Late last week I published an article at Outside Online about recent Russian wild orca captures. In the past year, 8 wild orcas have been captured, potentially presaging a new orca gold rush as marine park development continues in Asia. The article was based on information from author and Whale And Dolphin Conservation Research Fellow Erich Hoyt. Hoyt is co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), which has been studying wild orcas off the Kamchatka peninsula for more than a decade, and has been an important source of news on both wild beluga captures AND (now) wild orca captures.
If you are interested in following Erich’s work, his blog can be found here. The Russian Orca Facebook page can be found here. And if you want to read the first great book about killer whales, I highly recommend Erich’s Orca: The Whale Called Killer (newly released as an e-book).
Erich told me more about the history of Russia’s killer whales and what has been happening with regard to wild captures than I could get into the Outside article (which is doing its best to break Outside Online’s social media sharing record, with more than 4000 Facebook shares so far). So, with his permission, I am publishing the full Q&A I did with him here:
TZ: How long have you been studying the Russia orca populations, and what do we know about them in terms of numbers and types?
Erich Hoyt: I started studying killer whales off northern Vancouver Island in 1973 and spent 10 summers with Northwest Coast orcas, as told in my book Orca: The Whale Called Killer. We were always curious about what might be going on the other side of the Pacific, off Russia. We had also heard that a Japanese aquarium wanted to capture Russian orcas and we hoped we could influence that and maybe stop it. In 1999, I started the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) with a Russian scientist Alexander Burdin and a Japanese researcher Hal Sato. The goal was to engage Russian students and to build an all Russian team that could do the long-term studies needed. From the start, the goals were both science and conservation — we were sponsored by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), and the Humane Society International, and soon joined by Animal Welfare Institute and others. We have found two main ecotypes of killer whales: fish-eating (resident-type) and mammal-eating (transient-type) orcas, equivalent in size of pods, physical features and habits to those orcas living off the Northwest Coast of North America. Russian orcas have similar dialect systems, too. Most of our work has been with the fish-eating residents. Using photo-ID we have identified more than 500 killer whales off Kamchatka and about 800 around the Commander Islands.
TZ: What do you think prompted the onset of wild captures in the Sea Of Okhotsk?
Erich Hoyt: Russian captors have been trying to capture orcas for at least 15 years. They finally managed to surround multiple pods off southeast Kamchatka in 2003 including many orcas that we knew well from our studies, only a few days after we had left the field. They may well have waited for us to leave. One young female died in the nets, and another female was hoisted on board and died 13 days after being shipped across Russia to a Black Sea aquarium. Our whole FEROP team was really upset. After that, the captors made a number of failed attempts, but our team managed to get zero quotas for Eastern Kamchatka for the first time, effectively making any captures much more difficult on the Eastern Kamchatka side. Quotas of from 6 to 10 orcas were still issued every year for the Sea of Okhotsk, West of Kamchatka, but logistics there made captures more difficult. A few years ago, however, the Utrish Dolphinarium, the same one that made the previous orca captures off eastern Kamchatka, managed to catch one orca in the Sea of Okhotsk but she later escaped. Then, last year, another group of Russian captors caught a young female orca and brought her into captivity near Vladivostok. She is the one who is being called Narnia and she is still awaiting her captivity assignment. That capture gave the captors confidence that they could do this and — we suppose fueled by international demand that they are no doubt aware of due to beluga sales — they captured 7 orcas in 2 different capture operations in the Sea of Okhotsk from August to October this year.
TZ: What do we know about the outfits engaged in the wild captures? Are they also involved in the wild beluga captures?
Erich Hoyt: Yes, for these 7 orcas this year and the one last year, it’s one company doing the orca captures and they have also done beluga captures for some years. They have been identified publicly as “White Sphere”. This is a group of companies, in fact, with White Sphere building dolphinariums in Russia, White Whale capturing animals in the wild, and Aquatoriya operating dolphinariums. The Sochinskiy Delfinariy is a subsidiary of Aquatoriya, identified as the captor and owner of Narnia.
TZ: What methods are they using to make these wild captures? Why are the orcas trucked so far instead of being held on site?
Erich Hoyt: The whales are surrounded by a net in a shallow place close to shore, usually whole pods or even several pods, but we don’t know the precise details in this case. After being contained, the whales to be captured are picked out one at a time and dragged by the tail to the shore and transported from the enclosure — the same as they catch belugas. Young females are highly sought after but some males are of course required too. They move the whales quickly because there is no place to keep them onsite and they are no doubt afraid of sea conditions, so they must transport the orcas to the nearest port. We know from our research that the logistics for doing anything in Russia are difficult and expensive.
TZ: I’ve seen reports of orcas being killed over the years during Russian capture attempts. What do we know about orca deaths during the recent captures or previous captures?
Erich Hoyt: We have confirmed reports of the 2 young females who died in 2003, as I described above. About a year ago, the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) estimated that 5 orcas had died due to captures in the past, but only the 2 from 2003 are officially confirmed. We don’t know if any orcas died during the captures this year.
TZ: You mentioned in an update that Russian scientists and the state ecological commission have recommended to the Russian Federal Fisheries Agency that no permits be allowed in 2014. Are you hopeful the Federal Fisheries Agency will accept that recommendation, and when would you expect a decision?
Erich Hoyt: Scientists from our team and other scientists in Russia who understand killer whale biology have made this recommendation even before the captures occurred this year. The recommendation was based on the fact that orca quotas are being given on the basis of a single management species, when we know that there are at least two distinct ecotypes, the fish-eating residents and the mammal-eating transients, who are separate and need to be evaluated and managed separately. Getting the state ecological commission to endorse this idea was key. Now we hope the Federal Fisheries Agency will accept it. We will know later this year if quotas for capturing killer whales will be issued for 2014.
TZ: There are lots of rumors about where the orcas might go. What, if anything, is known about where the orcas might end up? Do you know anything about the prices they are being offered at?
Erich Hoyt: The rumors are China and Moscow where new facilities are coming on stream. To send the whales to China requires CITES permits and we have now found out that at least 2 CITES permits have been issued. We have no idea of the prices being offered now, but as long as 10-15 years ago, we know that a young female orca in prime condition could be worth $1 million USD. A lot depends on how many people per year pay to get into Sea World in the US, as well as paying to get into the growing number of such facilities in China, Japan and Russia. By last count, more than 120 facilities in these countries exhibit whales and/or dolphins. If there is no demand from the owners of these facilities and from the paying public, the selling price will go down and eventually there may be little or no supply offered for sale. Then the orca trafficking can stop.
Erich Hoyt is Research Fellow with WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project, and author of 20 books including Orca: The Whale Called Killer.