Panel strongly concerned about industry’s negative impact on whale

25 June 2009 | News story

Significant changes in the distribution and behaviour of whales was noted in the 2008 feeding season off Sakhalin Island. An independent panel of scientists has recommended a moratorium on all activities by oil and gas companies in eastern Russia that could adversely affect the western gray whale population.

The advice came after the report released recently by the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP), which was set up by IUCN in 2006, said the distribution of whales in 2008 varied considerably from that in previous years with monitoring.

Results from Sakhalin Energy Investment Company’s whale monitoring programme show that the whales in 2008 were nearly totally absent in the most northern portion of the Sakhalin near-shore study area. The total number of whales occupying the near-shore area had decreased by nearly 40 percent in comparison to 2007, while the number of whales using the offshore feeding area more than doubled.

The Panel expressed concern that this could represent a response to disturbance from oil and gas activities on the shelf and could have negative implications for feeding success and ultimately breeding success for the western gray whale.

There are only an estimated 130 western gray whales left in the world, with 25 to 30 reproductive females. The whales come to feed in the waters off Sakhalin Island in summer and autumn, in preparation for the breeding season. The western gray whale is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The new information has heightened, rather than diminished, the Panel’s concern that whale distribution and behaviour may have been seriously affected by industrial activities – on land and offshore - in 2008.

The whales have a higher distribution in Piltun, near the shore, where the most intense industrial activity is occurring. However in 2008, the number of whales identified in Piltun was substantially lower than in previous years, while the number identified in the Offshore feeding area, where there is less activity, has reached a maximum over the last two years.

The panel stated that the available information is too limited to draw firm conclusions and thus decided to apply the precautionary approach by acting on the assumption that the shift in distribution evident in 2008 was caused by anthropogenic disturbance, and that continued activity at the same level will have negative implications for feeding success and ultimately reproductive success of the western gray whales.

This precaution should remain in effect until more information is available to reduce the Panel’s concerns. Because of this, the panel recommended that Sakhalin Energy Investment Company abstain from doing a seismic survey of the area in 2009.

Sakhalin Energy Investment Company responded directly during the meeting in Geneva that the company would comply with the Panel’s recommendation and postpone their planned Ashtok seismic survey to 2010.

In their report, the Panel requests all other companies involved in the development of oil and gas resources on the northeastern Sakhalin Shelf join in this international effort and abide by the call for a moratorium on potentially harmful activities until the status of the whale population has been clarified. The Panel specifically urges the Russian Federation to assist in this process.

IUCN will engage with the other oil and gas companies as well as with the government of the Russian Federation to promote the Panel’s recommendation for a moratorium on potentially harmful activities on the Sakhalin Shelf.