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 reviewers came back and said, "Well, without additional information on every environmental variable that's out there, you can't say for sure that there is a direct relationship,'" Weller says. "It's that kind of stuff in which they can nit-pick in such great detail that you can no longer respond to them. You can no longer get around those criticisms.

"So your choice is either to fight for it, knowing full well that you will never get anywhere, or to let it go and just leave it out."

The scientists did manage to include some behavioral impacts in their 1997 and 1998 field reports, being careful not to draw conclusions but emphasizing the need to do more acoustic monitoring and to begin studying the food supply.

The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winiter ice packs.
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winiter ice packs.
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winiter ice packs.
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winiter ice packs.

The oil companies responded by slashing the researchers' funding to $140,000 in 1999 and $99,000 in 2000. Researchers could no longer afford a theodolite, a sophisticated measuring device used to observe whale behavior from the lighthouse.

The companies also split the research into two camps, with the crucial undersea acoustical monitoring contracted to a Russian team based in Vladivostok. Exxon switched its funding from the Pil'tun researchers to the Russian team, leaving the Pil'tun team financially reliant on Sakhalin Energy.

The Russian team, Weller says, is not trained in bioacoustic monitoring and is simply measuring noise without connecting it to the whales.

The bottom line, Weller says, is that the oil companies eviscerated a key part of the research by eliminating linkage between underwater noise and whale behavior.

"That kind of cut the legs out from underneath it," he says.

Behavioral changes linked to industrial noise could be crucial to the whales' long-term survival. Convincing evidence collected for more than a decade indicates this only known population of Western Pacific gray whales gorges each summer off Pil'tun on tiny organisms on the sea floor. The whales fast during their six-month migration to their mating and birthing grounds, the location of which is unknown.

If industrial noise makes them eat less, or if pollution or sediment from drilling wastes disturb their food supply, they might not survive migration and be able to reproduce.

"It obviously is an important part of their life cycle," Brownell says.

The funding cuts have forced the Pil'tun research team to focus primarily on photo ID and genetic testing.

"The photo ID is very valuable, from a scientific and also a monitoring standpoint. But it's not all that we need," Weller says. "We need full-time acoustic monitoring around the clock. We need a theodolite team up in the lighthouse monitoring how the whales behave. We need benthic research. Satellite tracking [to determine where the whales go in the winter].

"We have been pushing for those since 1997. Every year we have been pushing."

"They just reject it," says Sasha Burdin, who is considered one of Russia's premier marine-mammal scientists.

Without any independent research, Sakhalin Energy controls not only how research is conducted but also what information is released to the outside world. At the same time, the oil-company consortium can point to the ongoing research at Pil'tun and report that it is conducting serious scientific studies.

The strategy may prove fatal to the whales.

"We are actually enabling industry to move full steam, unintentionally, by being in this situation," Weller says.

The scientists realize they are in a quandary. Not only is their research allowing progress on a project that could cause the whales' extinction, they have been reluctant to speak out publicly -- until now -- about how the oil companies are compromising the science.

"It's like, "Well, we can tell you what you want to hear and then we will be able to get money to continue the following year,' and so that helps science at its most fundamental level," Weller says. "But when are we ever going to be able to get out the truth?"

Despite the frustration and ethical dilemma, Weller says it is worth continuing the fundamental research, even if it is compromised.

"As a scientist, I have to remind myself that whatever we can get out of the field season, we are learning a heck of a lot about this population," Weller says. "We are still coming away with more than has ever been learned about [the Western gray]."

By complaining publicly, the scientists risk losing the research contract.

"It's a sensitive issue," Weller says. "We need to maintain a working and professional relationship" with the oil companies.

It's not only the researchers who have been compromised by the oil companies.

Three international lending agencies have played a crucial role by advancing $348 million to Sakhalin Energy Investment Co.

An official with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development says the agency, which has lent $116 million to Sakhalin Energy, has accepted a series of environmental reports from the company even while recognizing that possible links between acoustics and behavioral changes are not addressed.

"One of the problems for the lenders is we get the individual reports and then we talk to the company about why they all seem to be very discrete," says Liz Smith, senior environmental manager for the EBRD. "The acoustics aren't joined together with these other things, so you get these individual pieces of information. But it's important to put them together and to look at them in relation to the project ... so that you can try and find out if there are impacts that can be linked to different things."

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