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Russian officials charge owners of 'whale prison'

By NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian officials have brought charges against four companies in the Far East which have been keeping some 100 whales in small, crowded pools that environmentalists have dubbed a "whale prison."

The companies, which appear to be affiliated, have previously been fined for illegal capture and have a history of selling the animals to amusement parks abroad.

The Border Guards Department said Thursday that it suspects that the four companies captured the whales illegally. It also confirmed the environmentalists' claims that the belugas and orcas are kept in cramped conditions in a marine containment facility near Vladivostok and that they need to be released back. The border guards did not specify, however, when it will happen.

The border guards appear to be taking a cue from President Vladimir Putin who last week ordered authorities to investigate the case and release the animals.

Whales are worth a fortune on the black market, and the activists believe that they were captured for sale to amusements parks in China. Russian law only allows for the capture of whales for "scientific" purposes.

Activists raised the alarm late last year when the whales were captured off the Pacific Coast.

Ninety belugas and 12 orcas were originally reported to have been kept in a marine containment facility in Srednyaya Bay, near Vladivostok, but local prosecutors said on Thursday that three belugas appear to have escaped. Environmentalists also reported the disappearance of one orca earlier in February.

The whales are kept at one location off the Pacific Coast but are owned by four separate companies. Company records and court filings, however, indicate that they are connected. In an interview with Russian state TV last year, a representative for the facility rejected reports of poor treatment of the animals.

One of the companies unsuccessfully sued the Federal Fishery Agency in 2017 over its refusal to issue it a quota for capturing unidentified marine mammals. The 2017 ruling shows that the company had a standing contract with a company in China's northeast and that the company was unable to prove that the whales would be kept in good conditions and used for educational purposes. The city of Weihai in the Shandong province hosts an ocean amusement park.

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