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Critically endangered whales face fresh threat from new oil development

By Lucy Brake - 10 Jan 2011 13:14:42 GMT
Critically endangered whales face fresh threat from new oil development

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) lists the western gray whale as critically endangered. The ICUN believes that about 130 of the whales remain in the oceans, with only 30 of these being mature females capable of reproducing. The western gray whale is known to spend summer and autumn in Russian waters where they feast to store fat up for the winter months. One of the greatest threats to the survival and recovery of these whales is the oil and gas development that takes place throughout this area.

Sakhalin Energy Investment Company is now proposing to develop a third offshore platform in the Piltun-Astokh oil and gas field off the coast of Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia. The platform will be located close to the main feeding ground of the western gray whale population.

An independent scientific panel, the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP), was set up in 2004 to help provide advice and to inform the energy company on how it can best mitigate against negative impacts on the whales from its oil and gas developments around Sakhalin Island. Chairman of WGWAP, Randall Reeves, said: "We are disappointed to learn that the already large footprint of industrial development on this biologically rich part of the planet may soon get even larger. If, however, the global demand for hydrocarbon energy supplies dictates that there will be more of such development, it is vital that we push the developers to proceed in a precautionary way and protect not only the gray whales but also the seals, birds, fish and other wildlife that depend on the region's natural productivity."

WGWAP has been asked by Sakhalin Energy to provide support and information on the expected impacts on the western gray whales at an early stage in this new oil and gas platform development programme. Finn Larsen, Programme Officer, IUCN Global Marine and Polar Programme commented: "This should ensure that best practices are maintained through the whole development process and it is a good example of how industry and the conservation community can work together to minimise the impacts on an endangered species."

Information is currently being collated by a collaboration of American and Russian scientists who have successfully managed to tag one of the western gray whales and are now receiving daily information on the whale population's movements. This will be critical knowledge to help IUCN and Sakhalin Energy manage the adverse impacts on these very special marine mammals.