Endangered whales at risk from rush to exploit offshore oil and gas in Russian Far East

In 1974 the western North Pacific population of gray whales was thought to be extinct. Thankfully, to quote Mark Twain, news of its demise was “exaggerated” but sadly, not “greatly exaggerated”. Today, a slowly growing population, numbering perhaps 130, visits the northeastern coast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island each summer to feed. This population is imminently threatened unless the Russian Government postpones a planned seismic survey.

Gray whale

This 900 km long island and its broad adjacent shelf harbor some of the world’s largest proven oil and gas reserves with no fewer than nine major offshore lease areas. Two of these border a narrow strip of coastline used by the 30 reproductive females to nurse and wean their calves. Sakhalin-I is a joint venture involving Japanese, Indian, and Russian affiliates, operated by Exxon Neftegas Limited (ENL). Sakhalin-II, initially a partnership of Shell, Mitsubishi, and Mitsui but, since 2006, a Russia-led enterprise with Gazprom the majority shareholder, is operated by Sakhalin Energy Investment Company. Besides these two international projects, the Lebedenskoye area, a smaller lease owned by Rosneft, directly overlaps the northern part of the whale feeding zone.

Although Russia’s position in the world is increasingly defined by energy riches, plans for 22 new nature reserves and parks are a welcome sign, and Prime Minister Putin’s recent photo-ops tranquilizing and tagging a Siberian tiger and a polar bear signal a desire to identify with conservation causes. The risks to whales from offshore development can be every bit as serious as the threats to tigers from poaching and polar bears from loss of sea ice. The ongoing Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico is a wake-up call in that regard.

Gray whales fast during the winter, migrate huge distances in the spring and autumn, and depend on an annual summer feast in high latitudes. Significant disturbance on the feeding grounds can compromise a whale’s health; for this population, where females can produce only a single calf every two to three years, there is little margin for error.

In 2004, recognition of such threats led Sakhalin Energy and IUCN to set up a novel paradigm – an open process of environmental scrutiny and accountability by a panel of independent international experts. In response to one of the panel’s main recommendations in 2005, Sakhalin Energy agreed to reroute its offshore pipeline to give the whales’ feeding area a wider berth. In recent years, seismic surveys have become a focal concern of the panel.

Offshore development depends on regular seismic profiling. Seismic surveys involve powerful, persistent airgun pulses, and such underwater noise has great potential to interfere with whale foraging. A 2001 survey off Sakhalin created a major outcry when the gray whales vacated parts of their nearshore feeding area. Years later, as Sakhalin Energy was planning its own seismic survey, it requested panel advice. Through months of hard work, the company-panel collaboration developed mitigation and monitoring measures that exceeded previous industry “best-practice” standards. The central pillar of the plan was to finish the survey before most of the whales arrived on the feeding grounds; the seismic work could only start when ice conditions allowed.

Although the Sakhalin Energy survey finished in early July, thankfully without incident and before the peak whale season, a Rosneft survey in Lebedenskoye is still planned. Whatever mitigation plans might be in place, it is impossible for a survey beginning now to avoid the peak occurrence of mothers and calves in the primary nursery, with potentially serious consequences for the population.

Last May, following the most recent panel meeting, IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre wrote to Mr. Putin imploring him to ensure that the Lebedenskoye survey is postponed for at least a year and that when it does happen, it is “as early in the open-water season as is feasible.” Last month, the International Whaling Commission reiterated this. Rosneft’s failure to engage with the international community negates the good-faith efforts by other companies, like Sakhalin Energy, to take the fine words of business and government leaders promising environmental stewardship to heart.

We live in the real world. The oil business, by its very nature, cannot be sustainable. Yet the world demands energy. By business interests working with outside conservation-minded scientists in a framework of transparency and inclusiveness, many conflicts between development and conservation can be managed, sometimes even defused. Russia (and indeed other nations with Arctic oil and gas interests) must choose between a responsible path, where environmental risks are acknowledged and addressed, and a path of routine denial. A decision to forge ahead with the Rosneft seismic survey will mean the latter path has proven irresistible.

Randall Reeves, based in Hudson, Quebec, Canada, chairs the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel. Finn Larsen, based at IUCN headquarters in Gland, Switzerland, is the IUCN Program Officer responsible for the Western Gray Whale Conservation Initiative. Greg Donovan is Head of Science for the International Whaling Commission and is based in Cambridge, UK.

This article appears in the latest issue of GMP News, the newsletter of IUCN's Global Marine Programme.

Work area: 
Western Gray Whale
North America
North America
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