Oil platform could put critically endangered whales at risk

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An oil company partly owned by Shell have announced plans to build a major oil platform near to a crucial feeding habitat for the endangered Western North Pacific grey whale.

Sakhalin Energy Investment Company already has two platforms in the area and have previously said that their drilling technology meant that they would not need a third. An official Sakhalin Energy document also acknowledges that having two rather than three platforms "significantly reduces the potential for environmental impact".

The company plans to conduct a seismic survey which involves shooting loud pulses of noise into the ocean floor later this year to determine where to begin platform construction.

Three seismic surveys conducted around the whale feeding habitat last summer caused severe pressure on the animals as the noise from the surveys can be devastating for species that rely on sound to navigate, communicate and find their food.

Grey whales occur on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. However IUCN classes the critically endangered Western population as separate from the Eastern population, as genetic studies indicate that the two populations probably do not mix.

Only around 130 whales of the critically endangered Western population exist today.

The construction and operation of an additional off-shore platform could have a number of negative effects on the whales, including disrupting feeding behaviours and increasing the chance of fatal ship strikes.

Aleksey Knizhnikov, Oil & Gas Environmental Policy Officer for WWF-Russia says on the WWF website: "Just around 30 female western Grey whales of breeding age remain – the population is already on the brink of disappearing forever. The loss of even a few breeding females could mean the end for the population."

During the feeding season the whales must eat enough to maintain themselves for the migration to their breeding grounds. Their primary feeding area, near the proposed platform, is also one of the only places where mother whales can teach their calves to feed on the sea bed.

"We are astonished by the announcement from Sakhalin Energy that it intends to build a third platform," said Wendy Elliott, Species Programme Manager, WWF-International.

Doug Norlen, Policy Director at Pacific Environment reiterates:"We still do not know how badly the whales were affected by major seismic activity last summer – and will not know until the whales return to their feeding grounds again this year and scientists can determine if any are malnourished. It is totally inappropriate for Sakhalin Energy to plan another seismic survey in 2011 before we have the opportunity to examine the health of the animals."