Russian scientists defended methods used to return the first of some 100 illegally captured whales from their “prison” to open water, saying the release of the first batch was successful and further releases are planned.
"The hardest thing in the release was that nobody has done this before," Kirill Kolonchin, director of the All-Russian Fisheries and Oceanography Institute (VNIRO), told reporters on July 4.
"From the point of view of science, this is a fantastic experience" that will provide information about how the animals behave when subjected to an extended period in captivity, he said.
News agencies in February said Russian authorities filed criminal charges against the owners of four companies in the Pacific region of Primorye for holding dozens of captive whales in shoddy and cramped conditions.
The RIA-Novosti and TASS news agencies said the Federal Security Service had accused the owners of violating federal fishing laws and ordered the animals released.
“An examination showed that the animals were kept in unsatisfactory conditions, and must be released into their natural habitat," state-run TASS quoted the service as saying at the time.
The whales were destined for sale in aquariums abroad.
The case had sparked outrage in Russia and criticism from President Vladimir Putin when images of the captive whales, which included orcas and belugas, were published last year.
Russian media called the conditions a “whale prison.”
The first group was released into the Sea of Okhotsk last week. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Gordeyev told Putin on July 3 that those whales had fully readapted to a natural habitat.
However, Oganes Targulyan, Greenpeace coordinator for Russia, on July 4 said the mammals should have spent some time in temporary enclosures before being returned to the open sea.
Transporting the whales 1,800 kilometers on trucks inside water tanks brought on unnecessary risks, argued Targulyan, who said it would be better to move them instead on ships.
But scientists with Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography said all necessary precautions were taken to release the first two orcas and six belugas.
"We think today that there is no other option than what we used," said Kirill Kolonchin, director of the institute.
"The operation was successful, today we understand how we need to transport the animals and next time we will deliver them the same way," he said.
"Nobody in the world has had experience in massive release of whales," said Vyacheslav Bizikov, a deputy director.
The officials said the institute planned to release the captive whales once every two weeks and that the next batch was scheduled for next week.