Protecting Sakhalin’s endangered gray whales

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Europe/Middle-East > Eastern Europe > Russian Federation

Land drilling riggs of the SAKHALINNEFTEGAZ state company. Sakhalin Island on the Sea of Okhotsk. Far East, Russian Federation.
© WWF-Canon / Vladimir FILONOV


Sakhalin Island in Russia’s Far East jets out in the North Pacific Ocean. Here, the waters are home to rich marine life. But it is also the site of one of the world’s largest oil and gas projects. WWF and its partners are concerned that the project will affect the critically endangered western gray whale – recent scientific evidence suggests that there are less than 100 individuals.

To protect the region’s unique marine environment and to minimize the impact of offshore oil and gas development, WWF is not only pushing for the strictest safety standards for the project but for a marine protected area in the waters off northeast Sakhalin to protect the gray whale’s feeding and breeding grounds.


Human activity on the Sakhalin shelf has increased dramatically and now presents a serious threat to marine biodiversity. Of special concern are the projects for offshore oil and gas development on the Sakhalin Northeast shelf, known as Sakhalin I and Sakhalin II.

Sakhalin-1 was established in 1995. Its members include Rosneft-Sakhalin (17% of shares), Sakhalinmorneftegaz (23%), Exxon Neftegaz Ltd (30%), and SODECO (30%). The 1st stage of the project considers the development of the Chaivo and Arkut-Daginskoe fields. A total extraction forecast is 46 billion tonnes of hydrocarbons in 34 years. The total investment is estimated to be USD 15.2 billion.

Federal ecological experts recently gave a negative statement with regard to discharge of drilling fluid and cutting, with a ban subsequently confirmed by the Supreme Court. The alliance, however, is unlikely to change its policy on the use of cheaper and environmentally unsafe solutions and can claim support from regional administration and federal resource authorities.

The Sakhalin II project is managed by the Sakhalin Energy Investment consortium, registered in Bermuda in 1994. The shares are allocated as follows: Marathon Oil (30%), Mitsui Bussan (20%), McDermott (20%), Royal Dutch/Shell (20%), and Mitsubishi Shoji (10%). Total investment is estimated to amount USD 10 billion.

The 2 main oil fields planned for exploitation are Piltun-Astohskoe and Lunskoe. The former is close to the Piltun lagoon, a major feeding ground for the highly endangered Okhotsk-Korean population of gray whales. An exploration stage of Sakhalin II has been completed and full-scale development is underway, with the first commercial oil obtained in the summer 1999. The project is scheduled for 25 years.

The 15-year old oil platform Molikpaq has been used by the alliance on Sakhalin. Designed for a reconnaissance drilling at a depth of 12m, the platform was installed on Sakhalin at depth of around 30m. From the outset of both projects, Sakhalin I and Sakhalin II, investors and regional administrators have adopted a strategy of keeping environmental costs low. They remain silent about the risks and the monitoring system developed is not sufficiently transparent.


- Promote the adoption of the highest standards of environmental safety and control by the Sakhalin oil projects investors, and federal and regional authorities.

- Develop and implement a comprehensive marine conservation programme for the Sakhalin region, in cooperation with key stakeholders on regional, national and international levels.

- Promote efficient and sustainable use of natural resources in the Sakhalin region.


- Precise assessment and mapping of marine biological resources and diversity of the Northeast and East Sakhalin, with particular attention to the gray whale population and potential threats from offshore oil development.

- Assessment of a socio-economic situation and status and economic perspectives of local populations in the areas of oil and gas development.

- Identification of potential for and development of a regional action network with public organizations and local agencies.

- Establish a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the key area Northeast Sakhalin to protect the population, feeding and breeding grounds of the gray whale, as well as safeguarding potential of marine and coastal biological resources of the area.

- Elaborate and establish a network of protected areas of different levels (categories) in the areas of oil and gas development.

- Elaborate and implement at a pilot scale a model for the sustainable use of natural resources in the Sakhalin region (including coastal fishery and forest timber and non-timber production), alternative to oil and gas development.

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