Russians halt beluga whale killing for sale to Japan

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1999:

HOKKAIDO––Russian whalers on
September 10 reportedly delivered to Japanese
buyers 13 metric tons of whale meat from at
least 36 and perhaps as many as 50 belugas
killed a week earlier in the Okhotsk Sea,
which lies between the Kamchata Peninsula
and Sakhalin Island.
It was the first Russian commercial
whale slaughter since 1986, and its first in
northern waters since 1979.
It will not be repeated, the Russian
government decreed four days later after a
cabinet-level review of the deal in Moscow.
Said International Fund for Animal
Welfare director of commercial trade and
exploitation Karen Steuer, “Reopening the
international trade in whale meat would have
set a dangerous precedent. The Russian decision
shows that Russia sees commercial whaling
for what it i ––an outmoded practice with
no place in modern society.”

IFAW had warned the world on
September 3 that “The State Fishery
Committee of the Russian Federation has
issued permits for 200 beluga whales to be
hunted in the southern section of the Okhotsk
Sea,” but had hoped the deal with Japan could
be killed before any whales were.
“While the Russian government has
sanctioned the hunt,” the September 3 IFAW
communique explained, “the Russian authorities
for the Convention on International Trade
in Endangered Species have yet to authorize
the whale meat to leave Russia. Belugas are
included in a CITES provision that allows limited
trade, provided that it is not harmful to
whale populations,” IFAW continued. “But
very little is known about the whale stocks
being hunted, and the CITES authorities in
Russia appear to have reservations. Valentine
Ilyashenko, deputy chief of the CITES-Russia
Authority office, has required the Russian
supplier to guarantee that not more than 200
belugas will be killed, and to allow for DNA
analysis of the meat prior to shipment, to
ensure that it is strictly beluga whale meat.”
The London Times reported that
“Ilyashenko said he opposed the hunt, but was
forced to approve the export of meat to Japan
to avoid his committee being sued.”
The Russian Marine Mammal
Council and the Russian SPCA reportedly
joined IFAW Russian branch chief Marsha
Vorontsova in protesting the hunt to Russian
prime minister Vladimir Putin.

Cook Inlet
While Russian whalers massacred
belugas for export, Alaskan natives butchered
at least five of 50 belugas who became stranded
in Turnagain Arm, near Anchorage.
Those, so far, were the only belugas killed
during 1999 from the Cook Inlet population,
which fell from 653 in 1994 to just 347 in
1998, when “traditional” native whaling was
suspended pending review of the belugas’ status
as a regionally threatened population of a
protected species.
From 1994 through 1997, native
whalers killed an average of 87 belugas a year,
according to the National Marine Fisheries
Service––enough to account for 88% of the
decline, if the belugas bred at replacement
level, and perhaps for all of it if not.
But to make life easier for the
whalers, Senator Frank Murkowski (RAlaska)
attached a rider giving a tax break to
native whaling captains to a tax bill passed in
July by the Senate Finance Committee.

Cousteau in trouble
The most imperiled of all beluga
populations is the isolated colony at
Tadoussac, Quebec, where the Saguenay
River meets the St. Lawrence. Fin, minke,
blue, and even sperm whales visit the region,
but the belugas are year-round residents, separated
from the rest of their kind thousands of
years ago by retreating glaciers. Mercilessly
hunted into the early 1980s, and poisoned by
pollution, they are now protected.
Belatedly recognizing the belugas as
a national treasure, Quebecois were shocked
on September 10 by amateur video footage
repeatedly aired by CBC/Radio Canada of
inflatable powerboats belonging to the Jacques
Cousteau Society buzzing and apparently
repeatedly bumping fin whales near
Tadoussac, where belugas too might easily
have been injured. Filming a documentary,
the Cousteau personnel allegedly used scientific
research permits to go much closer to the
whales than the law normally allows.
While Cousteau’s widow Francine
denied that the video really showed what virtually
all viewers agreed they saw, the Canadian
Coast guard patrol vessel L’Isle-Rouge boarded
the Alcyone, the Cousteau Society flagship;
ordered captain Pascal Quesnel and project
leader Bernard Belemotte to cease all research
and filmmaking; and suspended the Cousteau
research permits.
“We’ve never had a case with such a
huge number of complaints about harassing
whales,” Canada Department of Fisheries and
Oceans scientist Michael Hamill said.
Naturalist Chantal Sainte-Hilaire,
who was among the complainants, said she
had seen several whales with fresh cuts apparently
inflicted by the outboard propellers of
the Cousteau inflatables.
If convicted of all anticipated
charges, the Cousteau Society could be fined
as much as $400,000.

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