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IFAW: Oil companies urged to act now to protect threatened whales

Oil companies operating near the only known feeding ground of critically endangered whales off the eastern coast of Russia are being urged to stop potentially harmful activities while the population of the whales is clarified.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) backed the plea issued by whale experts today in a new report of the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP), convened by the World Conservation Panel (IUCN).

Recent estimates suggest there are only about 130 of the Western Gray Whales left and their feeding habitat, off Sakhalin Island, is under threat.

Following growing concerns regarding the status of their population, the WGWAP, made up of 11 world-renowned whale experts, recommended in April this year that the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (SEIC) put on hold seismic survey work scheduled for 2009 in order to protect the whales. This recommendation was taken up by SEIC.

Robbie Marsland, UK Director of IFAW, said: "It is essential that all international efforts are taken to secure the survival of these critically endangered whales. World class science and responsible corporate action can give our planet's most endangered whales a fighting chance. We are hopeful that Exxon, BP and other companies involved will follow the SEIC example and act responsibly."

In its new report, the advisory panel reiterated that the information it has received suggests some 'abnormal negative processes' may have taken place in the whale population.

The report states that "the total number of whales occupying the near-shore area decreased by nearly 40% in comparison to 2007". The potential causes of these harmful processes may be related to oil industry activities in the area in recent years and specifically summer-autumn 2008, when piledriving work was carried out by Exxon Neftegraz Ltd.

The gravity of the situation led the experts to urge other oil companies operating at the east Sakhalin shelf to implement the WGWAP-recommended moratorium ".on all industrial activities, that might be expected, in the absence of independently verified mitigation measures, to disturb gray whales in and near their main feeding areas during the primary summer/autumn feeding season".

IFAW joins the WGWAP experts in urging other oil companies operating at Sakhalin to follow the SEIC example and implement the recommended moratorium.

In 2000, IFAW started its Saving Western Gray Whales Campaign and conducted independent monitoring of the whales. Data provided by IFAW was part of the basis for the Panel's recommendations. Given the critical situation with the whales, IFAW has sent its monitoring group to Sakhalin earlier than usual this year and has had observers in place since June 6.

Ends

For more information or interviews please contact Clare Sterling in the IFAW Press Office on +44 (0)20 7587 6708, mobile +44 (0)7917 507717, email csterling@ifaw.org or alternatively visit www.ifaw.org

Notes to Editors: Thought to be driven to extinction by commercial whaling, the Western Gray Whales were rediscovered in the 1980s by Russian scientists during an aerial fish survey in the area off the coast of Sakhalin Island, Russia. With a current population of about 130 individuals, with only 25 reproductively active females, the Western Gray Whale is the most critically endangered population and faces serious growing threats from new oil and natural gas extraction projects in its only known feeding ground off North-East Sakhalin. There is scientific evidence that the death of one reproductively active female a year for three consecutive years could lead to the extinction of the population within 15 years.

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