MOSCOW, April 8 (Reuters) - Russian authorities have decided to free nearly 100 whales held in cages in Russia's Far East, the governor of Russia's Primorsky Region said on Monday, the TASS news agency reported.
Images of the whales, kept in cramped enclosures in a bay near the Sea of Japan port town of Nakhodka, first appeared last year, triggering a wave of criticism.
The animals were originally caught by a company which planned to sell them to China. But once their fate became known the Kremlin intervened and ordered local authorities to act to find a way of freeing the animals.
The decision to release the whales, after months of delays, coincided with a visit to the enclosures by Jean-Michel Cousteau, a French oceanographer and son of famous marine expert Jacques Cousteau.
"An official decision has been taken to release all the animals into the wild," Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of Primorsky Region, was quoted as saying by TASS.
"Scientists from Cousteau's team and Russian scientists will decide when and which animals to release."
Kozhemyako was also cited as saying that the authorities would set up a special rehabilitation facility for the whales where the conditions would be as close as possible to their natural environment and where any animals that were suffering could be treated.
The Kremlin has said the 11 orcas and 87 beluga whales were held in cruel conditions and were intended for sale to aquariums and Chinese buyers.
But it has also said that it is difficult to release them into the wild without harming them.
Russia's FSB security service brought charges against four companies involved in the case in February for breaking fishing laws. (Reporting by Andrew Osborn Editing by Christian Lowe)