Scientists Make Urgent Plea to Save Critically Endangered Western Gray Whales

Wednesday, 18 February, 2009
Scientific experts have issued an urgent warning concerning impacts of oil and gas projects on the critically endangered Western Gray Whale population offshore of Sakhalin Island, Russia.

The warning was issued in a report by the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP), a scientific expert committee convened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to study the impacts of oil and gas projects on the whales.[1] Remaining Western Gray Whales, numbering only around 130, feed in the summer almost exclusively adjacent to new oil and gas projects offshore northeast Sakhalin Island. Scientists noted a sharp decline in the number of observed Western Gray Whales offshore of Sakhalin Island in summer 2008.

“There is urgent concern about the preliminary evidence suggesting an anomalous pattern of gray whale occurrence and distribution off Sakhalin in summer 2008 and the possible relationship of this pattern to industrial activity,” the report states.

As a result, the WGWAP urges that “a precautionary response to the present situation would be to establish a moratorium on all industrial activities, both maritime and terrestrial, that have the potential to disturb gray whales in summer and autumn on and near their main feeding areas.”

“Although the biological range of these whales extends as far as to South China, for the last 3 decades they are seen (alive) only in Russian waters near Sakhalin. Thus, preservation of this unique population is a must and Russia carries full responsibility for it’s conservation!” says Grigoriy Tsidulko, Campaigner of International Fund for Animal Welfare IFAW.

“Russian and international oil companies must understand the gravity of the situation and implement an immediate moratorium. The risk of extinction is too great to do otherwise.” adds Dmitry Lisitsyn, Chairman of Sakhalin Island based Sakhalin Environment Watch.

The WGWAP report contains harsh criticism for the lack of cooperation by international and Russian oil and gas companies operating in the area. The report singles out the Exxon Neftegas      Limited (ENL) Sakhalin–I project:

“…Sakhalin Energy has reported an inability to share data with the Panel, citing ENL’s unwillingness to cooperate. The Panel recognises the unfortunate situation whereby ENL does not see any advantage to its participation in the Panel process. However, it is unclear how a refusal to share jointly collected data, once the normal scientific validation and analysis process has been completed, could possibly be to the advantage of ENL and it certainly impedes the cause of western gray whale conservation.”

Also, the WGWAP report sharply criticizes the chronic lack of cooperation by the operator of Sakhalin–II, Sakhalin Energy Investment Company, Ltd. (Sakhalin Energy), which is     majority-owned by Gazprom, managed largely by Royal Dutch Shell, and includes Mitsubishi and Mitsui.

Doug Norlen, Policy Director of Pacific Environment, noted particular concern about Sakhalin Energy’s plans to go ahead with seismic testing this summer, despite the scientists’ warning and lack of adequate environmental review or proven effective mitigation measures. Seismic testing is known to disturb whale feeding patterns. “Sakhalin Energy should heed the scientists’ urgent call, take a precautionary approach and implement a moratorium. In the face of this sharp decline, adding stress factors like seismic testing could push the Western Gray Whale population over the edge.”

Speaking of the potential impacts of Sakhalin Energy’s proposed 2009 seismic testing, the WGWAP states, “It would be precautionary for the planned Astokh 4-D seismic survey to be put on hold until more information is available about industrial activities and whale distribution in 2008, and preferably also until data from 2009 are available that might indicate whether the distribution has returned to ‘normal’.”

The WGWAP also states that if ENL and SEIC do not cooperate, “the effectiveness of the Panel and Sakhalin Energy’s stated commitment to western gray whale conservation will be severely compromised.”

"This dire news strengthens our call to immediately create a "Piltun Whale" protected area and halt Sakhalin I development at Piltun Bay," said Aleksey Knizhnikov, Head of the Oil and Gas Environmental Policy Program at WWF Russia. "We hope that the major partners of Sakhalin I—ExxonMobil and Rosneft—follow the recommendations of the panel, as well as of the environmental organizations and 5000 Russian citizens who have supported the creation of this reserve."

1. The WGWAP report, released in mid February, can be found at

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