Russian authorities have decided to free nearly 100 whales held in cages in Russia’s Far East, the TASS news agency reported on Monday.
Images of the whales, kept in cramped enclosures in a bay near the Sea of Japan port town of Nakhodka, first appeared last year, triggering a wave of criticism.
The animals were originally caught by a company which planned to sell them to China. But once their fate became known the Kremlin intervened and ordered local authorities to act to find a way of freeing the animals.
The decision to release the whales, after months of delays, coincided with a visit to the enclosures by Jean-Michel Cousteau, a French oceanographer and son of famous marine expert Jacques Cousteau.
“An official decision has been taken to release all the animals into the wild,” Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of Primorsky Region, was quoted as saying by TASS.
“Scientists from Cousteau’s team and Russian scientists will decide when and which animals to release.”
Kozhemyako was also cited as saying that the authorities would set up a special rehabilitation facility for the whales where the conditions would be as close as possible to their natural environment and where any animals that were suffering could be treated.
The video below shows some of the whales being held in captivity:
The Kremlin has said the 11 orcas and 87 beluga whales were held in cruel conditions and were intended for sale to aquariums and Chinese buyers.
But it has also said that it is difficult to release them into the wild without harming them.
Russia’s FSB security service brought charges against four companies involved in the case in February for breaking fishing laws.
Marine parks expanding in China
Russian environmental groups have been pushing the Putin government for years to stop the trade in ocean mammals. The four companies that captured these animals were issued legal permits to keep the whales for “educational” reasons. They then quickly turned around and cut deals with Chinese marine parks, where an orca can sell for up to $5 million US each, according to several animal welfare groups that have investigated the practice.
Greenpeace estimates a beluga can sell for up to $150,000 US.
Marine parks have been rapidly expanding in China, with more than 60 already operating and dozens more in the planning stages. The environmental group the China Cetacean Alliance claims 491 marine mammals have already been put into captivity in the country.
Statistics from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) suggest as many as 13 orcas caught in Russian waters were sold to China between 2013 and 2016.
In Canada, a bill that would ban aquariums from having dolphins and whales in captivity, introduced in 2015, passed through a House of Commons committee last week and must now go for a final debate and vote. Critics, including the owners of Marineland in southern Ontario, have said the bill will hurt science and legitimate research programs.
The Vancouver Aquarium, which used to keep orcas and belugas for public performances, also initially strongly opposed the legislation. It has since phased out its captive cetacean program but continues to take in stranded and distressed whales and dolphins.
This story originally appeared on CBC