Dmitry Glazov on the results of the expedition to the Sea of Okhotsk

Dmitry Glazov on the results of the expedition to the Sea of Okhotsk

28 January 2014

Dmitry Glazov, Chief Engineer of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, deputy head of the RAS permanent expedition’s White Whale Programme and board member of the Marine Mammal Council, speaks about the results of an expedition to the Sea of Okhotsk.


The interview is given in the context of the following projects: the White Whale Programme (distribution and migration patterns of the beluga whale), which is carried out with financial support from the Russian Geographical Society; the Current Status of the Beluga Amur Aggregation project (Sea of Okhotsk, Russia); estimates of sustainability made by the Utrish Dolphinarium with financial aid from the Ocean Park Corporation (Hong Kong); Georgia Aquarium Inc., SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration (United States); and Kamogawa Sea World (Japan); and a project on assessing Russia’s beluga populations in 2013-2014, conducted by the Marine Mammal Council with financial support from the Ocean Park Corporation.


Question: How much time did you spend on the expedition?


Dmitry Glazov: The Amur River was in flood and we became stuck in the Sea of Okhotsk from the middle of July to the beginning of October. We studied beluga aggregations in the Gulf of Sakhalin and the gulfs of the Shantar Sea (Ulbansky, Nikolai, Tugursky and Udskaya bays). Among other things we observed how beluga whales are caught for dolphinariums and took flesh samples of captured belugas and dead mammals washed up on the shore for different tests. Before 2013 there was only one capture team, which had been operating since the late 1980s (belugas were moved to dolphinariums), whereas last year their number increased to three because of a large quota for live-capture removals. These teams had different experience and technical equipment and did their job with varying degrees of success.


Live belugas are actively sold abroad (for dolphinariums and aquariums) and the only place where they may be caught in large numbers is the Gulf of Sakhalin in the Sea of Okhotsk (by the small Chkalov Island). We tried to find the required funds to enable researchers to monitor live-capture removals of beluga whales. Last year a record number of live belugas were caught (44 individuals) and this year the Federal Fisheries Agency has granted a quota for the live-capture removal of 260 belugas. We were stunned by this figure and decided see how they will be caught.


Question: Will all 260 belugas be transported to aquariums and dolphinariums?


Dmitry Glazov: Not all of them were caught – just some 80 belugas – but the quota was large. Belugas are caught and brought to fixed sites on the White Sea, the Utrish sea station, as well as in Lazarevskoye, Sochi and Nakhodka. They are kept under quarantine for about a month and then sold abroad or moved to domestic dolphinariums. China, Thailand, Vietnam and Arab countries are the biggest customers.


Question: Do Russian aquariums buy belugas?


Dmitry Glazov: Yes, they do. Europe’s biggest aquarium is now under construction on the territory of the All-Russia Exhibition Center.


Question: When will it open?


Dmitry Glazov: I think in 2015, but killer whales were brought there in late November 2013. They were caught where we spent the summer: in the north-western part of the Gulf of Sakhalin.


Question: You said cetaceans are kept under quarantine for a long time. Do some of them die during this period?


Dmitry Glazov: Some don’t survive transportation. Many cetaceans die.


Question: How well do beluga whales survive in aquariums? Are there any figures on this?


Dmitry Glazov: No, this is a very complex issue, first because their life in captivity can be divided into several stages.


Live-capture removal is the most stressful stage. Belugas can die by drowning after being entangled in fishing nets.


The next stage includes transportation by sea to permanent enclosures, where they remain until they are sent to their final destination. This is a stressful period, which includes improper feeding and health risk factors. We capture young beluga whales who are only two or three years old, because it is believed that they adapt to life in captivity better at this young age. But more importantly, it is easier to transport them when they are small. An adult beluga whale weighs over 700 kilograms, or up to a tonne, while teens weigh only 200-300 kg and so are easier to transport. This is the most critical stage of their life in captivity in terms of adaptation and the risk of death.


Those who survive are later transported again, which involves more stress, including physiological stress, food deprivation and dehydration, which is the worst element.


The belugas who survive transportation will proceed to the next stage, which includes adaptation, full feeding and training. Belugas don’t eat frozen fish; they only eat the fish they catch in the sea.


