Russian Roulette

The Western Pacific gray whale, once thought extinct, clings to life in a remote Siberian sea. Biologists fear their research is serving as cover for massive oil drilling that could wipe out this lost tribe once and for all.

"We were told that the Molikpaq will actually increase and enrich the environment," says Masha Vorontsova, the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's office in Moscow.

Vorontsova dismisses such claims as propaganda. Instead, she says there is widespread concern about oil-drilling wastes being dumped onto the sea floor. The muddy wastes could increase sediments and chemical contamination in the whales' food supply.

"Normally, these muddy waters get pumped back into the hole and covered. But in the situation of Sakhalin, it all goes into the water," she says.

The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winter ice packs.
Reprinted with permission from Sakhalin
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winter ice packs.
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winter ice packs.
Reprinted with permission from Sakhalin
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winter ice packs.

Liz Smith of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development says drilling wastes appear to be confined to within 200 meters of the Molikpaq.

The unknown impact of drilling wastes, along with the increase in malnourished whales, makes it imperative that proper benthic studies are done, says Vorontsova.

Bob Brownell keeps his passport in his shirt pocket.

Brownell's job -- director of the Protected Resources Division at the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, Calif. -- keeps him constantly on the move trying to protect marine mammals around the world.

From Sakhalin to Australia to England to Alaska, Brownell is a man on a mission to save the world's remaining whales.

"Whales are his life," says Pil'tun field biologist Weller.

Brownell's office is filled floor to ceiling with books, papers, maps, and articles, mostly on whales and dolphins clinging to survival in various spots around the globe. He answers questions methodically and carefully. He's very slow to jump to conclusions -- exhibiting the patience that 30 years of hard science have drilled into his psyche.

But that doesn't mean he's unwilling to rattle cages and throw harpoons into recalcitrant bureaucrats -- whether it's Japanese officials denying that their fishermen illegally slaughtered a Western Pacific gray whale, or the Clinton administration nearly overlooking the gray whale's plight in its eagerness to sign an oil deal with the Russians.

Focused as he is on marine mammals, Brownell has another side.

"For four or five months, we didn't have any salary," Russian marine biologist Sasha Burdin says. "It was really hard. And Bob helped us. He proposed some projects and tried to get some grants for us to help us to survive. He's just an amazing person."

It was Brownell who brought the plight of the Western Pacific grays to the attention of Gore's oblivious staff during the negotiations for the oil agreement with Russia.

"I told them, "Look, we are pushing this as a big development program for the Far East to help the Russians. There is also U.S. involvement,'" Brownell says, recalling his conversations with Gore's aides. ""Gore needs to be concerned about the environment.' After I explained it to them, they said it was an important issue."

The result was the one-page Gore-Chernomyrdin statement that recognized the need to develop "environmentally sound exploration and production practices" that will mitigate disturbances to the whales.

Despite the agreement, the United States has given only token financial support -- about $20,000 -- to make sure such practices are put into place. Meanwhile, oil production has begun, oil has been spilled, and expansion plans are proceeding.

One reason for the lack of U.S. support is that the previous administration took a "half-assed" approach to the problem, says a federal official familiar with the situation.

"The environmental components to these offshore Sakhalin investments were afterthoughts," the official says. "Afterthoughts, you know, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't."

David Gordon, director of Pacific Environment, says America's lackadaisical approach is not surprising. U.S. foreign policy in the Russian Far East, Gordon says, is based on energy development.

"If oil goes forward, then U.S. interests advance," he says.

Brownell takes a matter-of-fact approach to the oil developments and political realities. He hopes to minimize disturbances such as low-flying helicopters over the feeding grounds and develop the best oil-spill contingency plan possible.

"After that, there's not much you can do," he says.

The Western Pacific grays have attracted little interest from well-funded international environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. The international media, too, have ignored the situation, with only brief reports in a few environmental journals.

Brownell says the NRDC contacted him several years ago and pressed him for his support of its campaign to stop construction of the salt plant in a Baja lagoon called San Ignacio where the Eastern Pacific gray whales congregate in winter to mate and give birth."I said, "I'm working on real problems. I don't have time to work on this,'" Brownell says.

He says he told the NRDC about the serious threats to the Western Pacific grays, but was brushed off.


"It's easier to relate to Mexico than it is to Sakhalin," Brownell says. "If you went down to La Jolla and asked 10 people where Sakhalin was, you would get 10 zeros."

The NRDC is still taking little interest in the Western Pacific gray whales.

"We are aware of it, but we haven't gotten directly involved ourselves," says NRDC whale expert Joel Reynolds.

But others are getting worked up over the Western grays. The increasing number of "skinny" whales turning up off the coast of Sakhalin is beginning to spur several major environmental groups, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the World Wildlife Fund, and Greenpeace, to take more active roles.

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