April 25, 2009

A Small Victory For Endangered Gray Whales

Conservation groups advocating the protection of critically endangered gray whales say they have cause to celebrate.

After extended talks with Russian gas and oil companies, the groups say they have managed to win agreements from several firms to end seismic drilling work in order to give the struggling whales a chance to breed undisturbed.

The energy companies' agreement to suspend work comes on the heels of recent research studies that demonstrated how their methods of extracting fossil fuels had affected the breeding behavior and lifecycles of the rare marine mammals.

The group's victory was, however, only a partial one, as a number of companies say they will continue exploration work planned for the whale breeding season.

The Sakhalin Energy consortium has received praise from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Pacific Environment conservation groups for its agreement to abort exploration plans off the coast of the Sakhalin Island scheduled for later this year.

"The results seen today demonstrate that collaborative science-based initiatives like this panel process can succeed "“ even on issues as complex as oil and gas development," said Aleksey Knizhnikov of WWF's Russian branch.

Researchers say that grey whales only feed during the summer months and that their main feeding range is in the Piltun Bay in the northeastern section of the Sakhalin shelf.  They claimed that their studies had shown that the whales were being forced to dive into ever deeper waters due to the noise coming from gas and oil exploration rigs.  The changed conditions found in deeper waters, such as reduced availability of food, makes it considerably more difficult for young whale calves to survive, they explained.

With only 130 individuals remaining on the planet "“ a mere 35 of which are breeding females "“ the gray whale is one of the most threatened species of mammals alive today.  Russia has classified the animals as "critically endangered" and they have made it onto the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list of endangered species.

Sakhalin Energy's decision to suspend seismic exploration work "“ a decision backed by Shell and Gasprom "“ will hopefully mean that the whales will be able to return to the shallower, more productive in-shore waters and resume their normal feeding and breeding patterns.

Whale advocates have, however, continued to criticize energy giants like British Petroleum (BP), Rosneft and Exxon for refusing to suspend their exploration activities planned for later this year.


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