In the aquarium they are inspected by veterinarians and adapted to feeding with cup-up defrozen fish. This means that they don’t receive the necessary amount of vitamins, and so a veterinarian adds vitamins to their rations. In aquariums and dolphinariums the beluga whales live in an enclosed basin with specially salted chlorinated water, not sea water. Adaptation to these conditions is another critical period. Those who survive this period live for a long time if they receive the necessary veterinary assistance and normal conditions in terms of water quality and a sufficiently deep and large basin, unless they are subjected to another stressful phases such as re-transportation.


The second reason why it is difficult to assess belugas’ survival rate in captivity is the inadequate monitoring of the capture and post-capture period, transportation and subsequent life in captivity. The only agency monitoring the capture period is the State Marine Inspection of the Federal Security Service (FSB), which has long taken over the controlling functions of fish and nature inspections. However, in addition to monitoring the capture of belugas, its inspectors also need to control fishing in their area of responsibility, fill out heaps of paperwork and also catch poachers. They are physically unable to spend enough time with the capture teams and monitor their operation. Hence, no one can control the capture teams to check whether the belugas that die in the deep parts of the sea do so accidentally or are killed on purpose. Such facts only come to light if reported by rivals or if the capture team is caught red-handed by an inspector, but these are one-off events.


How can we monitor the transportation stage? Who should do this? The veterinary service, the Federal Agency for Fishery, or FSB services? There are no specific regulations, laws and rules on the transportation of live animals. We only have rules for the live capture and transportation of cetaceans for research, cultural, educational and other non-commercial purposes.  It is a two-page document approved by Government Resolution No. 166 of 25 February 2000, and it does not cover all aspects of live capture or transportation.


There are no rules regulating marine mammals’ life in captivity. They are kept in ordinary swimming pools, in collapsible and hence temporary structures, or even in trucks. There are barges where these animals perform in special demonstration pools, and there are fenced off areas of the sea, for example in Nakhodka. Many other countries have long adopted different rules for keeping marine mammals in captivity, including for seals, dolphins and belugas, which take into account their physiological properties, their way of life and other factors.


Question: Did you tag any animals during this expedition?


Dmitry Glazov: No, not last year. The transponders are very expensive, and there is a price on the live capture of belugas, which is why we don’t do it every year.


The last time we tagged belugas was in 2011 off Kamchatka and in the White Sea.


We tagged seals last year in the Sea of Okhotsk as part of the US-Russian Bering Okhotsk Seal Surveys (BOSS) project.


Question: What was your biggest discovery last year?


Dmitry Glazov: I was not happy with last year’s results because many belugas and other marine mammals, in particular seals, died during numerous live-capture operations.


We collected many different samples, which we are now analysing. The laboratory of the Typhoon research and production association in Obninsk and our geneticists are doing a toxicological analysis. We have written a letter on behalf of the Marine Mammal Council asking the State Environmental Expertise Department of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources to reduce the number of permits for the live-capture removal of belugas in 2014. As far as I know, the size of the permissible capture level for the western part of the Sea of Okhotsk has been halved, from the initial 360 to 150 animals in the Agriculture Ministry’s directive. I don’t know how many of these animals will be removed for dolphinariums because the relevant documents have not been published yet. However, I hope that our work last year and in the years before provided reasons for reducing the number of live-capture removals, and also for expanding the capture area from one part of the Sakhalin Gulf to the entire coastal area.


I’d like to say that last year our expedition to the region was very large. My colleague, Olga Shpak, travelled nearly 2,500 kilometres by boat to monitor the distribution of belugas in the bays. She and Alexei Paramonov have confirmed that some sites of beluga aggregations recorded during aerial surveys in 2009 and 2010 are not coincidental. They believe that belugas, even if in small numbers, aggregate not only in the upper part of the Shantarsk region bays. One of their conclusions is that future aerial surveys must not be limited to the upper part of bays but should include the coastal area in its entirety.


We have taken genetic samples from the belugas in the new sites and made acoustic recordings of different beluga aggregations. We have also made new discoveries about the Greenland whale and the killer whale. Actually, last year we collected more samples from killer whales than ever before. And then, readers will probably like the tale of two scientists who travelled across a very cold sea in a small boat.


