Disruptive tugboats, barges leave Far East Russia whale nursery due to IFAW coalition complaint

Western Pacific Gray Whales in a nursery in Russia’s Piltun Bay are safer now that oil exploration barges have left the area.A month ago, a group of scientists based in Piltun Bay near Sakhalin Island contracted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Pacific Geography Institute in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky saw that whales were in danger.

They had witnessed the transfer of deep-sea barges by tugboats in low-visibility conditions (at night and in heavy fog), thus posing direct threat for endangered Western Gray Whales to become victims of vessel strikes and noise pollution.

The group, conducting the only Western Gray Whale research in the region that is independent of corporate interests, notified a trio of NGOs.

On July 19, IFAW, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Regional Public Organization “Sakhalin Environment Watch” sent a collective appeal to the Federal Supervisory Natural Resources Management Service requesting immediate suspension of cargo navigation and further investigation of its compliance with project documentation.

On July 22, the NGOs held an urgent meeting with Exxon Neftegaz Limited and ExxonMobil-Russia, providing a large set of facts confirming violations of compliance with environmental safety requirements regarding transfer of barges.

As a result, all barges and tugboats left the area.

The research expedition of IFAW and the Pacific Geography Institute is committed to monitoring and control of activities in Piltun Bay in order to provide for the continued recovery of the Western Gray Whale population and to date it has shown that reproduction in this population can fail in years of high disturbance.

In 2001, IFAW initiated a coalition of environmental organizations with the purpose of protecting Western Gray Whales from the dangerous impacts of oil and gas exploration off the northwestern coast of Sakhalin Island. More than 50 international and Russian NGOs including IFAW, WWF-Russia, Greenpeace-Russia, PERC, Regional Public Organization “Sakhalin Environment Watch” voiced a unified position. As a result, an oil pipeline due to be laid through the feeding ground was re-routed around it.

Western Gray Whales which were hunted almost to extinction by the mid-1960s have now restored to only 150-170 individuals and are critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, a classification was based primarily on the results of IFAW-supported research.

The whales spend the summer months in the nutrient-rich waters off the northeast coast of Sakhalin Island. Near the entry to Piltun Bay there is a unique whale “nursery” – a feeding ground used by female whales with their calves which require shallow waters with abundant food.

However, in the centre of this habitat, oil drilling companies explore and extract oil and gas, posing serious threats to the whales. Those threats include noise pollution, habitat degradation, entanglement and risk of collision.

--MV

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