Pressure building on oil companies to save rare whales
In late May or early June, the last western gray whales will migrate back to their summer feeding grounds in the waters off Russia’s Sakhalin Island. Only around 130 whales remain and biologists fear that increased noise from oil and gas activities this year could threaten their survival – so they are urging Exxon, British Petroleum and Rosneft to reassess their operations.
In particular, there are serious concerns about the potential impact of Exxon’s plans to build temporary unloading facilities in Piltun bay.
Whales are extremely sensitive to noise, and the construction and operation of the new pier could severely disrupt their movement and ability to feed – putting them at great risk since they need to eat almost an entire year’s worth of food before they head back to the South China Sea or as far away as British Columbia in Canada or Baja California in Mexico in late autumn.
“Pile installation in Piltun bay and intense navigation through gray whale feeding areas will cause extremely high noise impact on the whales,” said Dmitriy Lisitsyn, leader of Sakhalin Environment Watch, which conducted an expert environmental review of the project last year.
The review concluded that the companies had to stop the project and use alternative routes to deliver cargo to bay. Its view was backed by both the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission and the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel. But the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment still approved the plan, giving the green light to construction and seismic exploration in the region this summer.
“Now we are trying to convince oil and gas companies – the shareholders in Sakhalin 1 – to continue discussing alternative plans with scientists and environmentalists so that a solution can be found in time to give the whales the chance to feed and breed,” said Alexey Knizhnikov, WWF-Russia oil and gas programme coordinator. “As a minimum we must prevent dangerous and noisy construction works in Piltun bay during this year’s summer season 2015.”
Along with massive underwater noise, oil exploration and production in Sakhalin could also threaten the whales and the organisms they feed on in other ways, including oil spills and intense ship traffic.
The international ban on commercial whaling in 1986 gave the western gray whales the chance to recover from being hunted to the brink of extinction. Unfortunately, their summer feeding grounds are rich in oil and gas as well as whale food.
However, these rare whales can survive as long as oil and gas companies take precautions. Conservationists have been calling on them to take the right steps for years. Hopefully, this time they will listen and help to give the remaining western gray whales the chance to multiply.