Whales under renewed threat as oil companies shun talks

Posted: 21 April 2009

BP and Exxon continue to ignore requests to join consultations with an international scientific panel to work to protect the world's most endangered whales, threatened by oil and gas development around Sakhalin Island in Far East Russia.

The Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP), including 11 prominent international scientists, has been in consultation with Shell andGazprom subsidiary Sakhalin Energy over developments that may impact upon gray whales. However, BP, Exxon and Rosneft, another Russianpetroleum giant, did not respond to requests to participate.

The panel, convened by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in February has called for a moratorium on oil and gas development after Sakhalin Energy representatives acknowledged that the numbers of gray whales observed in the Piltun feeding area off Sakhalin were notably less than in any previous year since monitoring began.

"The continuing refusal of BP, Exxon and Rosneft to even consider joining other parties on the gray whale advisory panel is hamperingconservation efforts and the flow of information - with potentially disastrous consequences for the whales," said Heather Sohl, WWF Species Officer.

"On the one hand, we have Shell and Gazprom at least looking at their plans to see if impacts on whales can be reduced and on the other handwe have BP, Exxon and Rosneft not even telling scientists what their plans are."

Critically endangered

Western Gray Whale
Western Gray Whale
Western Gray Whale breaching Photo: © IUCN/Dave Weller
Even before these latest observations raised alarm bells, a total of only about 130 western gray whales and just 25 breeding females were thought to remain, with the species listed as critically endangered both in Russia and on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

The listing in Russia imposes obligations for the special protection of such species and their habitats by minimizing activities that could leadto population decline or habitat destruction.

The advisory panel said in its reportthat: "This scarcity (of gray whales) may have been related to underwater noise produced during onshore pile driving activities undertaken by Exxon Neftegas Limited (ENL) on the northern Piltun barrier split adjacent to the Odoptu block".

A number of NGOs, including WWF-Russia, last month wrote to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, requesting a moratorium on all oil and gas project construction and surveying activities in the area that may negatively impact the dwindling gray whale population until a committee has investigated the scale of the impacts on the whales.

Last year also saw the Elvary joint venture between Rosneft & BP conducting seismic surveys immediately to the north of the whale feedingarea. The company chose to ignore recommendations from the panel,failing to conduct any real "noise monitoring" of their activities.

Marine reserve

A proposal to create a Sakhalin Marine Federal Wildlife Reserve for key gray whale habitat along the Piltun Spit is currently under review by Russian authorities. The reserve would also protect Piltun Bay's shallow waters critical not just to the nutrition of gray whales but also to sustaining rich fishing grounds.

Adjacent coastal areas are important for migratory birds and are in the "shadow list" of the Ramsar international convention on wetlands.

However, oil and gas development and associated shipping and pipeline infrastructure is already threatening to fragment the proposed reserve.The environmental policies proposed by Sakhalin project development partners have been judged inadequate by the Far Eastern Branch of theRussian Academy of Sciences.

Related link:

Sakhalin pipeline victory for campaigners