Over the next few days (12-14th Feb) the ‘Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel’, a group of 11 independent scientists will be meeting. They are focused on considering how to reduce the impacts of oil and gas operations on the western gray whales found in Russian waters.
The panel will also be attended by those who financially support the oil and gas work and Sakhalin Energy.
With as few as 130 whales, including only 26 breeding females thought to remain, the western gray whale is teetering on the edge of extinction and their critical feeding ground off the coast of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, is now under threat.
Two drilling platforms already exist next to the key feeding ground as part of the Sakhalin II oil and gas project, and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company is currently making plans to build a third oil rig in the area. The third platform was not part of the original environmental impact assessment, and if plans go ahead, this already vulnerable population of whales could be pushed closer to extinction.
Western gray whales feed in the waters off Sakhalin Island during the summer and autumn months. Gray whales are the only large whales that feed from the sea bottom, churning up the sea bed and filtering the disturbed invertebrates through their baleen plates. The shallow waters close to the island are the only waters that are suitable for mothers to teach their calves how to feed in this way.
WWF has commented that if Sakhalin Energy’s expansion plans are successful, there will be increased risk in these critical feeding grounds from noise pollution (especially that caused by seismic surveys), increased likelihood of oil spills, lethal whale and ship collisions, and chemical pollution.
* The western North Pacific gray whale (or western gray whale) is categorised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered.
* There is another population, the eastern gray whale, but this is not endangered and has a population of about 20,000 individuals. Although they look very similar, current scientific evidence suggests that the two populations are genetically distinct and have different migration routes.
* The adult whales are about 12-15 metres long and feed on amphipods and isopods (little crustaceans).