July 19th, 2016. MOSCOW — The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and other groups have called for a temporary suspension of activities by an oil and gas company, which they fear are causing disturbance to critically endangered whales in Russia’s Far East.
According to conservation and animal welfare organizations with experts on site, Exxon-Neftegaz Ltd is transporting heavy cargo through the key feeding area of Western gray whale mothers with calves into Piltun Bay, Sakhalin Island. This activity is in violation of the environmental safety requirements stipulated by Russian authorities for this construction project (for an on-shore drilling platform).
The vessel traffic poses a serious threat to the Western (Okhotsk Sea) gray whale, listed as Endangered on the Russian Red Listand Critically Endangered on the international (IUCN) Red List. The population is currently estimated to number only between 150 and 200 animals.
When IFAW’s annual Okhotsk Sea (Western) gray whale research expedition arrived at the site earlier this month, they were disturbed to find they could not locate any whales in the traditional feeding area of female Western gray whales with their calves, known as the whales’ ‘nursery’.
This led scientists to conclude that the animals have been excluded from their traditional habitat by vessel traffic.
Maria Vorontsova, Regional Director of IFAW Russia, said : “This is a real threat to the survival of this gray whale population. The scientists are now monitoring the movement of the barges and tugboats around the clock. Traffic continues at night, even under foggy and low visibility conditions, in clear disregard of the requirement to keep all traffic well clear of feeding whales.”
A joint NGO letter has been sent to the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources Management, requesting temporary suspension of Exxon Neftegaz Limited cargo delivery operations as well as implementation of a project compliance review. The letter has been signed by IFAW, WWF and the regional public organization Sakhalin Environment Watch.
Environmentalists expressed concerns over this Sakhalin-1 operation back in 2013 after a review of project documentation revealed risks for the Western gray whale population, seal haul-outs and fish stocks in the area. The activity causing most concern was the transportation of large cargo using barges towed by powerful tugboats in the shallow waters of Piltun Bay.
Earlier, the project was approved by the state environmental appraisal, subject to restrictions on the number and size of vessels operating in the area at one time. Exxon Neftegaz Limited began its cargo transport operations through the whale feeding ground in May this year, before the seasonal arrival of Western gray whales to the bay.
The visual monitoring by the IFAW scientific expedition in Piltun Bay, coupled with the automatic monitoring of sea vessels by the MarineTraffic website and observers from environmental organizations confirmed a large number of serious violations of the environmental safety requirements. Barges with cargo are transported by a higher than permitted number of tugboats, including boats not indicated in the permits. These potentially generate an extremely high level of underwater noise, which negatively influences the gray whales. The vessels regularly exceeded the speed limit while moving in the gray whale feeding grounds.
“Several months before the transportation started, environmental organizations held a series of consultations with Exxon Neftegaz Limited aimed at mitigating the risks for gray whales posed by vessel traffic,” said Alexei Knizhnikov, Extractive Industry Environmental Policy Officer, WWF-Russia. “The company presented its corporate Marine Mammal Protection Plan in June. However, many of the measures provided by the Plan cannot be considered effective. In July we discovered that even these measures are not being implemented by Exxon Neftegaz Limited.”
Environmental organizations sent a joint letter to the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources Management requesting temporary suspension of Exxon Neftegaz Limited cargo delivery operations and calling for a Project Compliance Review to be conducted. The Marine Mammal Council of the Russian Federation sent a letter in support of this move to the Minister of Natural Resources of Russia.