Russian reporters discover 101 'tortured' whales jammed in offshore pens

Protected animals are feared to be headed for the black market.

  • Russian news network discovers 101 black-market whales.
  • Orcas and belugas are seen crammed into tiny pens.
  • Marine parks continue to create a high-price demand for illegal captures.

It's like a scene from a Hollywood thriller: Armed guards hired by some shady organization keeping watch dockside over ill-gotten goods. Except, in this case, the goods are alive. About 100 orca and beluga whales jammed into pens of offshore netting for sale to far-off zoos. It's far from clear that this is legal, and the government is investigating, having been alerted to the operation along the coast of Nakhodka by Russian news organization VL.ru.

(Google/Big Think)

Close quarters

Overhead video shows just how little room to move the leviathans have been given in their pens in Srednyaya Bay. Some have been there since July.

This giant group of whales — 11 orcas and 90 belugas — are reportedly believed to have been captured by LLC Oceanarium DV, LLC Afalina, LLC Bely Kit and LLC Sochi Dolphinarium. According to VL, these four firms dominate an illegal export market for marine animals. The four companies appear to be largely unregulated.

These whales are believed to be for sale to one of China's 60 marine parks and aquariums, with a dozen more venues reportedly under construction. With an individual orca said to be going for about $6 million on the black market, there's money to be made in supplying all of these attractions, in China and elsewhere. There are thought to be at least 71 orcas currently in captivity — 166 orcas have been captured since 1961, and 129 of them have died since. SeaWorld still has 21 orcas; 48 have previously died at their parks.

Greenpeace Russia coordinator Oganes Targulyan tells The Telegraph, "Catching them at this tempo, we risk losing our entire orca population." According to the organization, it is "torture" to keep such animals in enclosures such as the ones near Nakhodka.

Orcas and Beluga under threat

Orca and belugas in aquariums. Photo credit: Daleen Loest / Handcraft Films / Shutterstock

In the summer of 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service highlighted the growing scarcity of orcas off the western U.S. coast. One population of killer whales there, Southern Residents, has hit a 30-year low, with just 75 individuals left. No calves have been born in the last three years, as opposed to the historical rate of 4–5 calves each year. Experts suspect both a reduction in Chinook salmon stocks, which the orcas consume, as well as the toxic chemicals the fish ingest.

Belugas are listed by the World Wildlife Federation as "near endangered." Their habitats are under pressure from climate change, Arctic warming, oil and gas development, and human noise. According to NOAA, their population has declined by almost 75 percent since 1979, down to an estimated 328 individuals.

Whales can only be captured legally for a set of specific scientific, educational, and cultural purposes. While there is a limit to the number of orcas a fishing entity can catch per year, Targulyan says, "The capture quota now is 13 animals a year, but no one is taking into account that at least one orca is killed for every one that is caught."

Investigation

As the Russian authorities look into the captive whales, observers worry about the manner in which they're being treated while in Nakhodka. It's indisputable that the orcas and belugas are being held in areas far too small for them to move around in comfortably.

In any event, policing the capture of whales can be difficult. With marine parks still popular in many places, says another Greenpeace spokesperson to RIA News, "Under the guise of enlightenment and culture, dirty business is conducted on rare orcas." One can argue that seeing these whales up close in captivity has an educational benefit that can lead to more benign policies toward these amazing creatures.

It's incontrovertible, though, that the life led by captive whales is brutally diminished, and often cruelly difficult and short. To cause a whale to suffer for our own purposes, whatever they are, seems arrogant and ultimately indefensible. These intelligent creatures are worthy of respect: Their brains are larger than ours, and their dominion — the oceans — far greater.

The operation in Nakhodka reminds us that there remain black marketeers in the world intent on profiting from animals on the edge of extinction that the rest of us are trying desperately to protect. As a species, we still have a way to go in learning how to live in our world without destroying everything, and everyone, else in it.

Big Think Edge
  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.
Videos
  • Prejudice is typically perpetrated against 'the other', i.e. a group outside our own.
  • But ageism is prejudice against ourselves — at least, the people we will (hopefully!) become.
  • Different generations needs to cooperate now more than ever to solve global problems.


Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Keep reading Show less