Western Pacific Gray Whale
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Once declared extinct, the Western Pacific Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) was rediscovered in the late 1970s.
The bad news is that the species population, estimated by the International Union of Conservation Scientists (IUCN) to be approximately 100, might be too small to sustain the recovery.
The numbers are so low, they prompted IUCN to include mention of them during the July 2001 Meeting of the International Whaling Commission.
"IUCN is alarmed at the recent evidence of continuing deterioration in the condition of the critically endangered western Pacific gray whale population. Range states and member states of the Commission need as a matter of urgency to develop a research and monitoring programme for this population to assess its conservation needs."
Adding to the species' misery is the fact that its summer feeding grounds is off of Sakhalin Island, Russia's largest island, situated north of Japan. The island's coastal shelf is also home to a joint U.S.-Russian oil and gas exploration project. In this case, there is considerable evidence that oil and whales do not mix.
At issue is the type of oil exploration being conducted. Once technique commonly used to find potential oil and gas deposits is to use sonar equipment to send noises down to the ocean floor. When they bounce up, their particular wave lengths can be mapped to provide a picture of the ocean floor.
Sonar noise literally reaches everything in its path to the ocean floor, including the whales. Research examining sonar effects on marine mammal behavior over the past two decades suggests it harms the whales. In fact, in December 2001, the U.S. Navy released a preliminary report that their sonar system contributed to the beaching and deaths of four Beaked whales off the coast of Bahama last March (2001).
More on point, in a September 2002 press release, the Sakhalin Environmental Watch, a local environment group, quoted the joint Russian-American research team studying the gray whales in the area, in a letter to the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, as saying,
"It is our recommendation that the Exxon Oil Company immediately stop its seismic testing, especially now as the company enters its next stages of exploration off of Sakhalin Island. The sooner Exxon quits this work, the greater the chances that this species of Gray Whale will recover and return to its feeding grounds before migrating south for the winter."
The Russian Government assumed ownership of the Sakhalin oil venture, making drilling concessions to help the whales.
In 2008, the IUCN listed the Western Pacific Gray Whale as critically endangered.
© 2002-2009. Patricia A. Michaels.