Oil Spell Trouble for Western Pacific Whales

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, June 03, 2003 at 10:59AM :

May 30 2003
Vol. 300: 1365.

Will Oil Spell Trouble for Western Pacific Gray Whales?
Paul Webster*

Experts dispute whether efforts to exploit the vast oil reserves off Russia's Far East are harming an endangered whale species
MOSCOW--In the mid-1990s, scientists who study the endangered Western Pacific gray whale got an unexpected windfall: millions of dollars of funding from energy firms hoping to exploit petroleum reserves in the whale's summer feeding grounds, off Russia's Sakhalin Island. But the money came with a string attached. The companies--Shell Oil's Sakhalin Energy Investment Corp. (SE) and ExxonMobil's Exxon Neftegas Ltd. (ENL)--insisted that grantees sign confidentiality agreements. "I became suspicious. It seemed to me ... [that] they had something to hide," says zoologist Masha Vorontsova, Russia director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an environmental group.
SE is now hoping to dispel such concerns. The company has pledged $5 million for a new 5-year research program to probe whether oil and gas operations could harm the whales and says that scientists will now be freely allowed to publish their findings. Some researchers, however, think the verdict is already in, pointing to harm that they contend the whales suffered during seismic exploration near their feeding areas. The soundings "are disturbing the whales by forcing them to leave the places [where] they fatten in summer," asserts Eugene Sobolevsky of the Institute of Marine Biology in Vladivostok.

SE, backed by other scientists, maintains that there's no evidence the whales are affected by its operations and has rejected calls to discontinue seismic tests when whales are nearby and to reroute a planned pipeline around the feeding grounds. The call for proposals for SE's new research effort, due out next month, should yield the necessary data to settle the disputes.

Scientists marvel that there are any of these whales to study. The Pacific grays were thought extinct until 1974, when Robert Brownell Jr., now with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Pacific Grove, California, established the existence of a small population of surviving whales, close cousins of the Eastern Pacific grays that were rescued from extinction off California. Hard on the heels of this rediscovery came another revelation: massive oil and gas deposits near Piltun Bay, where the whales feed before migrating to the South Pacific each autumn. Under a 1993 U.S.-Russian environmental agreement, SE and ENL help pay for studies on how development of the petroleum reserves might affect the mammals. Since 1997, $4 million of funding from the two companies, along with money from nonprofits and a U.S.-Russian research program, has nourished a raft of studies.

Data in the open literature raise disturbing questions. For instance, findings from Brownell, NOAA colleague David Weller, and a Russian team led by Alexander Burdin of the Kamchatka Institute of Ecology and Nature Management suggest that the Western grays are under duress. Based on photographic tracking of the pod, they estimate there may be as few as 100 individuals, of which only 17 are capable of bearing calves. "These whales are among the top five most endangered whale species in the world," says Brownell. Their condition seems to be deteriorating, he says, with 48 whales recently having lost weight.


Like oil and water? A new research effort aims to settle whether gray whales and oil operations can coexist.


With the whales on the edge of extinction, Weller argues, "any disruption [of normal feeding patterns] is of concern." He and his team noticed just such a disruption in 2001, when they found that the distribution of whales in the feeding grounds had shifted significantly during 6 weeks of seismic testing by ENL 4 kilometers away. Sobolevsky observed the Piltun Bay area by helicopter at the time and says that "the whales were forced to leave" during their crucial fattening period; many whales were later spotted in another feeding area further offshore.

Some experts believe the testing did not harm the whales. Steve Johnson, a biologist with LGL Ltd., an environmental consulting firm in Sidney, Canada, that reviewed the seismic testing program for ENL, says the underwater detonations had "very low-level" impacts: The whales moved around the feeding area more and spent less time resting or eating. What this apparent restlessness means, though, "is difficult to assess," Johnson says, although he says there's no evidence the whales suffered. Gerry Matthews, director of external affairs for SE, says that in the absence of proof of harm, his company too will continue with seismic work while making efforts to reduce noise and test as far away from the whales as possible.

Seismic disturbances are not the only potential threat. A toxicological study by V. V. Andreev of the All-Russian Research Institute for Nature Protection in Vladivostok suggests that pollution from drilling will have serious adverse effects on sea urchins, sand dollars, crabs, and shrimp that the gray whales eat. Vorontsova says she is especially worried about a pipeline proposed to run through part of the feeding area, but SE says it will consult marine mammal specialists to develop measures to offset possible impacts.

With tens of billions of dollars of oil development money awaiting environmental approval from the Russian government, SE wants to speed things along by broadening the scope of the research. "At this point we want to hear from the scientific community" in Russia and internationally, says Matthews. "We'll base our plans on their suggestions." He adds that the new effort will be managed by an independent panel including sponsors, government officials, and key researchers. And in a change of tactic, SE will push for data to appear in peer-reviewed publications.

Vorontsova and others argue that the whales can't wait for the outcome of five more years of research. They are lobbying the energy companies to reroute planned pipelines, move drilling platforms farther offshore, and protect the entire feeding area during summertime. There is "enough data to justify [the whale's] critically endangered status," Vorontsova says. If findings from the new research program are indeed released publicly, then it should soon be evident what steps, if any, must be taken to prevent the Pacific grays from vanishing once again.

Paul Webster is a writer in Moscow.

-- Sadie
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