Companies seeking oil extraction rights to a newly available concession off Russia’s Sakhalin Island will not be permitted to conduct activities while Western gray whales are present. The seasonal restriction, imposed by the Russian government, will require developers to conduct activities only from late November to late May, when the whales are away from their summer feeding grounds around the island.The new regulation applies to only one section of the waters surrounding Sakhalin, although numerous companies have active projects in other areas close to the whales’ feeding habitat. There are currently four off-shore oil and gas platforms near Sakhalin in Russian Far East, but the development of additional platforms is planned.
The waters around the island are the primary feeding habitats for critically endangered Western gray whales and their calves. There may be fewer than 130 of the whales remaining.
Activities needed for oil exploration, such as seismic testing, can disrupt the whales’ behaviour or even cause them to abandon their feeding area.
"WWF welcomes this seasonal restriction and urges authorities to expand the regulation to include all other off-shore projects near Sakhalin,” said Aleksey Knizhnikov, WWF-Russia’s Oil & Gas Environmental Policy Officer. “While the whales await this much needed protection, WWF calls on operators to halt their dangerous off-shore activities during this summer’s feeding season, including Sakhalin Energy’s planned seismic survey.”
Whales will begin to arrive to Sakhalin next month and scientists will be on hand to observe the animals’ physical condition. The number of whales and their ‘skinniness’ will be analysed to determine the impacts of last summer’s seismic testing. Three seismic surveys were conducted in or near whale feeding habitat last summer and are believed to have caused severe pressure on the animals. Several surveys are being planned by oil developers for this summer.
Sakhalin Energy, a consortium that includes oil giant Shell, recently revealed plans to construct a new off-shore platform close to the whales’ feeding habitat, and plans to conduct seismic surveys this summer to determine the exact location of the platform. A coalition of environmental organizations, including WWF, has urged Sakhalin Energy to halt all activities relating to the new platform until an assessment has been made of the cumulative impacts the numerous different oil and gas projects have on the whales.
The Russian government’s directive highlights the need for establishing protected zones for Western gray whales, an initiative WWF has supported for a number of years. The document also stresses that specialized observers are necessary to monitor the impact of oil and gas development on the whales.
“We commend the government for its leadership in prohibiting industrial activities when the whales are present in this area,” Knizhnikov said. “We look forward to the implementation of additional measures to fully mitigate the impact of oil development around Sakhalin Island.”