17 years ago, on February 7th, 1997, a pod of ten wild orcas were chased into Hatajiri Bay in Taiji, Wakayama, and five of them captured for "academic purposes."
They were sent to the Taiji Whale Museum, Adventure World, and Izu-Mito Sea Paradise, but one after another died, and none remain after 17 years. If left in the wild, they could have contributed to enriching the biological diversity of Japan's seas, as the average lifespan of wild female orca is said to be about 60 years old. Instead, these orcas' lives ended far too early.
Now the year is 2014, and on this very day, the Winter Olympics are under way in Sochi, Russia. In time for the opening, there was a plan to display orcas captured last fall in Kamchatka, and the construction of the aquarium was being pushed forward. The plan, however, stalled, likely due to the protests that arose internationally, and the two orcas are currently said to be kept in small tanks in Moscow.
Russian whalers caught two orcas (one later died) and then 7 orcas last year in the same region. Except for the two mentioned above, these whales are thought to be sold off to aquariums in China. The government of Russia has been granting catch permits for 10 orcas in the Far East region, but experts point out, and have shown concerns, that the quota is not founded on the estimated population of orcas in the area. Furthermore, it is based on figures that do not distinguish between pods nor differentiate resident and transient types.
The capturing of wild orcas in Russian waters started in 2001 when the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium, which was anticipating the opening of its new annex facility and saw that the domestic procurement was a challenge, made a request to the Russians. Japan offered 100 million yen per whale, and the Russian whalers were ready to capture, but due to the weather and possibly other issues they could not catch any during that year. Since then, however, Russia has planned an orca capture almost every year. In 2003, they caught two orcas. One died at the time of capture, and the other, a young female orca that had been previously identified and studied in the area, was shipped to, and later died in, Utrish Aquarium. The orca captured in 2012 was named Narnia, and now is one of the orcas in Moscow.
The live capture of orcas was banned in North America in 1976, and following that ban, captures were primarily made in Iceland, where they were eventually banned it in 1989. Currently there is no catch quota for orcas in Japan, shifting the capturing grounds to Russia.
Orca research in Russian Kamchatka waters has been conducted by Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) since 1999. Their tagging research shows that the confirmed population in the area is mere 300 whales.
Moreover, the whale populations in the sea region have a high possibility of overlapping with the orcas found off the coasts of Japan. Photo identification of the orcas off Hokkaido has been carried out by volunteers, but the links and distinction between those found off Japan and Russian waters, as well as those found in Aleutian waters, have not been determined. It is worth noting that the population estimate made in 2008, without a clear understanding of these relationships, showed a sudden increase of nearly ten times the previous estimate.
"Blackfish," a documentary challenging the issue of the orcas in captivity, was made when a veteran killer whale trainer was killed by an orca in SeaWorld in Florida. The movie was aired on CNN, and the reception was more favorable than expected and it garnered the most viewer ratings for a major television network. It also led to major musicians, who had previously planned to perform at the aquarium, to cancel their performances in response to the film.
This shows that the awareness and opposition to keeping a whale species like the orca in a confined artificial facility are spreading around the world, and we welcome this movement.
May the tragedy that happened 17 years ago never be repeated.
To the five orcas caught in Taiji - we will never forget you.
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