Protecting whales on the edge of extinction

08 October 2010 | Article

IUCN and the oil and gas Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (Sakhalin Energy) set up a collaboration to protect the critically endangered western gray whale. The population is slowly growing and is estimated to include 131 whales, but it still remains on the edge of extinction.

 Western gray whales fast during the winter, migrate huge distances in the spring and autumn, and depend on an annual summer feast in the waters off Sakhalin Island. Human activities can cause major disturbances to a very fine balance. Offshore oil and gas development in the whales’ feeding areas pose a significant threat. Seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration involve powerful, repeated airgun pulses, and such underwater noise has great potential to drive whales away from their feeding areas.

Sakhalin Energy is working with IUCN to minimize potential risks from the company’s operations to the western gray whale population of Sakhalin Island. Shell, which has a 27.5% share in Sakhalin Energy, initially approached IUCN in 2004 to help find solutions for the impact the Sakhalin II project could have on the whales. In response, IUCN convened a scientific panel in 2006 (the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel – WGWAP) to advise the company on its efforts to minimize and mitigate the impact of energy development activities on the whales.

Following the Western Grey Whale Advisory Panel ’s recommendations, Sakhalin Energy agreed to postpone a seismic survey that was planned for 2009 until June 2010. Measures to monitor and minimize the impacts of seismic surveys were developed collaboratively by the Panel and Sakhalin Energy, and were tested during the seismic survey in June-July 2010. For example, safety buffers were set up around the survey vessel and real-time acoustic and visual monitoring prevented exposure of whales to damaging doses of noise.

While Shell and Sakhalin Energy’s engagement with IUCN is extremely positive, a comprehensive conservation strategy is needed, which takes into account all significant threats, not only around Sakhalin Island but also across the entire geographic range of this population. In June 2010, a draft Rangewide Conservation Plan for western gray whales was presented to the International Whaling Commission, which praised it as being exemplary for this type of action plan. It is available here.
In particular, this Plan stresses the importance of knowing more about the whales’ migration routes and wintering areas. A dozen western gray whales are therefore being tagged in September 2010, to allow scientist to follow their movements. This major satellite tagging initiative is led by the International Whaling Commission, with support from IUCN, the WGWAP, Sakhalin Energy and ExxonMobil.

For more information on the Western Gray Whale Conservation Initiative, please visit: http://www.iucn.org/wgwap/