Reducing risks to western gray whales

Reducing risks to western gray whales from oil and gas activities by developing a monitoring and mitigating programme


Gray whales in and near the Piltun-Astokh block, operated by Sakhalin Energy, Sakhalin, Russia

Identification of the relevant tip(s)

Tip 5 – Think about whole landscapes

Understand the scale at which different ecosystem processes occur in order to design sound impact assessments, mitigation measures and monitoring programmes. For large projects, assuming a landscape perspective assures that area-demanding species and broad-scale ecological processes are adequately considered.

Executive Summary

When oil and gas was discovered offshore Sakhalin Island in Russia in the 1980s, elation at the news was tempered by a sobering fact: the reservoir was located near an important feeding ground for Western gray whales. This population of gray whales is endangered and as of 2012 the population was thought to consist of only 155 animals. In order to reduce risks that offshore oil and gas development could pose to the gray whales, Sakhalin Energy developed a comprehensive monitoring and mitigation programme. This programme includes four components: (i) a joint research programme; (ii) a marine mammal protection plan; (iii) activity-specific monitoring and mitigation plans; and (iv) an ongoing engagement process to promote collaboration between Sakhalin Energy and stakeholders, including the scientific community and Russian authorities. The four-part programme has helped protect the whales from risks associated with Sakhalin Energy’s oil and gas exploration and production in the waters off Sakhalin Island. At the same time, the programme has also increased global understanding of these endangered mammals and aided scientists in their efforts to identify and develop new measures to protect gray whales from construction and operations related to the energy industry. A population assessment conducted in 2011 indicated that the population of Western gray whales is increasing by about four percent per year, suggesting that the construction and production activities have had no significant detrimental impact on this population.


Shareholders of the Sakhalin Energy consortium include subsidiaries of Gazprom (50%), Royal Dutch Shell (27.5%), Mitsui (12.5%) and Mitsubishi (10%). Sakhalin Energy operates two offshore platforms in the Piltun-Astokh block northeast of Sakhalin Island, which is in the direct vicinity of the gray whales feeding ground: the PA-A (Molikpaq) installed in 1998, and the PA-B (Piltun) installed in 2007. Pipelines connect both platforms to an extensive onshore processing infrastructure.

Since 2003, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has cited the population of gray whales as "critically endangered" on its Red List of Threatened Species™. This designation has helped focus international attention and resources on efforts to preserve the species and protect it from hazards, most notably maritime traffic, large-scale fishing operations, and exploration and development activities of the oil and gas industry. The Western gray whale is a migratory species that has been shown to traverse longer routes than any other marine mammal. Through tagging studies, scientists have recently discovered that Western gray whales migrate during winter months to breed in Mexican lagoons;. Based on a limited number of strandings it is also thought that some of these animals migrate to the Yellow, East China or South China Seas. During summer months, gray whales concentrate in feeding grounds off the northeast shore of Sakhalin Island. A 2011 study confirmed the population currently consists of 155 animals.

Being a good neighbour: a four-part programme

Sakhalin Energy developed a four-part Monitoring and Mitigation Plan to minimize risks to Western gray whales during all phases of the oil and gas development project, including planning and design; site preparation; installation and construction; commissioning and operation; and decommissioning. The four elements of the plan are discussed in detail here.

1. Research programme, implemented since 2002 jointly with Exxon Neftegas Limited (ENL), operator of the Sakhalin-I consortium.

Sakhalin Energy and ENL launched their annual research programme in 2002 to gain more insight into gray whale ecology and mitigate risks to the population. For more than 10 years, various Russian and international scientific institutes and organisations have participated in this programme, which has helped advance global understanding of the gray whale.

