Statement from Free Russian Whales coalition
30 October, 2019.
Earlier today the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute on Fisheries and Oceans (VNIRO in Russian) published a new update on its web-site. The Russian companies that are holding the 50 belugas in their “Whale Jail” are now refusing to sign the agreement for them to sell them to VNIRO in order to release the animals back into the sea. The agreement documents were sent out on October 24, and needed to be signed by tomorrow (October 31) in order to take effect. http://vniro.ru/ru/novosti/zavershilas-podgotovka-k-transportirovke-belukh-iz-bukhty-srednyaya
Such a sudden change of position by the four capture companies sends out a harsh message. It threatens to disrupt the release of the remaining inmates from the “Whale Jail.” As it turns out, winter is closing in quickly, and severe autumn storms in the region leave only a few days for them to transport the animals safely back to the ocean. This also means that the 50 belugas face the terrible, but very real prospect of remaining in their cramped cages there in Srednyaya Bay for yet another winter—a winter that portends to be much colder than the previous one.
Our coalition believes that these capture companies are attempting to disrupt or stop the process of freeing all the animals. They know that the legal status of ownership for these belugas is still in question—mainly because several state agencies on their part have not taken any action to clarify the matter.
Our coalition has tried everything we could to create a legal standing for the release of these last inmates from the “Whale Jail.” There were several Sakhalin NGOs that even brought legal cases to court, and subsequently won two difficult trials, by proving that all the permits for capturing the orcas and belugas whales this last year had been issued illegally by the two government agencies responsible for such permits (namely: Rosprirodnadzor and Rosrybolovstvo).
Meanwhile the Coast Guard division of the FSB in the Primorski Region of Russia also managed to prove in court that the law had been violated when a separate group of killer whales (orcas) had been captured. The result of this latter case was that the trading companies had to pay a fine of 150 million rubles.
Nonetheless, not a single state agency has taken any action to force the removal of these illegally-taken cetaceans from their captors.
To begin with, this action should have been taken by Rosprirodnadzor (the Federal Agency for Monitoring the Natural Environment). They could have based their decision on Article 59 of the National Laws “On Animals” and begun instituting proceedings under article 8.35 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offenses. These articles deal with the capture, custody, transportation, and maintenance of animals in violation of the conditions that were set forth in any original permit.
There is also a Federal Investigative Committee in Russia that has had the opportunity to free these belugas from their illegal captivity. As early as November 16, 2018 the Committee’s investigative department decided to open a criminal case in the Primorski Region of Russia, basing their case on Article 26 of the Russian National Criminal Code. The claim was that 11 orcas and 90 beluga whales had been caught illegally by an unidentified group of employees working for the four capture companies in question. This case is still being considered by the local Khabarovsk investigative division. The investigator in this case is legally able (under Article 82 of the Code of Criminal Procedure) to decide on the return of these animals to their rightful owner—which happens to be the Russian Federation itself, and to the federal agencies responsible for these animals (once again the Russian Fisheries Agency, or Rosrybolovstvo, as well as Rosprirodnadzor). The legal basis for this action became all the more obvious after federal courts on Sakhalin Island and in the Primorski Region uncovered many instances of gross violations of law, by both the capture companies and government officials. But despite all this, for almost a year the Investigative Committee has been fruitlessly pursuing the identity of the “mystery group of employees” within these capture companies.
And finally, in our opinion, the facts that have been proved in court by the Coast Guard and by our Sakhalin environmental plaintiffs, could (and should) have led to a law suit by the Russian Prosecutor General’s office that would have seized and returned the illegally-captured whales to their rightful owners (i.e., the Russian government). It is after all this very office that is charged with guarding the law and protecting state interests. And in this case, both Russian law and our state interests were seriously violated. Yet here have been no pertinent actions taken by the Prosecutor General’s office.
If these aforementioned government agencies had actually taken the necessary measures, then all of the inmates of this “Whale Jail” would have been freed long ago. And the 205 million rubles (3.2 million dollars) that VNIRO used to pay the trading companies could have been spent on the full rehabilitation, safe transportation, and ultimate release of all the animals in places where there was the greatest chance of them re-uniting with their whale families.
So the question is: will the state authorities prove strong and courageous enough this week to finally take control of the illegally captured animals from the four capture companies? And will they do it in time before the onset of the freezing winter weather in the region? In the end, it comes down to whether the government can convince the capture companies to go ahead and sign the release agreements. The answer to all these questions will decide the fate of our 50 belugas, and whether they will be destined to another year of innocent suffering in the “Whale Jail.”
It is worth remembering that, on February 20 of this year, President Vladimir Putin himself gave a directive to his ministries that they should work with citizen groups and with scientists to decide the fate of the cetaceans here in Srednyaya Bay. He also directed the Prosecutor General to ensure that all laws were followed in relation to these animals. Today we see that this presidential directive has still not been implemented, and the fate of our 50 belugas remains up in the air.
For more information, please contact:
“Sakhalin Environmental Watch”, Dmitry Lisitsyn Phone: 7 924 190 1022
Members of the Public Coalition known as “Free Russian Whales”:
“Sakhalin Environmental Watch” — a regional public interest organization
“Ocean Friends” — a regional public interest organization
“The Boomerang Club” — a regional public interest organization on Sakhalin Island
“Dolphin rescue and research center “Delfa”—a non-profit organization
“The Practical Scientific Center for Defending Marine Mammals, or Orsinus”—
a non-profit organization
Ms. S. V. Belyaeva, Public Interest Environmental Inspector attached to Rosprirodnadzor’s
Central Federal District
“The Center for Rehabilitating Marine Mammals “Tyulen” — a non-profit partnership
“The Primorski Center for Underwater Research” — a non-profit organization
Our coalition’s board of advisors includes: Greenpeace-Russia, the Council for Marine Mammals, and the Moscow State Academy for Veterinary Science and Bio-technology.