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

Why protect grey whales?

O.A. Yakovleva, Lawyer, Chairman of the “Rodnik”Legal Center
N.A. Barannikova, "Ekologicheskaya Vakhta Sakhalina"

Two public organisations, the "Rodnik" Legal Centre and "Ecologicheskaya Vakhta Sakhalina” (Environmental Watch of Sakhalin) have initiated a case against the Government of the Russian Federation to protect grey whales.

Today the Sea of Okhotsk sees the implementation of the national "Programme for Geologo-Geophysical Operations in the Water Areas of the Far Eastern Seas of the Russian Federation for the Near Future".

The water area of the Sea of Okhotsk adjacent to Piltun Bay is home to the unique Okhotsk-Korean grey whale population listed in the RF (Russian Federation) and IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red Data Books as critically endangered. The uniqueness of this particular population of grey whales lies in the fact that it numbers no more than 90 individuals, which dwell off the Piltun Bay shore. Annually, from May to November, the stock of grey whales comes to the area adjacent to the Piltun Bay to feed on bottom-dwelling organisms. Because the feeding area of the grey whale population is unique and small, the preservation of its natural state and the exclusion of any disturbing factors in this region of the sea is necessary for the further survival of this population. This is of particular importance because the whales do not feed at other sites during other seasons of the year. Between November and April they winter off the Korean Peninsula, bearing calves, with which they return for foraging off Sakhalin.

Seismic prospecting in the area which is the foraging ground of grey whales between late July and early September 2001 (in the course of the foraging peak, when the greatest number of individuals, including calves, are feeding) has exerted a very detrimental effect on the state of the animals. This fact has been supported by the conclusions of world leading experts on the grey whales of the Okhotsk-Korean population.

In fact, on 1 September 2001, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), Glavrybvod, Sakhalinoblkomekologiya, and Sakhalinrybvod, were addressed by a group of scientists, demanding that seismic prospecting in the northern and central portion of the grey whale foraging range (the marine field Odoptu) be immediately discontinued. The scientists pointed out an undoubted detrimental impact of seismic prospecting on grey whales. Excerpts from the scientists’ address are given below:

"As early as 1997, our joint Russian-American team noted some obvious changes in whale behaviour as a result of seismic operations, performed over 30 km away from the whale foraging grounds (Wursig et al., 1997). A similar response was recorded in the bowhead whale, which avoided the seismic prospecting vessels operating several kilometers away from them. On the basis of our grey whale survey of 1997 – 2000, we found that in the years 1999 and 2000 there occurred redistribution of individuals in the foraging region and the majority of the whales left for the northern part (up to 50 km). A similar migration of whales was noted in the August 2001 (compared with June), but the whales moved in the northern direction. The above migration occurred suddenly, in early August and coincided with the beginning of seismic prospecting operations conducted by the company "Exxon Neftegaz Ltd." in the central and northern portions of the grey whale foraging grounds. Presumably, the whales had to abandon the best foraging areas due to high noise level on account of seismic explosions in the course of seismic prospecting operations in the northern portion of the foraging area … This gives grounds to believe that migration of grey whales from the most forage-valuable areas is caused by seismic prospecting …".

The scientists demanded that seismic prospecting be banned during the period of grey whales’ presence in the foraging area from May to November. In addition to the scientists' statement, numerous addresses by Russian and international public environmental organisations were forwarded to the MNR and other Russian state bodies.

According to the Environmental Watch of Sakhalin, the environmentalists’ action and the decision of the International Whaling Commission have resulted in a direct ban by the MNR on seismic prospecting during the foraging of grey whales. In fact, beginning 20 August 2001, the leader of the Environmental Protection and Safety Department sent the following telegram to the head of the Committee for Natural Resources of the 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 that no seismic prospecting is conducted off Sakhalin. Urgently report the measures taken".

Despite the direct ban, the seismic prospecting operations have been carried on.

The implementation of the programme envisages systematic seismic prospecting operations in the Sea of Okhotsk, including the grey whale foraging areas. The fact of damaging of the biological resources of the Sea of Okhotsk is confirmed by the RF State Fishery Committee. In fact, regulating seismic prospecting in the Odoptu Field in 2001, the State Fishery Committee estimated the loss of fish products due to seismic prospecting operations as a result of mortality of zooplankton, and juveniles of walleye pollock, flounder, herring, capelin, saffron cod, dog salmon, and humpback salmon at USD 3952 (113240 rubles).

That compensation was paid confirms that damage was done to the biological resources as a result of seismic prospecting. But if zooplankton and various fishes suffered, harm has also been done to grey whales. But this fact is not regarded as damage: Indeed, grey whales are of no commercial importance. Those are creatures that nature gave to us, similar to the rest of its riches. But not only are we unable to preserve these unique mammals, we do not even feel we are to blame for their eventual extinction, similar to the loss of numerous animal species as a result of human activities.

Why does it happen this way?

The causes of devaluation of human life and the life of whole peoples lie in the indifference of authorities and society to nature. Before everybody’s eyes they are cutting down valuable forests, and rivers, seas and the world ocean are polluted. The first alarming evidence is already here. The extinction of plant and animal species not only impoverishes nature, but demonstrates to humans that we may become extinct ourselves if we continue mercilessly to exploit living nature. Indigenous peoples who have retained their links with Nature longer than others, are aware of how detrimental are thoughtless industrial activities and limitless consumerism mentality that have seized humankind.

The action for grey whales is an attempt to protect humans, to remind ourselves that one cannot violate nature laws with impunity. The pitiless attitude to animals, forests and seas destroys the human soul and makes humans temporary rulers of the Earth. But the Earth has not been created for temporary rulers and it can protect itself.

The citizens of Russia and environmental organisations demand the banning of environmentally harmful activity, including the damaging activity of seismic prospecting and any other anthropogenic actions at the foraging areas of grey whales off Sakhalin from May to November.

This is of principal importance not only for the conservation of the species and this particular critically endangered stock. Of no less importance is the fact that by protecting the whales, man revives his soul and consciousness, and hence, makes the first steps towards his own survival and the survival of humankind.

We invite you to take part in the case concerned, and we will publish warranty forms and instructions for their completion.