Almost 100 captured beluga whales and orcas are languishing at a coastal fishery in far-east Russia, which allegedly sought to sell the animals to Chinese aquariums, activists said.
Earlier this month, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Gordeyev vowed to remove the whales from the fishery in Srednyaya Bay, Russian news agency Interfax reported.
The facility — found to be in possession of 87 whales and 11 orcas — is due to be emptied as soon as weather conditions are warm enough for the animals to be transported, Gordeyev said.
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They will then be taken to a center that specializes in caring for large marine wildlife at Russky Island near the far-eastern city of Vladivostok.
But for now, the fate of the animals remains unclear, as they continue to sit in icy waters in small rectangular pens in what has been labelled a "whale jail."
Fishing companies charged
Gordeyev's promise came after Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) brought charges against four companies in late February for breaking fishing laws and demanded that the whales be freed.
"Expertise showed that the animals were kept in unsatisfactory conditions, and must be released into their natural habitat," the TASS news agency cited the FSB as saying.
The FSB said it had been instructed to empty the facility after uncovering the 98 sea creatures, according to a statement carried by Russian news wires.
Animals in distress
Dmitry Lisitysn, head of Russian NGO Sakhalin Environment Watch, was invited by authorities to visit the facility on January 18 and 19 to assess the animals' health, National Geographic reported.
Lisitsyn told National Geographic that among the captured whales were 15 beluga babies who likely had not been weaned off their mothers' milk when they were taken and that all of the beluga whales appeared to be in distress.
Lisitsyn said there were orcas with lesions around their dorsal fins, which could be from frostbite, or a fungal or bacterial infection from the stagnant water.
Celebrities speak out
The so-called "whale jail" has caught the attention of celebrities including Pamela Anderson and Leonardo DiCaprio, who encouraged his Twitter followers to sign a Change.org petition calling for the whales to be freed.
According to the Change.org petition, there are currently 11 orcas, 5 baby walrus and 90 baby belugas held in these enclosures, and 15 of the belugas are yearlings that need their mothers for survival.
The petition for the whales has received more than 900,000 signatures.
law/jm (dpa, Reuters)