Can scientists and oil consortium save endangered whales?

23 April 2010 | News story

Survival and recovery of the Western Gray Whale population depends on continued and strengthened collaboration among scientists, governments and industry. The 8th meeting of the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel, held in Geneva on 16-18 April 2010, promoted this crucial multi-stakeholder dialogue and led to the development of new recommendations to minimize industry impacts on endangered whales.

The Western Gray Whale population is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Only about 135 individuals remain, including perhaps 30-35 reproductive females. Protection of the whales’ primary feeding ground, the waters off north-eastern Sakhalin Island, is crucial to their survival. However, this area is also rich in oil and gas deposits and has attracted many energy companies. Since 2006, a Panel of independent scientists convened by IUCN has been working with Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (Sakhalin Energy) to minimize the impacts of the company’s operations on whales in the area.

The 8th meeting of the Panel, coordinated by IUCN, brought together leading whale scientists and representatives from Sakhalin Energy, lending institutions, NGOs and the Russian Government.

Based on recommendations from the Panel, seismic survey activities planned by Sakhalin Energy in 2009 had been postponed until June 2010. Measures to minimize and monitor impacts of seismic surveys on whales have been developed collaboratively by the Panel and Sakhalin Energy during the last three years and were discussed during the meeting. Key features of the monitoring and mitigation plan include safety buffers around the survey vessel and real-time acoustic and visual monitoring to prevent exposure of whales to damaging doses of noise.

Seismic surveys are taking place every year on the Sakhalin shelf, but this project is unique in terms of what has been invested in mitigation and monitoring” said Randall R. Reeves, chairman of the Panel. “We hope it will come to be regarded as a good model for other companies in Sakhalin and other parts of the world.

The Panel also highlighted important information gaps which leave considerable uncertainty over the efficacy of the proposed mitigation measures, such as the lack of information on oil and gas activities, particularly seismic surveys, undertaken and planned by other companies in the area. The Panel is extremely concerned that these activities, without the kind of robust mitigation and monitoring planned for the Sakhalin Energy seismic survey, could seriously impede the whale population’s survival and recovery.

In addition, the whales’ migration routes and wintering grounds remain a mystery and this makes it difficult to ensure protection across the whales’ range. To fill this knowledge gap, satellite tagging of a dozen Western Gray Whales is planned for August and September 2010, which should allow scientists to track the whales’ movements. This major satellite tagging initiative is led by the International Whaling Commission and supported by Sakhalin Energy and ExxonMobil.

The report of the 8th meeting of the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel will be available on the IUCN website (http://www.iucn.org/wgwap/wgwap/meetings/wgwap_8/) by early June 2010.

For more information on the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel and related meetings, please contact Beatrice Riche (beatrice.riche@iucn.org).