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NewsGirl.Org: Noise threatens last western gray whales

newsgirl.org gray whale image

Sakhalin gray whale
Credit: ICUN / David W. Weller

August 7, 2007
Courtesy of  Far North Science
By Doug O’Harra

Hunted almost to the brink of extinction, the gnarly gray whales of the eastern North Pacific have rebounded to about 20,000 animals. That population, protected from commercial whaling for many decades, now treks from the Baja to the Alaskan Arctic in one of the world’s great migrations.

Their Journey North along the Pacific Northwest and southern Alaska gets studied by scientists, watched by whale-lovers, tracked by school children. During the trip, it’s an undulating conga-line of muscle and blubber through the green-water swells.

Once in the Arctic, the 30-ton bottom-feeders churn up acres of muck in their quest to scarf down invertebrates, offering a snout-tilling boost to the seabed ecology that enriches the food chain. In turn, these grays get chomped by key pods of the rare mammal-eating killer whales, the ocean’s most elusive and intelligent predator.

In all, it’s a 5,000-mile-long spectacle that echoes the bounty once common in pre-industrial oceans worldwide. The eastern Pacific gray whale recovery is one of the world’s great conservation success stories, proof that scientific knowledge coupled with public resolve can create space for the ocean’s giant mammals to thrive.

Not so fast.

There’s another population of gray whales in the Pacific, one that’s never been allowed to rebound. And if people don’t act, they may still be driven into extinction by failure to protect their only known feeding grounds.

Listed as critically endangered on the ICUN’s red list, the westen gray whales number about 120 animals with only 25 to 35 breeding females. They migrate from southern China to eastern Russia in a paltry echo of their genetic cousins across the sea.

Where eastern Pacific gray whales find a quiet Chukchi and Bering sea to fill their bellies, the western whales struggle to forage along Russia’s Sakhalin Island in the presence of an oil-drilling cacophony that repeatedly drives them from their food.

Oil producers say they won’t change their practices to help.

Now an independent panel of scientists working with the World Conservation Union has protested that these oil companies have decided to ignore new recommendations aimed at giving these whales enough space to eat.

They target Sakhalin Energy – Gazprom, Shell, Mitsui and Mitsubishi – working on the Sakhalin II oil and gas development off the coast of eastern Russia. (Other groups also monitor Sakahlin II’s impact on the environment.)

More from the ICUN:

The Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel, set up by IUCN in 2006, recommended in April 2007 that Sakhalin Energy adopt strict criteria for the management of noise from its construction activities.

This would require them to measure noise levels over a certain period of time and, if necessary, mitigate noise in the whales’ feeding area if such criteria were exceeded.

In response to these recommendations, however, Sakhalin Energy stated it was “not technically feasible to implement the proposed criteria” and added that 2007 construction work had been planned on criteria “successfully used in 2006?

The company has long insisted that it’s doing the right thing by these endangered animals and takes the noise recommendations seriously. Here’s a new release posted by Sakhalin Energy this month.

“The panel finds Sakhalin Energy’s apparent decision to reject the noise criteria proposed in April for the 2007 season extremely disappointing and potentially unsafe for the western gray whale population; it has received no new information from the company to justify its decision.

“We are especially concerned that the company appears to have decided not to include thresholds for prolonged exposure to lower noise levels. Without more rigorous noise management and mitigation efforts on the part of Sakhalin Energy and other companies operating in the region, their activities may have significant long-term effects on gray whales attempting to feed in this area. Such a possibility is of particular concern with regard to pregnant females and females with calves.”
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Most of  Far North Science is written and edited by Doug O’Harra, a writer and journalist based in Anchorage, Alaska.

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http://newsgirl.org/news/ng11276_gray_whales.htm

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