Critically Endangered Whales Flee Russian Oil and Gas Boom

Major seismic survey causes repeated calls from governments, NGOs, scientists and the public with request to postpone

Russian oil and gas company, Rosneft, is conducting oil and gas exploration work that may have caused the critically endangered western gray whale to flee its main feeding ground. Tests and offshore installment of equipment by Rosneft for a major seismic survey began in late August, despite repeated calls from 12 governments, NGOs, scientists and the public requesting to postpone the survey because of potential risks to the whales. Seismic surveys are done by blasting the water with acoustic noise to detect oil and gas deposits under the ocean floor.

Rosneft started preparations for the survey last month near Sakhalin Island even though a small number of western gray whales mothers and calves were feeding in the area.  Only an estimated 130 western North Pacific gray whales are left in the world, with around 30 breeding females.  

Observers from WWF and other NGOs began monitoring Rosneft’s activities and the whales in mid-July. As of August 20, only weeks after Rosneft’s activities started, whales feeding in the area had already been affected. Before those activities began, observers registered 10 to 15 of the whales feeding in the area. Now whales have only been seen migrating across the area – not feeding.  

“This is a huge problem as the whales use this area as a crucial feeding ground; the sustenance provided by the waters off Sakhalin Island see them through the rest of the year – through migration, breeding and calving,” said  Leigh Henry, Senior Policy Officer for WWF.

The company also conducted seismic surveys twice at night, which is a violation of international standards, and even Rosnefts’ own guidelines.

WWF’s actions

On August 23, WWF issued a letter of concern to Russian environmental authorities, requesting an immediate stop to Rosneft’s testing.

Also, as part of a WWF initiative, more than 20,000 people have sent Rosneft emails requesting that the surveys be postponed.  However, Rosneft continues to shut out public opposition to its actions with many WWF members reporting that their emails to Rosneft's President Sergei Bogdanchikov had been blocked.

No response from Rosneft

Scientists from the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP), a group of eminent whale scientists, have also repeatedly asked the company to postpone the surveys until the whales have left the area. A letter sent from 12 governments to the Russian government asking them to make Rosneft postpone the survey also went unheeded.

“Rosneft is irresponsibly insisting on conducting this survey when they could easily postpone the survey until next year and hold it before the whales arrive,” said Aleksey Knizhnikov, Oil & Gas Environmental Policy officer, WWF.  “Rosneft may be ignoring public outcry but their negligent behavior will not be forgotten, and they will have to be held responsible for any harm that comes to the whales as a result of these surveys.”  

Postponing the surveys would also enable Rosneft to develop the precautionary monitoring and mitigation measures that are essential to minimize the impact of the seismic survey on the whales. Monitoring and mitigation measures have already been developed by the WGWAP, and are being used by another company in the same area.

WWF and other NGOs have dozens of observers and boats on Sakhalin Island this year and will be monitoring the test and how it affects the feeding whales.   In addition, WWF is planning to approach Rosneft's new president about postponing the seismic surveys this week.

Learn more about gray whales