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Whaling Body Expresses Concern Over Effect of Drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay to World's Most Endangered Whale Population

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – Late in the evening, at the 59th meeting of the International Whaling Commission meeting, governments expressed concern over potential threats oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay may have to the eastern North Pacific right whale, the most endangered whale population in the world. A planned lease sale area in Bristol Bay overlaps with critical habitat designated for the whale. Fifteen other cetacean species that occur in Bristol Bay including the endangered bowhead, blue, fin, sei, humpback and sperm whales could also be affected.

The delegate from the United Kingdom urged the U.S. government to take steps to reduce all human-caused threats to the eastern North Pacific right whale and the delegate from Mexico strongly backed up the statement.

"It’s rare for nations at an IWC meeting to make such strong statements directed at a host nation. It is a testament to the magnitude of the threat oil and gas drilling poses to eastern North Pacific right whales," said Margaret Williams, director of World Wildlife Fund’s Bering Sea program. "There’s no doubt that offshore oil and gas development in Bristol Bay would be the wrong step for the right whale."

On January 9, 2007, President Bush rescinded a long-standing presidential moratorium that prohibited drilling in Bristol Bay. In July the new Five Year Oil and Gas Leasing Program of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) – a U.S. government agency – goes into effect and includes plans for a lease sale in Bristol Bay and other areas along the U.S. coastline. Bills to block leasing in Bristol Bay are pending in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Oil and gas exploration in the Bristol Bay area would expose whales to noise pollution, oil spills, chemical pollution, vessel collisions and entanglement with or ingestion of marine debris. There are no reliable estimates of current abundance or trends for right whales in the North Pacific. According to U.S. government sources, there may be fewer than 300 of these animals left compared to a pre-whaling population of more than 11,000.

Bristol Bay is also the epicenter of the Bering Sea fishery whose commercial salmon, halibut, herring and crab fisheries generate more than $2 billion annually. Sport hunters and fishermen flock to the bay each year, pumping millions of dollars more into the economy. And the region’s spectacular wildlife supports scores of Alaskan natives who rely on a healthy ecosystem for food.

"The report of the IWC Scientific Committee, released Monday, expressed concern about this issue and this was hammered home by several Governments that seconded that concern takeing this issue to a higher political level," said Gordon Shepherd, director of international policy for WWF-International. "WWF congratulates the IWC for addressing issues of serious concern to whales – such as the prevention of unacceptable threats to some of the most threatened populations of whales in the world."