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Oil in the diet of Sakhalin whales

image Environmentalists are again sounding alarm over the future of the unique population of the Western Pacific gray whales.

This time, Exxon Neftegaz Limited (ENL), a participant in oil projects on Sakhalin, is laying a pipeline via the Piltun Bay, a key feeding area for the gray whales.

Any negative impact on this area during construction or potential oil leaks may reduce the biological yield of the local waters and lead to the disappearance of the foraging grounds.

Representatives of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) addressed the ENL president with a request to change the pipeline's route. But there has been no answer. For the project's operator any new environmental measure means more spending; and if they keep pleasing the whales, oil will become too expensive. But what can whales do except for throwing themselves on the shore in protest?

The World Conservation Union (WCU) has qualified the Sakhalin grey whale population as critically endangered (there are only 50 species with the biotic potential left). Environmentalists are working to turn the whales' main habitat in the Piltun Bay (100 km of the shore and shallow waters) into a refuge. But this is not easy because of the same oil argument.

The problem is rooted in the 1990s when oil and gas deposits were found off the north-eastern shores of Sakhalin. Probably, it would not be so acute if the presence of the whale population at this location were an established fact. But nobody knew about them. It was believed that the Western Pacific (or Okhotsk-Korean) whales were extinct. Oilmen rediscovered this rare population that was registered in the Red Book. They could not even imagine what a headache this discovery would cause.

Oil producers have to pay dearly for their unusual neighbors. Sakhalin Energy has already invested more than $5 million into a program to study the conduct of the whales in a bid to understand what impact the oil infrastructure may exert on these mammals. There is no doubt that the project's operators will have to spend more on the whale programs. They cannot afford to shut down the Piltun-Astokh and Lunskoye deposits with the total reserves of 600 million metric tons of oil.

But whales are not herrings that easily migrate from one part of the ocean to another. They have traditional feeding grounds. Thus, the only way out is to find a model of coexistence between humans and whales.

The advocates of the gray whales - environmental organizations and researchers - insist that the project's implementation will negatively affect the mammals. Whales are losing weight, tone, and the ability to grow healthy offspring because of close proximity to people, and noises produced by helicopters and powerful construction equipment.

Thee years ago oilmen made a step forward to environmentalists. They agreed to change the route of an underwater pipeline for oil and gas exports. But this has not substantially improved the situation - the whales are affected by the equipment-produced noise, and oil leaks (even if minor) are poisoning the biota and the benthic communities that constitute their diet.

There are so few gray whales left in this part of the Pacific that environmentalists recognize each of them. As soon as the ice is gone, the whales arrive at the Piltun Bay to spend summer - get something to eat and grow their offspring. When it becomes cold in September they migrate to the south. The forage they receive on Sakhalin's shores will help these unique species to survive in winter.

People have destroyed hundreds of millions of whales; many types of these mammals have fallen victim to technological progress. It was believed that the Sakhalin whales disappeared in the summer of 2004. But these ancient species are still able to cope with the new predicament. The question is whether they will be able to coexist with oil producing people at all.

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