Prime Minister of the Russian Federation
Krasnopresnenskaya naberezhnaya 2,
Vitaly G. Artyukhov
Minister of Natural Resources of the Russian Federation
Ministry of Natural Resources
Bolshaya Grouzinskaya Street , 4/6
Dr. Vyacheslav A. Zemskiy
Dr. Vsevolod M. Belkovich
X November 2003
Dear Prime Minister
We, the undersigned researchers, have, for decades, worked and published on orcas (Orcinus orca, also known as killer whales) and other closely related toothed whales around the world including exploited orca populations in British Columbia and Washington State (threatened by live captures, limited whaling), Iceland (live captures, whaling and historical culling), Norway (whaling), Antarctica (whaling), Japan (whaling, live captures), and/or Argentina (limited live captures).
We would like to express our deepest concern over the death of two orcas captured in Russian waters on 26 th September this year: the first, a juvenile which suffocated in nets during capture and the second, a nearly-mature female, which died at the Utrish Dolphinarium less than a month after capture.
The captures occurred in Zhirovaya Bay , Kamchatka in Far East Russia , where some of us have worked over the past two years as part of a study on the ecology of orcas. The Far East Russian orca populations are comparatively unexploited and we believe that this represents a prime opportunity to follow and study in depth animals that have not been exposed to intensive captures, whaling and high contaminant loads. Currently, however, there is very little information on the status, distribution and overall trends of these populations and the biological and ecological factors affecting them. Certainly, data are inadequate to support any capture quotas at the current time. Consequently, we believe no more orca permits should be considered until the full status and population of the species have been studied in Russian waters and until the scientists who have studied them recommend that there will be no detrimental effect from their capture. We urge you respectfully not to allow any orca capture permits to be issued for 2004 and to issue a zero catch quota for orcas for Russian waters for 2004.
As the orca is listed in Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), any export requires the prior grant of an export permit. An export permit may only be granted when the authorities in the exporting state have made a determination that export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species (Article IV, CITES). In light of preliminary scientific findings now available on the orcas of Far East Russia and the realization that research urgently needs to be continued (an effective long-term overall assessment based on photo-identification and sound studies), we believe it would be impossible for the Russian Federation, or any other exporting state to make a valid 'non-detriment finding' with respect to this population.
In the future, should any orca captures be proposed, "complete photo-identification data should be required for the targeted population," as stated in Matkin and Saulitis (1994). In addition, "because live-capture of killer whales involves political as well as biological considerations, extensive public comment should be solicited and taken into account."
In the rest of this letter, we will outline our reasons for opposing orca captures in Russian and other waters, based on their peculiar biology and uncertain status.
The most dramatic finding about orcas over the past three decades is that, throughout the world, they exist in far fewer numbers than originally presumed or estimated. Aquarium captors in the 1960s, then the only "experts" on orcas, estimated populations in the "many thousands" around Vancouver Island alone. In the well-studied eastern North Pacific (from California to Alaska ), a vast length of coastline, there are only a total of about 1,200 orcas (Ford and Ellis 1999). As the top predator, these animals appear to live in rather small, distinct "communities" of no more than 325 animals, and often 100 or fewer, which typically range over large areas of coast and open sea. Communities are defined as groups of individuals and pods which associate with each other and share some sounds; different communities do not associate with each other and share no sounds and some have demonstrable genetic differences. In the case of orcas, a community is thought to comprise a separate "population stock" (Matkin and Saulitis 1994).
In the eastern North Pacific region, there are three different types of orcas, each of which is believed never to mix with the other types. There are “residents” (about 600 individuals), “transients” about 400 individuals), and “offshores” (about 200 individuals) which may, in fact, be part of a separate population of residents (Ford and Ellis 1999, Baird 1999).
These are provisionally thought to be divided into seven communities or stocks, according to Matkin and Saulitis (1994): There are four “resident” stocks, two in Alaska (about 50 individuals in one; 275 in the other), one in British Columbia (200+ orcas) and one which shares southern British Columbia and Washington State waters (currently 78 orcas). There are three “transient” stocks (two in Alaska numbering 12 and 60, and the so-called West Coast Community with individuals that range from southern Alaska to California (325+). Finally, there is one lesser known “offshore” stock which comprises at least 200 individuals.
Population parameters for the “southern resident community” in southern B.C. and Washington were significantly altered by selective aquarium captures in the 1960s and 1970s (Olesiuk et al. 1990). The capture of 45 individuals was immediately responsible for the decline in this community which once stood at 100 or more individuals. Despite no captures or killings for 30 years, the southern resident community (after increasing briefly to 99 in 1995) has declined again to 78 in 2001 (Center for Whale Research data). It is thought that a combination of high PCB levels, prey depletion and possibly other factors may have led to the most recent decline, although lingering effects from the captures in previous decades cannot be ruled out. When stock size is as low as it is, even with apparently healthy stocks of animals, the potential long-term effect from only a few removals, combined with other "stresses", can have a disastrous impact on the stock.
