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Saving whales – from London to Panama


International Whaling Commission meeting 2012 – update 1:

Five months ago I was standing in the freezing cold, next to an 11-metre replica gray whale, beside the Thames in wintery London. I was telling Standard Chartered bank employees how their company could affect the future of a population of whales all the way off in Russia.

Now, I’m here in the humid heat of Panama’s rainy season, reflecting on the words of governments speaking about those very same whales at the 64th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Our life-sized model of a whale in front of the Houses of Parliament, as part of 'Save the last 130' western gray whale campaign, Feb 2012 © WWFOur life-sized model of a whale in front of the Houses of Parliament, as part of 'Save the last 130' western gray whale campaign, Feb 2012 © WWF

When the IWC first started meeting back in 1946, their motivation was mainly to conserve whale stocks to ensure the whaling industry could continue. Of course the world has moved on since then – or most of us have – and we now recognise the growing conservation threats faced by our global environment.

A lot of my work is focused on how that affects whales, dolphins and porpoises – or ‘cetaceans’ as they’re collectively known.

Threatened by accidental death from being caught in fishing equipment or struck by ships, as well as from oil and gas developments and pollution – both chemical and noise – and the impacts of climate change. These creatures desperately need all of us to do so much more to protect them.

The IWC talks about whaling, of course, but we believe it’s also the best-placed international forum to get governments from all over the world to address those many other threats to cetaceans.

One of our priorities for this meeting deals with the expanding oil and gas operations across many fragile cetacean habitats.  The Arctic waters around Sakhalin Island, in the Russian Far East, epitomise the challenges we’re facing.

That’s where a critically endangered population of western gray whales feed during the summer months, but it’s also the site of one of the world’s largest offshore oil and gas developments.

Grey whale diving with a large ship in the backgroundGrey whale diving © Vladimir Potanskiy / WWF-Russia

One of the biggest concerns is noise from the exploratory seismic surveys, and in the construction and operational phases, which interferes with the whales – possibly causing them to abandon their feeding altogether.

On top of that, there’s the risk of pollution, ships hitting and killing whales, and oil spills. Imagine the Gulf of Mexico spill, but in Arctic conditions where clean-up is currently impossible.

My campaign colleague Lucy has already written about the welcome postponement of plans to construct a third platform right next to the vital shallow feeding area.  This followed the great public support for our campaign earlier this year to ‘Save the last 130‘ western gray whales.

That was the reason we floated a replica gray whale down the Thames back in February, and why I was standing in the cold speaking to the employees of the banks financing the Sakhalin project.

Even though that platform may be delayed (but certainly not off our radar!), it’s very worrying to hear that construction for another Sakhalin project, run by Exxon Neftegas, has already begun. This platform is adjacent to the other main feeding area of the whales in deeper waters, and negative impacts on the whales are likely here too.

It’s been encouraging at this IWC meeting to hear the governments of the UK, Mexico and Monaco voice their concerns about the impact of additional platforms on these whales.

Unfortunately the Russian government, who we’d like to see impose greater restrictions on the extraction operations around Sakhalin, didn’t say anything on that.  They spoke mostly about the research on the whales, which is extensive and hugely important.  This research has given us great news that gray whale numbers are suggested to be around 150 individuals now, up from “the last 130” previously estimated (we’ll have to rename our campaign!).

But we can’t wait until we know the detailed ins-and-outs of their population numbers and structure, migration routes and behaviour, before we act to save them.

You can help us right now by signing the petition at thelast130.org. Thanks.

I’ll have more updates from the IWC in Panama soon…

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