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.

That's the last time the United States and Russia took any significant steps to ensure the whales' survival.

An eight-month investigation reveals that environmental negligence by the oil companies and lax oversight by international lenders -- combined with inaction by environmental groups and Russian and American government agencies -- are threatening to wipe out the remaining Western Pacific gray whales.

Among New Times' findings:

- Not only are Western Pacific grays dwindling in number, they are getting weaker each year. Of the 54 whales identified on the feeding grounds last summer, 27 appeared to be seriously malnourished, preliminary reports say. Unless something is done right away, Russian environmental authorities say, the whales will be extinct in three years.

- The companies prospecting for oil have reduced funding for the scientists who are documenting how drilling affects the whales. The research biologists, living in crude, mosquito-infested quarters at a remote lighthouse camp, began documenting in 1997 and 1998 how drilling, blasting, and seismic underwater testing by oil-survey ships were changing the whales' behavior. The consortium of oil companies that pays for the studies then cut the research budget by 60 percent in 1999. It cut funds again in 2000 to a meager $99,000.

- Not only have the companies reduced funding, but scientists say their findings are being censored and sabotaged by the consortium that pays for the studies. They say threats to the whales were ordered excised from annual reports, and research work was split between Russian and American scientists, preventing crucial cross-referencing needed to reach conclusions. Researchers, until now, have remained quiet about their concerns, fearing a Sophie's Choice of having their research eliminated or having their results distorted and used to justify drilling that pushes the whales toward extinction. In response to New Times' questions, at least one major investor, Mitsubishi, said it was committed to research on the whales and would investigate the scientists' complaints.

- Sakhalin Energy has failed, after more than four years, to publish and put in place a habitat-protection plan for the whales, as required by international loan agreements and strongly suggested by the Gore-Chernomyrdin statement. The company says the protection plan, which is expected in 2002, will not be made public.

- The threat of a major oil spill is high; a minor one has already occurred. Earthquakes wrack the region, and winter ice packs limit offshore oil production to six months a year. The production sequence is tricky and fraught with danger, particularly when transferring the oil to tankers. Experts have sharply criticized Sakhalin Energy's plan for responding to an oil spill.

- The United States is practically a no-show in protecting the whales, giving only about $20,000 for environmental studies. Yet it has provided hundreds of millions of dollars of financing and risk insurance to the oil companies to protect their investment -- at American taxpayers' expense -- in the event of political upheaval in Russia.

- Major environmental groups are a no-show, too. They have virtually ignored the plight of the Western Pacific gray whale while focusing worldwide attention on protecting its less endangered cousin, the Eastern Pacific gray whale. The Eastern grays number more than 26,000 and have been removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list, although they have recently begun giving birth to fewer calves, showing up malnourished, and dying in larger numbers.

New Times' reporting suggests that the study of the Western grays could offer invaluable points of comparison for deciphering the apparent slide in the Eastern gray's recovery. Study of the Western grays may also discount a theory supported by proponents of commercial whaling -- that the Eastern grays are so populous they are outstripping their food supply and so should have their herd thinned, so to speak, by loosening international limits on whale hunting. But if the tiny population of Western grays is starving, too, it could hardly be overgrazing its food base.

- The pressure to hunt more whales is growing, and meat from endangered Western Pacific grays is showing up on Japanese dinner plates. The Japanese, who have major public and private investments in the Sakhalin offshore oil rigs, are pushing to lift the worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling put in place in 1986. The Japanese are allowed to conduct "scientific" whale hunts under the ban, and a New Zealand researcher recently detected Western Pacific gray whale meat in Japanese market samples for the first time. Whale meat fetches up to $500 per kilogram in Japan.

These developments couldn't have come at a worse time for the Western Pacific gray whales, significant numbers of which appear to be malnourished.

Scientists are unsure what's causing the "skinny" whales. They speculate it could be an oceanwide disease reducing the amphipods that gray whales eat. It could be other cyclical changes in the quality or quantity of their prey due to El Niño or La Niña weather patterns. It could be the consequence of sudden industrialization a short 20 kilometers away from the primary feeding zone.

More ominously, scientists fear that global warming could be having an oceanwide impact on the gray whales' food supply, which in turn is slowly starving one of the largest mammals on Earth.

"It may be an ocean-basin-wide, or even global, change that is going on, and these are the first signals that we are getting," says California marine biologist Dave Weller, who has directed gray whale field studies from Pil'tun the last four years. "But we don't know. Nobody has got their finger on that pulse. So we don't really know."

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