Russian authorities and marine life advocates have signed an agreement to release nearly 100 marine mammals being held in the so-called "whale jail" on Russia’s Far East coast. Ten orcas and 87 belugas have been housed in overcrowded enclosures at a holding facility in Srednyaya Bay in the town of Nakhodka.
The whales were illegally captured last summer and fall by four Russian companies that reportedly planned to sell them to marine parks in China, reports The Whale Sanctuary Project. Whales can sell for millions of dollars each, depending on the species, according to The New York Times.
According to the statement, scientists will "continue to evaluate the animals and determine when and how to release them." But until the release is organized, the team agreed to immediately begin work so the whales will be held in "conditions most like their natural environment."
The statement was signed by the governor of Russia's Primorsky region, Whale Sanctuary Project Executive Director Charles Vinick and oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau. Cousteau is the son of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
'It might take years'
Stories about the whales' situation first were reported in fall, Smithsonian reports. Aerial images of their small pens were released, causing an outcry over the cramped quarters. There were reports of ice-encrusted enclosures, rotten food and animals sick with infections. Four of the original whales were no longer in the pen and were presumed to have died, according to the Whale Sanctuary Project.
The Times reports that there has been some disagreement about the best way to handle the animals' rehabilitation. Because of their health or their young age, some might not be able to survive unassisted. Some were babies or very young, for example, when they were caught.
"Their ability to survive on their own if the gates were just opened is limited," Vinick said at a recent press conference.
The scientists hope to return the whales to the area where they were caught so that there's a chance they can reunite with their family and better adjust to life in the wild.
"It might take years; we don't know yet," Cousteau said. "It depends on each and every one of them."