Holarctic Conference examines still-mysterious Russian gray whale population

One of six presentations about the grey whale population at the Marine Mammal of the Holaractic International Conference VIII.

Active studies of the gray whale started exactly 20 years ago. At that time no one thought that we will be able to “celebrate” such a serious anniversary of these studies. Starting from 1995, each season - initially a joint Russia-US group of observers and later a fully Russian group of observers - researched and conducted photo identification of the gray whale in the Piltun Bay of the Sakhalin Island.

Piltun Bay is the place where the western gray whales come to feed and to teach their young.

IFAW has been supporting this research since 2000. Over 228 whales were identified. Many of these whales are already personally known by the researchers. We have already written about the legendary Ponchik. There are also others who already became grandmothers and grandfathers: the third generation of whales is already arriving at Sakhalin.

Read about the 2014 Western Gray Whale Research Expedition: Start from the outset.

One would think that in 20 years it is possible to find out everything about these whales. But this is not the case. For instance, it is not clear where this population breeds. Several years ago in order to try and answer this question, we tagged the legendary whale called Fleks, and unexpectedly, he left for California just for a week.

This was an important discovery.

From that moment on, the discussion started regarding how isolated the Okhotsk sea gray whale population actually is.

Why is it important?

There is oil and gas exploration and extraction work underway in the north of Sakhalin, while our population of the gray whale is red-listed by the Russian Federation, which places limitation on the work of oil companies, while the California population includes several thousands of animals and is not protected.

On Monday, September 22, the Marine Mammals of the Holarctic International Conference VIII started with a session on the gray whale in its program. Leading international scientists and experts took part in the session.

Six presentations were made, but no consensus was found. Genetic research does not show a clear difference between the two populations. Nevertheless only 100-150 whales approach Sakhalin and they are the ones we register there every year.

Some of them move to Kamchatka and stay there, but most return every year.

Why are they doing this?

Does the man have the right to destroy the place where the whales bring their calves to teach them something very important?

The whales live very long, most likely longer than humans or at least as long.

It is known that one whale couple continued to meet many years in a row and had calves together. This does not mean that they are 100% monogamous, but it definitely means that they are highly developed beings, which maintain relationships for decades.

For a long time, the western population was considered fully wiped out by whaling. Then it was discovered again in the 1980s. Currently it is stable and slowly growing, but human activities are bringing about new threats.

The small water area of the Piltun Bay is now under a strong pressure of human activities.

Fisheries have been putting up industrial nets in the last two years in the close proximity to the whales.

Tourism is developing without oversight: last year a boat placed eight motor boats on the water at the same time and was approaching the whales without regard for any kinds of rules of whale watching.

Probably the most serious factor is the oil and gas development. We already wrote that Exxon Neftegas Limited obtained a positive conclusion of the state environmental inspection for construction of a temporary platform inside the Piltun Bay, and I will repeat myself, but many scientists and non-profit organizations express a serious concern  that this construction will forever change hydrodynamics of the bay, result in strong silting up of the bay and changes of its benthos.

And these are the things that bring the gray whales to feed here.

What will happen next to this population remains an open issue: would it be able to withstand the pressure of human activities again, only the time can tell. But for our part we are making all possible efforts to make life of these wonderful and mysterious animals easier.


Visit our program page to learn more about IFAW’s whale-related research, rescue, and advocacy.

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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation