Russia lists Caspian seals and killer whales as endangered species after 'whale jail' controversy 

Mammal-eating orcas given protected status after public pressure led to release of one hundred whales from holding pen

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A pod of Orcas in Wrangel Bay on Russia's pacific coast
A pod of Orcas in Wrangel Bay on Russia's Pacific coast Credit:  Yuri Smityuk/TASS

Russia has listed mammal-eating orca whales and Caspian seals as endangered species nearly two years after a public outcry over the export of marine-mammals to oceanariums forced the closure of a notorious "whale jail."

The move, which is the first addition to Russia's list of endangered species in 20 years, will effectively outlaw keeping the creatures in aquariums. 

Viktoria Abramchenko, the deputy prime minister responsible for environmental affairs, said: "We are creating the necessary conditions for restoring natural balance, as well as eliminating any risks of reducing the population of especially rare animals."

Caspian seals, indigenous to the land-locked Caspian Sea, are one of the smallest species of seal and have been considered endangered by the IUCN since 2008. 

Mammal-eating or Biggs' orcas are one of two ecotypes of killer whale found off Russia's Pacific coast. They prey on seals and have a distinct social structures from their fish-eating cousins.  Their population in Russian waters is now down to a few hundred, comparable to the number of the strictly protected Siberian tiger. 

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, ordered a review of the law allowing the controversial export of marine mammals to foreign aquariums after local media exposed a "whale jail" holding 90 belugas and 11 orcas in November 2018. 

The companies holding them in Srednyaya bay, near Nakhodka in the Russian Far East, had previously sold whales in China, where a boom in marine parks meant each creature could be rented out or sold for up to several million dollars.

Authorities eventually agreed to order the release of the whales after a domestic and international outcry involving celebrities including Pamela Anderson and Leonardo DiCaprio. 

Mr Putin announced the process of releasing of whales from the holding pen had begun in June last year. The last Belugas were released in November. 

An international moratorium on commercial whaling was adopted in 1982, but Russia has previously allowed whales to be caught for cultural and educational purposes, a loophole frequently exploited to capture and sell whales to aquariums.