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Scientists fear impact of Sakhalin energy project’s noise on whales

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An independent scientific panel has expressed concern over a decision by oil and gas companies developing Russia's Sakhalin II offshore fields to ignore noise limits aimed at preserving whales, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) said Friday.

The international panel set up by the IUCN said the decision by the Gazprom led consortium including Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell, Japan's Mitsui and Mistubishi to reject construction noise criteria on technical grounds could jeopardise western gray whales.

"We are especially concerned that the company appears to have decided not to include thresholds for prolonged exposure to lower noise levels," the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel said in a statement released by the nature conservation agency.

"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," it added.

The panel made the recommendation to set noise limits in April.

The western Pacific population of gray whales found off Sakhalin migrates between Russia and China. It is one of only two surviving populations of this species in the world, according to the IUCN.

There are just an estimated 120 whales left in that group, compared to a now 20,000 strong population in the eastern Pacific which has recovered from the ravages of commercial whaling.

Late last year, authorities threatened the then Shell-led consortium with possible criminal prosecutions and withdrew construction licences over environmental violations in the giant oil and gas project off Sakhalin island in Russia's Far East.

Energy analysts had widely believed the environmental violations uncovered by Russian officials in Sakhalin were part of an attempt to seize control of the foreign-owned project.

Two months later, Russian energy giant Gazprom announced it was taking a controlling stake in the Sakhalin Energy consortium.

The IUCN underlined that the area is a primary feeding area for the fragile group, especially for the 25 to 35 females that can ensure the survival of the species in the west Pacific.

Sakhalin Energy said in 2005 that it had shifted the route of two planned pipelines by 20 kilometres (12 miles) to preserve the whales' feeding grounds.

The IUCN Panel and the consortium have also been working together on other measures to limit potential oil spills.

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