English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 8, 2001

Endangered grey whales have caused suspension of seismic prospecting operations by the Exxon company

Sakhalin Environmental Watch, media release
N.A. Barannikova

YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, 27 August, 2001. Last week, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) of the Russian Federation banned further seismic prospecting operations by the company Exxon Neftegaz Ltd. off northeastern Sakhalin in the Odoptu oil field region. The cause of that step was the critical condition of the unique Korean-Okhotsk population of grey whales, listed in the International Red Data Book and facing complete extinction. The text of the official telegram of 20.08.2001 signed by A.M. Amirkhanov (Head, Department of the Environment and Ecological Safety, MNR) forwarded to A.S. Chibisov, head of the Committee for Natural Resources, Sakhalin Region: "Urgently ensure that the environmental standards of seismic prospecting for oil resources off Sakhalin be met, taking into account Resolution 53 of the International Whaling Commission. Make sure that no seismic prospecting is conducted off Sakhalin. Urgently report the measures taken.”

In late July 2001, the Trust Dalmorneftgeofizika, a state enterprise, started seismic prospecting operations in the marine gas field Odoptu, off northeastern Sakhalin (under Sakhalin-1 project as commissioned by the Exxon NL Company). For 1.5 months, the vessel "Nordic Explorer", under the Norwegian flag and with two support ships, will be at work in the Sea of Okhotsk, making multiple (5-120 pulses per minute) pneumatic shocks in the water to obtain a spatial subsoil picture by means of the reflected seismic signal. In this way, 2100 km of profiles in an area of 430 sq. km are to be covered. It should be noted that the operations directly affect the main summer stock range of unique grey whales off the shore of the Piltun Lagoon. In the year 2000 the western population of grey whales dwelling there was listed as “critically endangered” in the International Red Data Book. According to scientists, of all the cetaceans dwelling in the World Ocean, this particular species is the most endangered due to the heavy pressure of human development.

Surveys have demonstrated that a similar seismic operation in 1997 (in the Molikpaq platform region) was associated with notable changes in whale behavior, although the air guns operated about 30 km away from the animals. That indicates a detrimental effect by seismic operations even at a long range. Currently, the seismic operations of Exxon NL are planned directly in the center of major foraging grounds. As early as the beginning of August, immediately after the Nordic Explorer operations, the scientists monitoring the whales of the Russian-American group noted massive movement of the animals from the seismic prospecting area northward and southward.

It should be noted that in the southern portion of the whale summer oil from the Molikpaq Platform is produced and transported, which entails a geat deal of ship traffic.

In the meantime, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), at its 53rd session, in July 2001, admitted the acute need for the elimination of any anthropogenic pressure on western whales dwelling off Piltun Bay and called upon all countries and organisations to undertake every effort to reduce the mortality of this unique population. The reasons for that are well-founded. In fact, in 1999, 10 emaciated whales were recorded there, and there were 27 according to the year of 2000 survey. In the same year, 68 grey whales were recorded in the water area adjacent to the Piltun Lagoon, out of which 12 were classified as emaciated. This implies that the whales are chronically undernourished, which may affect the birth and survival of the offspring and the survival of the entire whale population, since the majority of emaciated whales are females with calves. Due to the hazardous tendency concerned, the IWC Research Committee has recommended suspending seismic prospecting operations during the entire period when grey whales stay in their summer habitat off northeastern Sakhalin, between early June and early October.

By its decision to suspend seismic prospecting operations, the MNR has de facto confirmed its allegiance to international environmental protection standards. Further developments will reveal the attitude toward those standards as held by Exxon itself.

Additional information can be obtained from Natalia Barannikova and Dmitriy Lisitsyn in the public organisation Ekologicheskaya Vakhta Sakhalina (Sakhalin Environmental Watch), city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, ph. (42422) 3-21-53, e-mail: watch@dsc.ru.