Next Stop Nogliki. Then Piltun Lagoon and Grey Whales!

Post by Jake Levenson, IFAW Global Whales Program Officer, Headquarters Office

3788157912_b9604d9167 I survived the overnight flight to Yujno-Sakhalink, the capitol of Sakhalin Island and am now sending this from the comfort of my train cabin (complete with a nice soft bed of new survival suits for the Sakhalin team!).

In between trying to catch some sleep on the plane, I glanced out the window into the black abyss and watched the first hints of sunrise begin to show on the horizon.  As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw a few specks of light below.  At first I thought these tiny yellowish-orange dots were lights from a town, but they stood out by themselves in what was almost complete darkness. So, not towns. Then I noticed that their brightness was erratic -- it seemed to flicker and dance. That's when it clicked.  I was looking at the Siberian oil fields.

I'm so focused on the impacts of offshore oil and gas production in the Sakhalin region that I never really thought of the impact of these developments on terrestrial habitat.  Russia is home to vast forests and numerous, massive freshwater lakes, all of which supports an amazing array of biodiversity. Damaging this fragile habitat means really bad news for the many species that rely on the forests and lakes to survive.  Later in the day I was to get a whole new lesson in the impact of oil and gas development in Russia.

Saying that Yujno-Sakhalinisk is not exactly the prettiest town in the world is a drastic understatement. You can feel the impact of it's industrial development on every street and sidewalk. My visit began at the  Yujno Airport, where Natasha from Sakhalin Environment Watch met me. I spent my day at the Sakhalin Environment Watch offices, where I read something interesting about Russia's development of this remote region. Here's what struck me the most: "The sheer inefficiency of the Soviet economy, which caused horrendous environmental destruction in accessible areas, left vast areas of wilderness intact," and that Russia's far east "contains some of the most extensive wild areas remaining on the planet." 

This -- Russia -- really is our planet's last wilderness frontier.  More than 20% of the world's remaining forests are in this region. This region is home to untouched wetlands, tigers and leopards, and miles of pristine beaches for seals and sea lion rookeries.  If that's not impressive enough, approximately 20% of the world's freshwater is found in Russia's Lake Baikal (and this amazing source of fresh water is quickly becoming toxic to people and animals). What happens on land directly impacts our oceans, even if we can't see the effects right away.

3787345215_d1eab3d9de I'm glad I had a chance to meet Dimitry (at right) from Sakhalin Environment Watch. Dimitry, and a staff of four, operate out of a tiny office in Yujno that's crammed with everything one might need to take on Big Oil (below left).  Okay, perhaps not everything, yet they still somehow manage to counter Exxon, Sakhalin Energy, and Shell Oil's million dollar lawyers and corporate antics.  I told Dimitry that I often have thought fondly of Sakhalin Environment Watch, and consider them IFAW's Nanny-cam when it comes to keeping tabs on the oil industry.  I had to explain the analogy a bit, but I think my point was clear.  IFAW can't be everywhere at once, and we rely on dedicated partners like Dimitry and Sakhalin Environment Watch to help us achieve our goals in remote regions like Sakhalin.

3787334297_0fd898b7f3 Dimitry and I fondly reflected on some of the victories we've had in the war to protect Sakhalin.  Most notable was our work to protect Western Pacific grey whales from the damaging impact of submerged pipelines.  Submerged pipelines can adversely impact the lagoons these Western Pacific grey whales need to survive. Afterall, this tiny area is their only known feeding ground! With your help, IFAW successfully got Shell Oil to relocate their pipeline a few years ago. 

Moving the 'pipeline', as I've always heard it called, is putting it quite modestly.  We actually had four pipelines moved. This might sound like a technicality, but consider this:  Positioning each pipeline requires multiple boats, such as a survey vessel, dredge barge and it's tug, and a vessel to actually lay the pipe. All of this equipment already costs tens of thousands of dollars a day. Then you need people to operate the equipment. Finally, after the survey is completed, the seafloor cleared of obstacles, the supports laid and the pipe placed, you still need a team of specialized commercial divers to tighten the flange bolts that connect each section of pipe. Before the pipeline can be used, it still must be inspected and tested to be sure it can maintain proper pressure. Oh, and did I mention that this pipeline crosses through areas of high seismic activity?  Yup, these oil-filled pipes run right through a major (and active) earthquake zone.

Meanwhile, while all this is going on we're putting pressure on the oil companies.  IFAW does not advocate against all pipelines in the region, but we do believe that the oil and gas companies should take the Western Pacific grey whale into consideration. Afterall, they are the world's most endangered whale species, and this is thier only known feeding ground.

And, in the end, Shell Oil agreed with us! After they'd completed their surveys, deployed their vessels and divers, and finished their surveys, Shell decided they should move their new pipelines away from the Western pacific grey whales' feeding grounds. We -- at IFAW -- think your many wonderful letters, emails and phone calls helped convince them a great deal. As always, we couldn't do our work without your support.

So the boats went out, divers back in, and the pipes were relocated to an area much safer for the whales.  We probably cost the oil company around a billion dollars, which sounds like an awful lot to us, but really isn't that much for a company like Shell Oil. In the end, we showed that Big Oil needs to consider wildlife  and ecosystems when they plan their development projects.  It was a major victory for IFAW and the whales, and sends a clear signal that we're all watching, even in remote regions like Sakhalin. And it's about more than the whales.  I
FAW and Sakhalin Environment Watch are protecting not just  whales, but also bears, fishes, tigers, and natural beauty from the ever-widening danger of industrial development.

I'm meeting Sasha for a ride to the camp site when I get off this train at the end of the line in Nogliki but right now it's 12:30 AM, time to sign off and catch some shut eye.

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