Killer whales are traditionally considered to be among the most clever and beautiful sea creatures, and one of the fastest and strongest, with no predators of its own. They carry the reputation of being a cruel predator, killing seals and whales. But at the same time, when people see these charismatic creatures in an oceanarium or — much better — in the wild, they are delighted by them. Orcas conquer the hearts not only of those who meet them by chance, but also of those researching them. Their complex behavior, sophisticated social structure and special vocalizations with a system of dialects unique to each group make orcas one of the most outstanding subjects for research.
Killer whales live in most seas from the Arctic to Antarctic, but in Russia they are studied to date in only one place — Kamchatka. The Far East Russia Orca Project, or FEROP, was conceived and developed by Dr Alexander Burdin, head of the Laboratory of Animal Ecology at the Kamchatka Institute of Ecology and Nature Management, Erich Hoyt, Senior Research Fellow with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, and Japanese researcher Haruko Sato.
Alexander Burdin and Haruko Sato first sailed in 1999 to the Avacha Gulf, with cameras and a firm resolution to find and photograph orcas. Since then the project has grown and developed, involving new people and obtaining useful results.
Russian orcas are probably not endangered but when considered as various individual breeding populations their numbers are much less and need to be monitored and the population structure clarified. In recent years, Japanese and other aquariums have taken an interest in obtaining Russian orcas, due to the proximity of the orcas in waters due north of Japan, as well as the lack of protection for orcas in these waters. As has been shown off the Northwest US and western Canada, population estimates for orcas before photo-ID research have always been much larger (3-5 times larger around Vancouver Island), while actual numbers through photo-ID prove to be far less. This and the peculiar biology of orcas — with long-lived social pods and "populations" generally numbering from fewer than 100 to no more than 600 individuals throughout the eastern North Pacific — are strong arguments against capturing them for aquariums. Yet quotas to capture killer whales in Russian waters have been set every year since 2001. In September 2003 two young females were removed from the population of well known, photo-identified group in Avacha Gulf. Both died: one in the capture nets and the other 13 days after transfer to the Utrish Dolphinarium. In the last years, capturing operations have moved to the western Okhotsk Sea. At least eight orcas have been captured to date. Nothing is known about populations structure and abundance of orcas in these waters, but Fisheries Department continues to approve a yearly quota of 10 animals.
There is still much to learn in order to understand the Russian Far East killer whale populations and we hope that our study will help prevent their further capture and will lead to a greater understanding of their population structure and to the threats to their habitat, including hydrocarbon (seismic) exploration (potential oil spills and noise) and overfishing of their prey species.