WASHINGTON, DC, July 16, 2010 – 12 governments, including the United States, have sent a letter to the Russian government asking them to encourage its oil and gas giant Rosneft to postpone a seismic survey that is scheduled to take place near Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East at a time when the critically endangered Western North Pacific gray whale migrates to the area to feed.
The western gray whale has a population of only 130 individuals, with around 30 breeding females. Yet Rosneft plans to conduct a major seismic survey – blasts of acoustic noise used to detect oil and gas deposits under the ocean floor – in July just as the whales are arriving at their main feeding area.
"This could be the nail in the coffin for the western gray whale, whose population is already so severely depleted," said Leigh Henry, Senior Policy Officer, WWF-US. “Conducting harmful seismic testing in the main feeding area of western gray whale and disturbing mothers and calves as they nurse and teach their young to feed is not the way to go.”
"We are encouraged that governments, particularly the Obama administration, have spoken out in support of this species and hope that Rosneft will postpone the seismic testing until 2011, when it would be possible to conduct the survey before the whales have arrived in their feeding ground."
In the letter the governments of Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States state that, "We note the planned seismic survey scheduled for July 2010 off Sakhalin Island this year, coinciding with the critical period in the Western Gray Whales feeding season, and we welcome consideration of its postponement in line with the advice from the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) Scientific Committee and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP)."
Several scientific bodies, including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have outlined their extreme concern that this seismic survey could result in serious damage to the survival and recovery of Western Gray Whales. But Rosneft still plans to go ahead, and there is currently no evidence that it would undertake necessary measures to minimise the survey’s impact.
This area around Sakhalin Island is particularly important for the whales, as scientists believe it is where mother whales teach their calves to feed just before they become independent. The seismic survey is expected to significantly disturb feeding and nursing gray whales.
If the seismic survey is postponed until next year then it is feasible for Rosneft to conduct their survey early in the season, before the whales have arrived in their feeding ground. Postponing the survey for a year would also enable Rosneft to develop the precautionary monitoring and mitigation measures that are so essential to minimize the impact of the survey on the critically endangered whales.
Just last month, at their annual meeting, the IWC Scientific Committee stated that they were “extremely concerned about the potential impact of this survey on western gray whales” and the Committee “strongly recommends that Rosneft postpone their survey until at least June 2011.”
WWF and its conservation partners have been instrumental in strengthening protection for the western gray whale, working with the IUCN convened Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel, a group of eminent cetacean experts which advises companies how to mitigate the impact of their operations on the whales. WWF and partners are also urging the Russian government to establish a sanctuary off Sakhalin Island in the western gray whales’ feeding habitat.