Another interesting element was, first, that the ice melted very late last year (the last ice in the Sakhalin Gulf, which is located on the same latitude as Moscow, melted on August 8). And secondly, there was a huge flood in the Amur Region. Tides in the Sakhalin Gulf where we have been working since 2007 used to be approximately two metres, but last September we didn’t see any tides at all, because water streaming from the Amur River filled the bay during low tide. As a result, the belugas changed their route. There were few fish on our western side of the Sakhalin Gulf last year, and hence we saw only “local” belugas who stayed there throughout the summer. We didn’t see any animals from other regions which used to hunt the fish that come to spawn in the Amur River. Before last year, belugas from nearby areas swarmed into the Sakhalin Gulf in large aggregations when fish went upstream in the river, but last year we saw very few.


Question: Why?


Dmitry Glazov: We believe there are two reasons for this. Firstly, because of the cold water and ice. The water in the gulf remained cold because the ice didn’t melt for a long time, and so the first group of fish that usually swims up the Amur either couldn’t make it all the way or changed its route. One way or another, we didn’t see these fish in the capture area. Secondly, when the water rose in the Amur River the fish changed their migration pattern, and so the beluga whales that usually feed in that area moved accordingly. Our surveys show that their numbers in this area decreased by half or to one-third of the usual figure. But these are theories, which need to be carefully analysed before we accept them. Judging by aerial photographs and field surveys, each time we only saw the same groups of animals, which also recognised us from a long distance.


Question: What kind of interaction does the white whale have with other species – seals, for example – aside from food rivalry?


Dmitry Glazov: What we observe is food rivalry, clearly. Occasionally a beluga and a bay seal collide head-on over a fish. It’s competition pure and simple.


Another thing we know isn’t related to rivalry directly. Both species are transmitters of disease, including the flu, herpes, distemper, and so on. They are all mammals and viruses can freely pass from one species to another. An outbreak in one species is quite likely to affect another. Interestingly, the same diseases are found in humans, but animals have got different virus strains that are not yet threatening human beings.


Question: Are we unable to control morbidity levels?


Dmitry Glazov: There is an international programme to assess belugas’ health in the wild and an attempt was made in 2010 to develop a single protocol for everyone to collect data on the same principle. The protocol is still in the making, but the specialists have at least come to agree on certain things. We picked up information on belugas’ health and morbidity rates on Chkalov Island, with blood tests, scrapings, swabs and so on. Currently we are analysing the data in order to identify morbidity parameters and understand what diseases affect them and how widespread they are.


The level of stress is an important factor for animals in the wild. Stress can be instantaneous and experienced, for example, by an animal that has been just trapped. But it can also be long-lasting, if caused by chronic hunger or other forms of continuing distress. It is difficult to control stress in nature. We are trying to find some methodological approaches in order to be able to estimate the level of stress in wild belugas. Females’ hormonal status is also important. We need to know whether they are in a fertile condition or not.


Pollution levels are also a health indicator because the Amur carries all sorts of waste dumped by both China and some Russian territories. Sometimes you just can’t believe it! There is also a global transfer of pollutants. Belugas absorb these and this leads to their buildup in the body and affects their reproduction capacity, survival during periods of stress, lifespan, and so on.


Question: Did your expedition explore belugas’ vocal communications?


Dmitry Glazov: Vocal communications is mostly of interest to specialists at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oceanology, such as Roman Belikov, who is doing research in the White Sea along with Alexander Agafonov, Vera Krasnova and Anton Chernetsky. They study voice messages in belugas and dolphins, and the so-called individual signature which, as they believe, each animal uses to identify itself. They are trying to understand the meaning of these signatures and perhaps relay them in some way. Earlier this year, Roman Belikov worked in Chukotka after he did some work in the White Sea. This IO team is headed by biologist Vsevolod Belkovich.


We only did some acoustic studies in Kamchatka to see how the animals are affected by man-made noises. Belugas swim among passing boats and ships and somehow adapt, but occasionally a boat can actually deafen them by its noise. We tried to understand how this happened and realised that these studies should be conducted in a laboratory rather than in the field, where there are many factors that cannot be taken into account. There are two teams at my Institute – one headed by Oleg Lyamin and the other by Alexander Supin – that study how man-made noises affect belugas’ health.


