About Western Gray Whales

Breaching gray whale

The Western Gray Whale population is critically endangered. In response to these concerns, IUCN has been working for many years to protect the population from future impacts with a long term view to recovery of the population.

Western Gray whale population status

The western Pacific population of gray whale (Esrichtiius robustus) is one of only two surviving populations of this species in the world. Although historically both populations were brought near to extinction by commercial whaling, the eastern Pacific population, which migrates annually between Mexico and Alaska, has recovered substantially and now numbers about 20,000 individuals. By comparison, the western Pacific population, or western gray whale is estimated at about 150 individuals, including perhaps some 36 reproductive females in 2012. They are believed to migrate between eastern Russia and China, however the 2010-2011 satellite tagging of whales off Sakhalin revelead some new insights in their migration. 

IUCN has been concerned by the status of western gray whales for many years. Through its Species Survival Commission (SSC), IUCN has collaborated with a joint USA-Russian research project launched in the mid-1990s to examine the conservation status, behavior, and distribution of the whales as well as their associated threats. As a result of this research project, in 2003 the western gray whale population was listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ as critically endangered.

The population has also been the focus of international concern, including the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which calls year after year for urgent measures to protect the population, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which has listed the western gray whale as a species threatened with extinction.

Key threats

The few surviving animals face a number of potential hazards throughout their range, including collisions with ships, underwater noise, entanglement in fishing gear and modifications of their physical habitat. Particular concerns have been raised about the impact of offshore oil and gas activities along the coast of Sakhalin Island, Eastern Russia.

The waters off Sakhalin island are of particular significance to the conservation of the western gray whale, as the only known feeding ground for this population lie in these waters. Whales only feed half of the year, in the summer, and stock energy and fat for their winter calving and mating season. Their primary feeding ground is therefore of major importance for the health and survival of the population. The area is also rich in oil and gas deposits, which have been explored and exploited during the last decade.

Oil and gas exploration and production in the offshore regions around Sakhalin Island are a relatively recent phenomenon. Development of these fields did not begin until the 1990s and production only started in 1999. Sakhalin’s offshore area has been divided into more than ten different projects - a few are currently underway, while others are in the development stage. One of those, the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas development, lies in close proximity to the only two identified feeding areas of the western gray whales. Its impact on the survival of the population is therefore potentially critical.

To address this threat, IUCN has been working with Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (Sakhalin Energy) on issues associated with western gray whale conservation since 2004. In October 2006, IUCN convened a long-term independent scientific advisory panel (Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel - WGWAP) to provide advice, primarily at present to Sakhalin Energy, on how to minimize and mitigate the impact of its Sakhalin II operations on gray whales in the vicinity of Sakhalin Island.

Where to from here?

IUCN’s overall objective is the conservation of the western gray whale population. While IUCN’s engagement with Sakhalin Energy is an extremely positive development for the conservation of this critically endangered population, it is widely recognized that any comprehensive conservation management initiative must consider the full range of threats to the population. For this reason, IUCN is developing a Rangewide Conservation Initiative for western gray whales, to consider not only the full range of threats within the vicinity of Sakhalin Island, but also across the entire geographic range of this population.