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.

The three groups are beginning to pressure Russian leaders to become more aggressive in protecting the whales. Masha Vorontsova, the IFAW's Moscow director, says top Russian wildlife officials believe the Western Pacific grays could become extinct within the next three years unless immediate steps are taken to protect their habitat.

Vorontsova says Russian marine officials intend to highlight the Western Pacific gray whale at the upcoming International Whaling Commission meetings in July in London.

The IFAW is also considering an international campaign to create a whale sanctuary off Sakhalin. The proposed sanctuary "would prohibit any oil exploration, oil extraction, or oil transportation during the time the gray whales are there," according to Jared Blumenthal, the IFAW's program director of habitat for animals.

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.

Such a proposal seems a bit optimistic, given the huge amount of oil exploration and production already taking place there, nearly all of it during the warm months when the sea ice has melted and the whales have returned to feed.

As forces slowly mobilize to protect the Western Pacific grays, no one really knows whether this tribe can rebound from such low numbers, regardless of the oil fields.

"There is lots of debate in the conservation world about how small can a population be before it can't recover," Brownell says. "Because this is one of the smallest whale populations in the world, whatever we learn from this will be good insight for other small populations that are in similar situations."

But if the whales are to survive the next decade, a habitat-conservation program is crucial, Brownell says. So far, Sakhalin Energy has failed to produce a plan and, when it finally does, intends to keep it secret.

"It looks like they are doing it in a vacuum," he says. "That's my big concern."

Sitting in Brownell's La Jolla office, it's difficult not to note the irony of the crisis facing the remaining 100 or so Western Pacific grays.

The world's top political leaders -- including a vice president who touted his "greenness" during a close presidential election -- cut a deal to develop Russia's offshore oil resources.

Ground zero for the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement turned out to be the feeding ground for one of the most critically endangered whale populations in the world. With great fanfare, the U.S. invested more than $116 million into developing the oil project, and shifted much of the risk to U.S. taxpayers.

At the same time, the U.S. spent nearly nothing on scientific studies of the oil development's impact on the whales and exerted no political leverage to force creation of a habitat-protection plan.

Asked for his reaction, Brownell leans back in his chair and stares out the window.

"Um, [long pause] I just think that life's not fair," he says.

At this critical juncture in the Western Pacific gray whale's survival, the whale's principal champion has been sidelined.

Last fall, Brownell was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He recently had surgery and is recovering at home.

Sasha Burdin sets the tone for dinner at the Pil'tun camp.

As the oldest, most experienced biologist present at the camp, he sits at the head of the table. And he does so with grace and disarming humor.

He has a broad background and provides perspective -- both from a scientific view and a political one. This is important, because it is obvious the researchers are intensely focused in their work.

So much so that it is easy to get lost in the project.

"It's typical of scientists when they are performing research," says the IFAW's Vorontsova, who herself is a marine biologist. "They get so interested in what they are doing they forget that something is endangered. By the end of monitoring, you find out, "Wow, they are not here.' I'm afraid that is what is happening [in Pil'tun]."

The failure of the scientists to publicly complain about censorship and funding cuts when they first began several years ago has contributed to the perception that they are more interested in conducting basic research than developing a plan to save the whales. At the same time, the scientists knew the only way they could continue any research on one of the world's least understood populations of whales was to compromise. If these whales go extinct, and it is highly likely they will, at least scientists will have closely observed their final days.

But there is a more overarching reason for studying the Western Pacific gray whales than simply documenting their tentative hold to life after millions of years of existence, says Burdin.

The Sea of Okhotsk is one of the last major productive seas in the world. Many of the world's great fishing fleets are extracting pollock, salmon, crabs, and other shellfish at a tremendous rate. Worldwide demand for seafood is huge, particularly in Asian countries.

Burdin foresees a day when the world is engulfed by protein wars. He worries that Sakhalin's offshore oil and gas developments threaten not only the whales, but the food supply for millions of people.

"It's not just this crazy ideal, "Let's save the whales,'" Burdin says. "Let's save the sea. The whales are just one very nice indicator of how the whole sea is working."

It's a simple relationship, he says.

"The more whales, the more clean seas, the more food for people."

The Western Pacific gray whales are now swimming north from their winter breeding grounds -- back to Pil'tun.

Scientists wait to see how many will make it back this summer.

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