Nearly 100 whales held in an infamous “whale jail” in Russia’s far east have begun to be freed, state television announced during a call-in show with Vladimir Putin on Thursday.
Two Orcas and six Belugas have been loaded onto lorries and will be released further north in the Sea of Okhotsk, where they were captured last year.
The problem was “not easy to solve” since the Orcas alone were worth $100 million and there were many potential buyers, Mr Putin said.
“Wherever there’s big money there are always difficulties with solutions, but thank God the process has begun,” he said.
In addition, Russia will clamp down on the capture of whales, a deputy prime minister told Mr Putin during the call-in show, which is carefully choreographed to show the president solving issues for ordinary Russians.
The whales’ impending release marks the conclusion of a saga that began when media revealed in November that 11 Orcas and 90 Beluga whales were being held in small enclosures in a bay near Nakhodka on the Pacific coast.
The companies holding them had previously sold whales in China, where a boom in marine parks means each creature can be rented out or sold for up to several million dollars.
When three Belugas and one Orca disappeared in the ensuing months, the companies holding them claimed they had escaped. But experts who had visited the facility said they were in poor health and had probably died.
Several internationally known figures have called for the whales to be freed, including Pamela Anderson and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Officials began scrambling to close the facility after Mr Putin in February ordered the government to investigate the confinement of the whales in the bay and review regulations on the capture of marine mammals.
The son of Jacques Cousteau even came to Russia in April at the invitation of the authorities and visited the whale jail.
But experts have said that after such a long period of confinement, the whales must be rehabilitated before they can fend for themselves in the wild. In addition, they warned any release would have to wait until sea ice melts in the far north and the fish on which the whales feed begin moving through these areas.
In addition, the firms involved have complained that the whales are their property.
Some state experts have said this will occur within the next four months.
In recent weeks, a court in Vladivostok recently ruled that the companies had violated fishing regulations when they captured the whales.
Deputy prime minister Alexei Gordeyev said on Thursday that the government would harshen regulations to allow the capture of whales only for scientific purposes or by indigenous peoples.
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.
Activists have said one Orca is killed for every one successfully caught.
Orcas, also known as “killer whales,” are actually a highly intelligent type of dolphin that lives in families and communicates through sounds of various pitches.
Belugas also live together in pods and use sounds for communication and navigation.