October.
Russian and international animal rights groups -- and Hollywood celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Pamela Anderson -- have been campaigning for the highly intelligent animals to be released before they perish.
Biologists and veterinarians who have been allowed to see the cetaceans in their cages -- which are 25 meters long by nine meters wide -- say many of the whales are sick.
"The whales are cold and because of the stress and hardship conditions [of being in the pens], their immune systems suffer and they certainly get sick," said Tatyana Denisenko, a microbiologist who examined them after word spread of conditions at the facility. "Some killer whales had lesions on their skin, which can be associated with both hypothermia and the presence of infectious diseases and fungi."
She added that, although killer and beluga whales are used to life in icy water, "they need to move a lot to keep warm."
'Could Be In Agony'
One killer whale, named Kirill, was seen by activists and officials in late January with his belly up and unresponsive to the other orcas in his pen.
"The Orca Kirill is dying and may already be dead or he could be in agony for a long time," Lora Beloivan, the director of the nearby Seal Rehabilitation Center, said on Facebook after visiting the captured whales.
Many suspect that some of the whales -- many of which are very young -- have already died.
"There [are] already one orca and three belugas [missing from the initial group], and the companies that conduct this dirty business said that the animals escaped [from their pens] but we don't believe that," Oganes Targulyan, head of Greenpeace Russia's research unit, told RFE/RL. "These animals were ill, and we believe that they have died -- so animals are already dying."
Protest actions by Russian NGOs blocked the sale of the whales to China, which is among the world's biggest markets for sea animals with 12 ocean parks and aquariums already in operation and many more being built.
"Russia seems to be the only country that allows them to be captured, and China seems to be the market," Captain Paul Watson, founder and executive director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, told RFE/RL. "The marine aquarium industry in China is getting bigger and bigger -- basically a marine-park amusement-center thing, like Sea World.... They want to exploit these animals for public amusement."
WATCH: Imprisoned Baby Whales Bound For China, Claim Russian Activists (originally published February 18, 2019)
Bans on the capture of killer and beluga whales for commercial purposes exist in many of the historical centers of whaling or live hunts, including the United States (since 1972), Canada (1975), Iceland (1990), Norway, Japan, Australia (1980), and New Zealand (1978). Many other countries prohibit such hunts in their waters, or ban the import, display, or purchase of whales and other marine mammals.
A worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1982 can be skirted by countries issuing permits for whales to be caught or killed for scientific reasons.
But Russia remains an outlier by allowing the legal capture of cetaceans for what are transparently commercial purposes.
"[These orcas and killer whales being held on the Russian coast] were captured for so-called cultural-educational purposes and, according to the law, they can be exhibited in Russian aquariums or theme parks," said Targulyan. "But in reality, the companies that caught them [did so with]...credit from Chinese banks, and this credit they received [in exchange for] selling the animals to Chinese ocean parks."
The sea mammals caught in Russian waters command big payouts on the marine-park market, with a single killer whale reportedly going for anywhere from $1 million to $7 million.
Russia has officially sold 15 orcas to China in the past five years for about $1 million per animal, according to customs declarations.
But the website of one Chinese aquarium announced it recently paid some 200 million yuan (about $28.7 million) for four killer whales from Russia.
Many more whales and other sea animals are believed to be sold illegally.
The smaller beluga whales -- which are gray at birth but become ghostly white as they mature into adults -- earn less than killer whales but still command large sums from oceanariums around the world.
The potential haul from the more than 100 whales and walruses in the "whale jail" is massive.
"I would say they could get tens of millions of dollars [for selling them to Chinese aquariums], judging by the numbers of animals that they have," said the Sea Shepherd's Watson, whose group routinely plies international waters to protect sea life, including in the past by positioning its ships between whaling boats and their prey.
Watson added that the cost of capturing the whales, transporting them to pens, and feeding and caring for them before their purchase is also high.
"I'm sure they've invested a lot of money into this already," Watson said.
Greenpeace's Targulyan said the whales captive in Nahkodka were captured by four companies: Oceanarium, Afalina, White Whale, and Sochi Dolphinarium.
The companies have been charged by the Khabarovsk branch of the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office on multiple counts of violating fishing regulations, while the regional office of the Investigative Committee is probing criminal cases of illegal harvesting of marine bioresources and abuse of animals.
"[The capture of the whales] is illegal according to [Greenpeace Russia's] understanding and according to the understanding of [Russia's] general prosecutor," Targulyan said. "But only the court can decide if it is legal or illegal, and all of us are waiting for the court decision. But the animals cannot wait so long."
The "whale jail" case even captured the attention of DiCaprio, the international film star and environmentalist, who issued a tweet urging his followers to sign a petition urging the whales to be released. More than 1.23 million people had signed by March 12.
Pamela Anderson, the former model and Baywatch star who serves as the Sea Shepherd's international ambassador, has appealed to President Vladimir Putin to personally ensure that the whales are released and called for an end to the practice of capturing the sea mammals.
Anderson, who has met with Russian officials on environmental issues in the past, said ending the practice would be "a great gift for the entire world."
Added Watson: "Russia would receive the appreciation of millions of people around the globe if their legacy of successfully rescuing cetaceans can continue by freeing these captive orcas and belugas from their prison in Russia."
But even animal rights activists disagree on exactly how the orcas and beluga whales should be released back into the wild.
Some say the animals should be released as soon as possible into their natural environment, while others feel strongly they should be allowed a period of rehabilitation and healing before leaving their pens.
Very Big Stress
Two Russian officials have recommended that the whales be taken to new cages on Russky Island, near Vladivostok, to be treated before being set free. But several animal rights activists have said that is a bad idea due to the polluted waters at that new holding area and the toll that another major transport would have on the animals.
"We don't believe it is a good idea that the animals will go from one prison to another prison.... It's still a prison," Targulyan said. "And also, transportation is a very big stress for them. So we think that it is not a [good] idea."
Greenpeace Russia is calling for independent experts to provide treatment to the sick whales while expanding the current pens to create a less cramped environment while they recover.
"[They should] make better conditions there...so that the animals can move more freely and [specialists can] start rehabilitation and re-adaptation work with all of these animals," Targulyan said. "Wait a little bit, maybe until the end of April, maybe until May, and then somehow transport them to the areas where they were caught."
The special government commission -- which includes members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, universities, and the National Scientific Center for Marine Biology -- will now need to decide how best to resolve the situation.
On February 22, just two days after DiCaprio's Twitter appeal, Putin issued an order calling for the issue to be resolved by March 1 and the Presidential Administration took the issue under its special control.
"We would like to see more celebrities ask President Putin to help with this situation," said Targulyan. "It really is very helpful. We believe that it has a very big impact."
Written by Pete Baumgartner with reporting by Current Time correspondent Dariya Ali-zade