Greenpeace Russia says the "whale jail" whales are in poor health, and that at least four have died while in captivity
Russia is beginning to release 98 captive whales being held in small pens in an isolated part of the country, according to the BBC.
The move comes after international condemnation of the “whale jail,” where the mammals were being held. The captive group includes 11 killer whales and 87 are belugas. The whales are being kept at a facility made up of small enclosures on the Sea of Japan that was also recently charged for breaking fishing laws.
Although all of the 98 whales being kept in Russian captivity are being released, the entire process will take months as the animals are released in stages, the BBC reports.
“We have taken the only sensible decision at the recommendation of scientists to release the animals to their natural habitat where they were caught,” Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Gordeyev said on Thursday.
“This operation will take about four months.”
The whales were caught as juveniles last year in the Sea of Okhotsk, and then transported 800 miles away and kept in inhumanely small pens near Nakhodka.
The BBC reports that experts believe the whales were captured to be sold to aquariums and theme parks in China, where the mammals can be worth millions of dollars.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was complimentary of the decision to release the whales, upon being asked about the subject during his annual phone-in, where he answers questions from the public.
“The killer whales alone — as far as I know — are worth around 100 million dollars,” he said during the phone-in telecast. “When it’s big money, problems are always hard to solve. Thank God things have started moving.”
The “whale jail” has drawn harsh responses from celebrities as well, with Leonardo DiCaprio bringing awareness to the issue back in May. Actress Pamela Anderson was another proponent for releasing the whales, and even wrote to Putin to plead for him to do so.
Greenpeace Russia brought the “whale jail” to the attention of new outlets around the world last October, and claim at least four of the mammals have already died in captivity. The remaining whales are said to be in poor health, with some suffering from symptoms of hypothermia.