July 12, 2011

Oil And Gas Exploration Puts Whales “˜At Risk’

Delegates meeting at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference in the Channel Islands warn that oil and gas exploration in the Russian Far East continues to threaten the livelihood of the critically endangered gray whale that spends its summer feeding along Sakhalin Island, according to a recent BBC News report.

IWC scientists say that companies using seismic guns to find oil and gas in the area are taking steps to reduce impact, but they said those companies need to do more to protect the whales.

The western population of gray whales is one of the most endangered group of cetaceans in the world, with only some 130 remaining, including only 26 breeding females. And the area around Sakhalin Island is their only known feeding ground.

The IWC recommends that "appropriate monitoring and mitigation plans" should be implemented for oil and gas exploration in that area. It also urges companies to work with scientists to coordinate "seismic surveys and other noise producing activities."

Seismic surveys entail the use of underwater sound that can be so intense that it may force whales out of the area and also may damage their hearing.

A group of 12 countries sent a letter to the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment after last year's IWC meeting asking the country to postpone a major survey for at least one year. However, the survey went forward despite urges for the temporary moratorium.

Observers and environmentalists from non-governmental organizations reported that surveying didn't always stick with designated rules to minimize impacts on whales in the area. They found that surveys detonated seismic guns at night when it was too dark to tell if whales were nearby, and they also reported that fewer whales were spotted in the area days after seismic guns had been used.

US and UK delegates were on hand at this year's meeting and had expressed their concern over the situation, asking Russia to take a stricter stance on the subject.

Belgium's delegate, Alexandre de Lichtervelde, said plans for expanding infrastructure at the site were premature.

"We are concerned that one of the companies (Sakhalin Energy) has announced a plan for a new oil and gas platform offshore," he said at the meeting. "That is happening while the full impact of events in 2010 have not been fully assessed."

Valentin Ilyashenko, leader of the Russian delegation, said all oil and gas projects had to go through an impact assessment; but some effect on the whales could not be avoided.

"Human activities do influence the western gray whale; our task is to minimize the impact from human activities," Ilyashenko told BBC News. "But we can't stop [human] progress, and we can't stop using oil."

Scientists, concerned over the issue last year attempted to tag 12 western gray whales in order to track their migration route to their breeding grounds, believed to be further south. They hoped that if the migration route could be mapped, other conservation measures could be put into action, such as keeping them out of fishing gear.

But the scientists were only able to tag one male, which they called "Flex."

Weeks after tagging the whale, the scientists were surprised to find the whale moving north and east instead of the believed southern migration. "Flex" ended up on the other side of the Pacific on the US west coast. This is the area occupied by the much larger eastern gray whale population. Genetic studies have shown the two populations do not generally interbreed.

"It was completely the opposite of what any of us had suspected," Greg Donovan, the IWC's head of science, told BBC News.

"So then we started to look at photos from the catalogue of our animals off Sakhalin island, and compare with those taken down the Pacific coast of the US and further south," he said. "And we've now ended up with 10 animals that have been seen on both sides."

Scientists are planning another round of tagging studies, hopefully successfully tagging and following migration routes on a much wider scale.


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