The Supin team investigates how loud noises damage the animals’ hearing by making a noise at a certain frequency for a certain length of time and analysing how this impairs the auditory sensitivity. But they don’t use noises that might in any way harm the animal. Their experimental data helps them to forecast noise levels and thresholds capable of having a serious impact on animals.


Mr Lyamin’s field of study is how different animals sleep. It’s difficult for an animal to sleep in the water because it may suffocate. Scientists from our Institute wanted to know how they managed to sleep after all and discovered that dolphins and other marine mammals were characterised by so-called single-hemisphere sleep, with their brain’s hemispheres alternating sleep with wakefulness.


Noise disturbs their sleep and affects the physiological rhythms. Current noise levels in the ocean are very high. There are so many sources of noise in the world – ships, windmills, stations, submerged craft… In water, this noise spreads far and wide. The noise levels, therefore, are very high and can become critical for many cetaceans (not only belugas but also big whales) that are unable to communicate or sleep properly.


Question: Did you get any new data on transmitter-carrying animals?


Dmitry Glazov: We caught a white whale earlier this year that had been tagged with a satellite transmitter two or four years ago. Originally it was envisaged that the transmitter would drop off of its own accord, but it didn’t. For now we don’t know why. The animal is no longer a baby and has gotten much bigger.


Question: Was it your team that installed the transmitter?


Dmitry Glazov: Yes. It may have even been Vladimir Putin himself. We’re not sure. We have to open the transmitter, see the timers, and then we’ll be able to identify the individual. For greater certainty, we’ll make a genetic test and find out which of the earlier tagged specimens it is.


Question: How much time do you need to analyse the data?


Dmitry Glazov: We should ask the engineers. I think, two or three weeks or maybe a little longer.


Question: What are your plans for 2014?


Dmitry Glazov: We are planning a major multi-disciplinary expedition to Penzhinskaya Guba in the far north of the Sea of Okhotsk, which boasts the world’s highest rises and lowest falls of the tide (the height difference can be up to 12 metres). But the area is very hard to reach and so we planned the expedition jointly with hydrologists, ornithologists and landscape scientists. It’s not quite clear whether we’ll make it, because it’s expensive and our budget is limited.


We also have a project for the Bering Sea. We believe that the Bering Strait will be receiving increasing amounts of maritime traffic; our task is to evaluate how this traffic can affect endemic animals, including white whales. To a greater degree this concerns large whales, which big cargo ships would just run over without so much as noticing that they were in their path. But belugas and beluga calves also migrate in the area. So, we are trying to clarify how increased maritime traffic will affect the animals in the region. Possibly we’ll need some field studies.


Apart from that, we have high expectations with regard to a project in the central Arctic (the Laptev Sea, the East Siberian Sea). The area is difficult of access and it takes much time and money to reach it. But there are German scientists who regularly send expeditions and some research is conducted by national parks. The Russian Geographical Society regularly fits out ships. We are trying to cooperate with all of them and pick up all available information grain by grain.


Question: You are a member of the Board of the Marine Mammal Council. Please tell us about this organisation.


Dmitry Glazov: The Marine Mammal Council is a public organisation that includes about 150 marine mammal specialists from all over Russia. It organises large-scale biennial conferences. Its chairman is a corresponding member and councillor of the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexei Yablokov. The Board maps out the general policy line; if needed, it also suggests a strategy. Basically, the MMC’s objectives are fairly democratic: to organise and consolidate the entire community of marine mammal researchers, provide support in organising conferences, facilitate publications, hand out grants, if these are available, and apply for grants.


Its activities are aimed at promoting the study of marine mammals and their preservation.


Its main tasks are the following:


  • Developing basic areas of focus and programmes for research, conservation, and sustainable use of marine mammals.


  • Cooperating with domestic and international organisations in the area of marine mammal studies.


  • Supporting specialists and organisations conducting marine mammal research.


  • Organising conferences, meetings and symposia on issues of marine mammal study and conservation.


While coordinating and supporting marine mammal studies, the MMC carries out a number of its own projects and takes part in joint projects involving other Russian or international organisations.


Not so long ago, for example, we were granted a major project under the UN Development Programme, which we’ll address next year. We will develop a single marine mammal observation methodology for commercial pursuits (oil exploration, production) in the Far Eastern seas.