Besides considering stock size, orcas also need to be managed at the pod level (Bigg et al. 1990; Olesiuk et al. 1990). The maintenance of pod integrity is thought to be critical to the pod's survival and ability to reproduce.
Orcas, like other top predators, also have a low birth rate. The population rate of increase in the “resident” pods has been approximately 2-3% since the 1960s (Ford et al 1994). A female typically has only 4 to 6 viable calves during her lifetime. Infant mortality, estimated at about 42% among “residents” (Olesiuk et al. 1990), also appears to have a significant impact on the number that go on to breed. Restoring stocks that are subjected to culling, whaling or live captures may prove to take decades and even longer depending on how many are removed—if indeed it is possible to restore these populations. This contrasts dramatically with the reproductive biology of many fish species that produce large numbers of offspring which, under similar circumstances and given reasonable management, enables them to recover much more rapidly.
Today, many large top predators are increasingly threatened, if not already endangered. One has only to think of various tiger species, the great white and other sharks, and wolves, among others. In a world with increasingly intense pressure on land and sea from human population growth, including the problems of decreasing fish populations and the spread of contaminants into every corner of the world, it is going to take concerted effort to keep populations of large predators healthy.
Recently, the “southern resident community” around Vancouver Island, as well as “transients” in the same area, were shown to be carrying some of the highest PCB loads yet found (250 ppm) which greatly exceeds the toxic threshold in many mammals (Ross et al. 2000). PCBs in much lower concentrations have been shown to disrupt immune systems and interfere with successful reproduction. Obviously, a great deal more work needs to be done to determine their status and to ensure that this and other orca populations have a future. Meantime, we must invoke the precautionary principle for management of this species, which means that there should be no removals from the wild as part of aquarium capture activities, hunting or culling.
The southern Vancouver Island “resident” orcas are already listed as “threatened” in Canada (Baird 1999) and are now being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act in the USA . In light of the small numbers of individuals in most known stocks, we believe that orca populations in many parts of the world may well need to be considered for national, regional, and international protected designations as vulnerable or even threatened, and we now call for a moratorium on all captures, culls or whaling of this species, while such evaluations take place.
[Please respond to]
Conservation Manager, WDCS
Howard Garrett , Orca Network , USA ;
Cecilia Gasparrou , Fundacion Cethus , Argentina ;
Erich Hoyt , author (Orca: The Whale Called Killer; The Performing Orca), researcher; co-director, Far East Russia Orca Project;
Miguel Iniguez , Fundacion Cethus , Argentina ;
Juan Carlos Lopez , President of Fundacion Orca Patagonia Antartida ;
Naomi A. Rose , Ph.D., Marine Mammal Scientist, The Humane Society of the United States ;
Hal Sato , orca and minke whale researcher; principal investigator, Far East Russia Orca Project;
Paul Spong , Ph.D., Director, OrcaLab, Alert Bay , BC , Canada ;
Helena Symonds , Manager, OrcaLab, Alert Bay , BC , Canada ;
Mark Simmonds , Director of Science, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society , U.K. ;
Vanesa Tossenberger, Fundacion Cethus , Argentina ;
Vanessa Williams , Conservation Manager, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society , U.K. ;
Olga A. Filatova, Ph.D. student, Moscow State University , orca acoustics researcher, Far East Russia Orca Project;
Baird, R.W. 1999. Status of killer whales in Canada . Contract report to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada . Ottawa .
Bigg, M.A., Olesiuk, P.F., Ellis, G.M., Ford, J.K.B. and Balcomb, K.C. III.
1990. Social organization and genealogy of resident killer whales (Orcinus
orca) in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington State . Rep.
Int. Whal. Commn., Special Issue 12, 383-405.
Ford, J.K.B., G.M. Ellis and K.C. Balcomb. 1994. Killer Whales: The Natural
History and Genealogy of Orcinus orca in the Waters of British Columbia and
Washington State . UBC Press, Vancouver , BC . 102 pp.
Ford, J.K.B. and G.M. Ellis. 1999. Transients. Mammal-hunting Killer Whales
of British Columbia , Washington , and Southeastern Alaska . UBC Press,
Vancouver , BC . 96 pp.
Matkin, C.O. and E.L. Saulitis. 1994. Killer whale (Orcinus orca) biology
and management in Alaska . Marine Mammal Commission, Washington , DC .
Contract number T75135023. 46 pp.
Olesiuk, P.F., Bigg, M.A. and Ellis, G.M. 1990. Life history and population
dynamics of resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the coastal waters of
British Columbia and Washington State . Rep. Int. Whal. Commn., Special
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Ross, P.S. et al. 2000.