Brutal Russian Whale Hunt Exposed: Is This the Next ‘Cove’?

Demand by aquariums in China and elsewhere is driving the capture of beluga whales.
Feb 27, 2015·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

In a trailer for the Russian documentary film Born Free, the camera follows beluga whales as they flex, turn, and glide through the dim green undersea light with a grace surprising for such stout creatures.

With their bulbous heads, stumpy snouts, and poky front fins stuck onto long, thick bodies, belugas could be alien creatures in a 1950s science fiction story. Still, most viewers probably won’t need the score’s heart-tugging plink of piano notes to understand that these ethereal white whales are perfectly formed for life in the ocean.

But the music’s abrupt slide into a muddy, pulsing mix of drums and cellos underscores the brutality of the scenes that follow. In one, about a dozen belugas are crowded into narrow water pens bound with rusty wire, diving and rising anxiously while tourists look on. In another, plaid-shirted men wrestle with netted wild belugas in the shallows of a rocky beach, dragging some of them by ropes wrapped around their tails. Captured whales lie passively on the beach, out of their natural element and seemingly in shock.

Welcome to the Russian Cove.

Wild-caught beluga whales in a holding facility at Srednyaya Cove, about 100 miles outside Vladivostok. (Photo: Courtesy Gayane Petrosyan and Maxim Lanovoy)

Gayane Petrosyan has spent nearly two years documenting the hunt for wild beluga whales in Russia, as well as their conditions in captivity. Now the Russian journalist and filmmaker hopes to expose the beluga hunt to her nation and the world, much as the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove drew global attention to the annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.

“We [hope] that the film will cause a wave of public debate in Russia, which in turn will help change state laws to protect the rights of animals,” Petrosyan said in an email.

“Whales and dolphins should come back into the wild,” added Tatiana Beley, the film’s creative producer and writer, “excepting the rare cases when it’s impossible because of their physical and mental health.”

The belugas are conditioned before being sold to aquariums. They must learn to accept being fed by people, or starve. (Photo: Courtesy Gayane Petrosyan and Maxim Lanovoy)

It is hard to find exact figures for how many Russian belugas are captured from year to year in commercial hunts. The single hunting team working during the 2012 season captured 44 belugas, according to an interview with marine mammal researcher Dmitri Glazov published on the official Kremlin website. That number was a record high, according to Glazov.

But in 2013, the Russian government approved an apparently unprecedented live beluga take of just over 260 whales: 18 for scientific research and 245 for sale to marine parks and aquariums. The enormous quota prompted Glazov and biologist Olga Shpak to go to the Sea of Okhotsk, off Russia’s eastern coast, to observe the hunt. That year they observed at least 81 whales taken from the wild.

The holding facilities also sell tickets to visitors who want to view the belugas. (Photo: Courtesy Gayane Petrosyan and Maxim Lanovoy)

Activists say that the quota has risen because demand—and prices—for the animals have soared.

“They’re selling them to China, to facilities in Russia—there are lots of little dolphinariums all over the place, and nearly each one has a beluga,” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute.

Aquariums in other Asian countries as well as Canada also buy the animals, she added.

In 2013 some U.S. parks and aquariums tried and failed to get a federal permit to import 18 belugas from Russia.

A U.S.-based Russian fisheries official did not respond to a request for comment on the country’s beluga whale policies.

Men wrestle a netted beluga whale onto a trailer during the summer 2012 hunt on Chkalov Island, a coastal island at the southern end of the Sea of Okhotsk. (Video courtesty of Gayane Petrosyan and Evgeniy Tagiltsev.)

Masha Vorontsova is a biologist and the director of programs in Russia and the former Soviet republics for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. She confirmed that China’s demand is driving up the number of belugas removed from the wild.

As China becomes richer and more urbanized, she said, “every big city is building an oceanarium,” and each wants the prestige of owning a beluga whale.

In the mid-2000s, Vorontsova said, IFAW worked with a sympathetic official at the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources to halt permits for beluga hunts. Marine mammal exports ceased for about four years, she said, until a new and less interested minister took his place, and the hunts resumed.

“The problem here [in Russia] is that individual people are making a lot of money” selling wild-caught belugas, she said. “They’re paying for the expedition and the hunt but not the resource. If the government started making permits very expensive, it would become a lot less profitable” to hunt the white whales.

In their report to the International Whaling Commission on the 2013 hunt, Shpak and Glazov described how three teams of hunters used motorboats to surround groups of belugas in Sakhalinsky Bay with nets. Two of the teams drove the whales into shallow water for capture, while the third netted them in deep water.

Shpak and Glazov reported that of the 81 belugas captured during their observations, at least 34 died during the hunt. But the mortality rate was likely higher, they believed, because several dead whales with entanglement marks on their bodies washed up on nearby islands. One of these, a young beluga, had a rope and the remains of a sand-filled sack tied around its tail.

“Some (we believe, all) captured whales, which did not adjust to captivity and were later released unreported, were ‘replaced’ by additional captures,” Shpak and Glazov reported.

Whales that survive the hunt must then endure days of transportation across hundreds of miles, by ship or river barge, to facilities in the region’s larger cities, such as Vladivostok. In these way stations the belugas are conditioned for captivity.

“This is really a place to break the psychology of the animal, which has to understand at some point that it will either die of hunger or eat dead fish from a person’s hands,” says Grigory Tsidulko, a former marine mammal trainer at the Moscow State Zoo, in the film’s trailer.

The sale of beluga whales is not banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the chief international pact on wildlife trade, because globally belugas are still considered abundant. But different populations often have distinct social and genetic characteristics, according to biologists, which can be lost if that group of belugas is depleted or dies out.

Rose was introduced to Petrosyan during a marine mammal science conference in St. Petersburg last year. After seeing some of Petrosyan’s footage, Rose agreed be interviewed on camera and has since become an enthusiastic public supporter of the project.

She said she witnessed “inappropriate” conditions for belugas in three Russian facilities. They included one in St. Petersburg that housed two belugas, a dolphin, a walrus, and a sea lion in what she described as “a former Olympic training pool from the 1980s.” The animals performed for the public in the deep end while the shallow end was curtained off as a holding area.

“Gayane got behind the cloth,” she said, and filmed the animals lying listlessly in cages and pens. “It’s horrendous,” Rose said. “One of the belugas was lying at the bottom of the pool; it was alive but just sort of holding its breath, behaving abnormally.”

“She’s doing this right when it needs to be done, because the situation is spiraling out of control,” Rose continued. “But she’s taking some risks…so international distribution [for the film] is important.”

Vorontsova agreed that poor conditions for belugas and other marine mammals are a nationwide problem in Russia. Her organization has also supported Born Free by allowing Petrosyan to film wild belugas at an IFAW whale study site on the White Sea.

Petrosyan “is very dedicated,” said Vorontsova. “My staff met with her and said she’s very determined to make the film, that she really believes what’s going on is wrong.”

Petrosyan and Beley have raised more than $30,000 on crowdfunding site Indiegogo to complete the film.

The situation for belugas and other marine mammals in Russia may change if the public takes it up, Vorontsova said. President Vladimir Putin has at times taken an interest in wild belugas, she noted, and might not oppose moves to slow or end the hunt.

There are signs that members of the Russian public are beginning to turn against the treatment of belugas at aquariums.

“It was very similar to a concentration camp,” a young man says in the film. “I had the impression we bought tickets to look at prisoners.”