Russia's ambitions for oil off Sakhalin Island could wipe out whale species

Gray whales
The Western North Pacific gray whale is under threat of extinction, say WWF, as Russia plans a third oil platform off Sakhalin Island

A Russian oil giant's plans to expand oil production in the far eastern regions of the Pacific Ocean threaten the dwindling population of endangered Western gray whales, say the WWF.

Environmentalists fear the construction of a new oil platform off Sakhalin Island by the majority-state owned Sakhalin Energy Company could wipe out the remaining 130 Western gray whales.

The shallow waters off Russia's largest island provide a vital feeding ground for the endangered species which migrate there each summer. Gray whales exist on both sides of the Pacific but the Eastern population are not thought to mix with the endangered Western species found off Sakhalin Island.

The seabed, which contains an estimated 14 billion barrels of oil, has been widely exploited in recent years to supply China, Japan, South Korea and Thailand with oil and gas. Although oil exports have boosted the local economy, it has been at the cost of marine life. More shipping traffic will only increase the risk to an already threatened species and boost the chances of a potentially devastating oil spill.

'There are only 30 female Western gray whales of breeding age left and the population is already on the brink of disappearing forever,' said Aleksey Knizhnikov of WWF-Russia. 'The loss of even a few breeding whales could mean the end for the population.'

Sakhalin Energy was previously praised by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for postponing a scheduled seismic survey last summer, something the company duly boasted of on its website. However following a meeting in early December 2010, the WWF learnt that the Sakhalin Energy Company, part-owned by Shell, plans to go ahead with a survey this summer to find a suitable site for the third platform.

Summer surveys disrupt the feeding patterns of whales but are favoured by oil companies as they try to avoid the harsh Russian winters.

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