After decades of decimation by whaling, the Western Gray Whale is being pushed to the very edge of extinction by the extensive development of oil and gas resources in the Okhotsk Sea off northeastern Sakhalin Island, Russia. Recent studies suggest there are about 100 of these critically endangered whales left, with only 23 of these being reproductive females.
Sakhalin Island was once a lonely and inhospitable place with frigid seas and windswept coasts. This remote corner of the world is ice covered in winter months and has provided the Western Gray Whale with a perfect summer feeding ground for generations. Sakhalin Island in the 21st century is a very different place. Multinational companies have poured into the area, lured by the scent of oil, and are changing the landscape and the lives of these peaceful whales forever. Today, oil platforms, pipelines, processing facilities and the towns that they spawn dot the Sakhalin coast, and this is just the beginning.
Oil and gas extraction and production projects in various stages of development by some of the world's biggest oil companies, including Shell, BP and Exxon-Mobil, lie along the east coast of Sakhalin Island. The most recent project and possibly the deadliest for the whales, is named Sakhalin II and is operated by Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (SEIC), a Shell-led company. Other investors include Mitsui and Mitsubishi. The second phase of the Sakhalin II project is underway and will directly encroach upon the primary feeding grounds of the Western Gray Whale. This phase includes the installation of an oil platform, less than eight miles offshore and adjacent to the whale feeding grounds. Four oil and gas pipelines will extend across the southern part of the feeding grounds to the shore and processing facilities. This phase of the project will involve an investment of at least $10 billion which is being sought from funding sources that include the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
The Western Gray Whale is a totally distinct population from their more numerous eastern counterparts that migrate yearly from Alaska to the calving lagoons in Mexico. The Western Gray Whale historically travels from the Okhotsk Sea off Far East Russia, along the Korean peninsula and down to the coastal waters of Japan. Their original "pre-exploitation" numbers are estimated to have ranged from 1,500 to 10,000 individuals. Modern commercial whaling from the 1890's to the 1960's took a grievous toll and by the 1930's many thought the whale to be extinct, although some were still being killed in Korean waters.
The Western Gray Whale is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). In 2001, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) called upon range states and others to "actively pursue all practicable actions to eliminate anthropogenic mortality in this stock and to minimize anthropogenic disturbances in the migration corridor and on their breeding and feeding grounds." In 2002 and again in 2003, the IWC reiterated these same concerns. The whales are again on the agenda for the July IWC meeting in Sorrento, Italy and AWI is urging the U.S. delegation and representatives to take a strong position to protect the whales.
The dangers to the Western Gray Whale posed by this latest phase of oil and gas development encompass almost every part of the exploration and extraction process. First come the repeated concussive bursts from seismic airguns fired down into the ocean floor to find likely areas to drill. Then come the drilling activities and the erection of platforms. Included in this phase of development is the construction of the world's largest liquid natural gas plant and the facilities to export this resource. Shell estimates that this will require the dumping of over one million cubic meters of dredging materials and then the discharge of over 500,000 metric tons of oil contaminated sewage each year. 800 miles of offshore pipelines would be dredged across 24 earthquake fault lines and 1,100 streams, rivers and waterways.
To make matters worse, the Sakhalin I project being developed by Exxon-Mobil also overlaps with the Western Gray Whale feeding ground and is likely to be an additional source of disturbance to the whales.
Gray Whales are bottom feeders, relying on the consumption of tiny benthic organisms that live in the mud. This makes them even more sensitive than fish eating whales to the impacts of noise and oil pollution. And every oil exploitation project has a likelihood of a spill which increases with time. An oil spill in the Okhotsk Sea, which is frozen and inaccessible half the year, would probably have devastating impacts on the whales and their prey, and would also likely impact dozens of other marine mammal species, over 100 species of fish, the endangered Steller's sea eagle, and rich crab and Pollock spawning grounds. An oil spill the size of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe would easily reach Japan, ironically, the host country of two of the SEIC partners.
The whales may already be suffering. Scientific surveys conducted over the last few years and since the existing development of the area's natural oil and gas reserves, have shown a marked deterioration in the physical condition of some whales sighted, with many appearing malnourished from either lack of prey, stress, disease or habitat disruption.
There is a slim hope for the whales and proof that concerned individuals can make a difference. In a recent development, significant pressure from citizens and environmental groups in Europe may have motivated the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to threaten not to lend money for the Sakhalin II project based on environmental concerns. In response, this summer's planned construction of the pipeline through the whales' feeding grounds has been postponed, pending further environmental impact assessments. Here in the U.S., the U.S. Export-Import Bank has also required an environmental assessment and addendum, and has yet to make its final decision on whether to lend money for the project and the conditions of the loan.
You Can Make a Difference
Will one of the hidden costs of our oil habit be the permanent loss of one population of whales from the earth? If you wish to object to the continued industrial assault on the Western Gray Whale, please write to the U.S. Export-Import Bank, Exxon-Mobil, Sakhalin Energy Investment Company, Shell (55% share in SEIC), Mitsui (25% share) and Mitsubishi (20% share). You may wish to request that all development in the Okhotsk Sea cease for the sake of the whales and demonstrate your objection by not buying the products of the key stakeholders.
Mr. Phillip Merrill, Chair, U.S. Export-Import Bank, 800 Vermont Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20571-0002
Exxon Mobil Corporation, 5959 Las Colinas Boulevard, Irving, TX 75039-2298
External Affairs Manager, Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd., 35, Dzherzinskogo Str, 693000, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russian Federation
Shell Oil Company, Rijswijk Project Office, Visseringlaan 25, 2288 ER Riswijk, The Netherlands
Mitsui and Co. (U.S.A.), Inc., Met Life Bldg., 200 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10166-0130
Mitsubishi International Corporation, 520 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022