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While preparing for the 21st field season of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), we have received good news. The Russian federal government approved the inclusion of mammal-eating killer whales into the Russian Red Book of Endangered Species.

As a scientist, I know how important the research work is for conservation. When FEROP started in 1999 nobody knew how easily the killer whales could be encountered in Avacha Gulf of Kamchatka – the area which became our traditional research place. All our knowledge about killer whales in Russia was out of date or, mostly, non-existent.

At first we only encountered fish-eating orcas, but after a few years we began meeting mammal-eaters, a separate ecotype that never associate with the fish-eaters, similar to what has been shown in the well-studied eastern North Pacific.

In 2012, Russian captors obtained permits to capture killer whales in the western Okhotsk Sea. Since then, more than 20 mammal-eating killer whales have been captured and sold mostly to Chinese marine zoos.

FEROP scientist Olga Filatova, along with other scientists, strongly recommended that mammal-eating killer whales belonged in the Red Book. Our project had strong scientific evidence that mammal-eaters were reproductively isolated from fish-eaters and this was published in international and Russian journals. The preliminary results also showed that the mammal-eaters were low in numbers.

In 2018, 12 mammal-eating killer whales and 90 belugas were captured from the Okhotsk Sea. After several disappeared or died, 10 orcas and 87 belugas were kept in small pens for about 5 months near Vladivostok. Eventually they were released from “whale jail” after persistent efforts by Sakhalin Environmental Watch and others within Russia. This story made news around the world.

Last month, after the saga of “whale jail”, the Russian ministry has now agreed to include mammal-eating killer whales into the draft of the Russian Red Book.  It is not quite final yet but we have confidence that it will be confirmed.

We are pleased that the scientific results could be used as a basis for putting the mammal-eating killer whales into the Red Book. If mammal-eating killer whales are in Red Book, their captures will be illegal.

We are grateful to OceanCare as well as our other main sponsors Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Animal Welfare Institute, and Humane Society International for all their continued support.

Written by Tatiana Ivkovich, killer whale researcher from the Far East Russia Orca Project