Can Cetacean Research in Russia Escape Captivity?

AWI’s Dr. Naomi Rose attended the Marine Mammals of the Holarctic International Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, in late September, in an effort to learn about, and network among, Russian scientists and managers involved in the disturbing trade in wild-caught belugas and orcas.

Russia is still under the long shadow of the Soviet era— it’s been more than 20 years since the Iron Curtain lifted, yet some fields, including the marine mammal science field, are still hampered by its influence. Russian dolphinariums have effectively developed in a time bubble—representatives attending the conference reported there are now 30 in the country, virtually all of them 50 years out of date, with makeshift holding pens and heavily chlorinated water. Most mix species from the Arctic (beluga and walrus) with those from temperate water (bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions), while many cetaceans are still caught from the wild (belugas and orcas are legally and illegally taken from the Sea of Okhotsk; bottlenose dolphins are illegally captured from the Black Sea). The quality of the facilities is so poor that they can barely keep their cetaceans alive, let alone get them to successfully reproduce.

Similarly regressive, the dolphinarium industry is still closely intertwined with the marine mammal science community. In the 1940s and 1950s, pioneering cetacean researchers (including in the Soviet Union and the United States) began studying dolphins in what were then newly established entertainment parks that featured dolphin shows. For the first time, living dolphins could be closely observed, allowing new discoveries into their locomotion, echolocation, and intelligence. However, within three decades, cetacean science outside the Soviet system had advanced to the point where it was conducted primarily in the wild, with increasingly sophisticated technology that allowed researchers to enter the cetaceans’ underwater world. Captive research is still conducted around the world, but now it comprises only a small percentage of the peer reviewed papers produced by the scientific community and only a few active researchers are affiliated with the industry anymore—except in Russia (and perhaps Japan).

Many of the presentations at the conference were from dolphinariums, but these studies were dated. Rather than addressing key conservation questions, these studies were more about observing stimulus-response behavior without context. (This “if I do this, then that happens” type of study was common in the 1960s.) This work would not be accepted in international peer-reviewed journals today, so it typically appears only in Russian publications. In general, even good Russian marine science is published only in Russian, meaning it reaches the relevant managers but not international researchers.

The close relationship of the dolphinarium industry with the marine mammal science community in Russia presents a serious obstacle to reining in the expanding dolphinarium industry and wild capture operations. In many countries, scientists are allies in this fight, publishing research results demonstrating the unsustainability of capture quotas and the welfare impacts on animals. But in Russia, concerned scientists (usually younger and post-Soviet trained) are often discouraged by older, established (Soviet era) researchers from speaking out. For example, solid data supporting lower quotas for beluga and orca removals from the Sea of Okhotsk were presented by two young female researchers and subsequently dismissed and even ridiculed by senior researchers who are closely associated with dolphinariums.

AWI will continue to monitor this situation and work with sympathetic researchers, activists, and students to improve the welfare of Russia’s captive marine mammals.