The research programme has pursued studies in five primary disciplines, including (i) behaviour, (ii) distribution and abundance, (iii) the availability of benthos, the main gray whale food source, (iv) sound levels, both natural and those generated by industry, and (v) photo-identification studies, which are useful in population modelling and in confirming overall health of the gray whale population. The programme included funding a gray whale research programme in Kamchatka as well as sponsorship of various gray whale satellite tagging expeditions. Key outcomes of this comprehensive research effort include the discovery of a second primary feeding area (known as the 'Offshore' feeding ground); the recognition that significant numbers of gray whales are drawn to Kamchatka's east coast; and the collection of reliable data on the total number of calves and observed animals, which are used to estimate the growth rate of the population.

Multi-year data sets obtained through the annual joint research programme have furthered the understanding of gray whales – but much work remains to be done. Specifically, scientists must broaden their investigations to determine the cumulative impacts of industrial development on whale populations. The good news is that recent population assessment studies indicated that the Sakhalin gray whale population is increasing by about four percent
2 year and that gray whale numbers will continue to increase if no significant anthropogenic mortalities occur (such as in 2005 and 2007, when female whales were caught and killed in Japanese fishing nets).

2. Marine Mammal Protection Plan (MMPP), focusing on preventing collisions between whales and vessels and enhancing responses to potential oil spills.

The Sakhalin Energy MMPP, updated on an annual basis, outlines a series of mitigation measures to reduce gray whale risks associated with potential vessel collisions, noise disturbance and oil spills. To minimize the risk of marine vessels colliding with whales, the MMPP charted specific vessel corridors between the region's main ports and Sakhalin Energy's offshore platforms.

Multi-year whale distribution data were used to select corridors that reduced collision risk while minimizing delays to vessel traffic. Additionally, speed limits were imposed on all Sakhalin Energy vessels to further reduce collision risks and minimize the chances of whale injury or death in the event of a collision. The MMPP called for experienced Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs) to serve on vessels and maintain continuous watch for gray whales and other marine mammals, and to advise vessel captains on practical measures to help avoid collisions. MMOs also verify that vessels adhere to established corridors and speed limits, and ensure that vessels maintain a minimum distance of one kilometre from observed gray whales. The MMPP stipulates how to minimize noise disturbance, including scheduling loud activities outside the summer "window" of the gray whale feeding season, and it calls for using low-noise technologies for a range of commercial procedures. Lastly, the MMPP specifies oil spill responses designed to minimise risk of injury to gray whales in the unlikely event of an accidental release into the ocean.

3. Activity-specific monitoring and mitigation plans (MMP) to reduce noise disturbance that could harm gray whales during seismic surveys or construction activities.

Monitoring and mitigation plans (MMP) have altered how construction activities as well as seismic and site surveys are conducted by Sakhalin Energy. For large-scale projects, sound levels propagating into the feeding ground are first modelled to determine whether specific activities will affect the gray whales.

If prospective sound levels are determined to exceed predefined criteria, a detailed MMP for the activity is developed outlining specific monitoring and mitigation measures. Beginning in 2005, these types of plans were developed prior to construction of offshore pipelines and the installation of the gravity structure and topsides of the PA-B platform. In addition to minimizing noise propagation associated with these projects, the MMPs also resulted in acoustic and whale behavioural data sets to help scientists better understand the impact of specific industrial activities on whale behaviours. (Note: Multi-variate analyses have confirmed how increased sound levels provoke some behaviour changes among individual whales, but scientists are not yet certain how these behavioural changes may affect the population as a whole). A detailed MMP was designed and implemented for the Piltun-Astokh seismic survey in 2010 and for a South Piltun geotechnical survey in 2012.

4. Engagement with the Conservation Community to promote collaboration and cooperation, including the Western gray whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP), an independent panel under the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature); and the Interagency Working Group, an interagency panel established under the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources.

Since 2004 Sakhalin Energy partnered with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on conservation issues related to Western gray whales. IUCN established various scientific advisory panels to review the science surrounding Sakhalin Energy's gray whale programme and advise the Company on construction and conservation related issues. In 2006, the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel&(WGWAP) was formed, comprised of 11 independent Russian and international scientists. Recommendations and advice of the panel's scientists strongly influence the activity-specific monitoring and mitigation plans developed during all planning/design phases of the project. One example of the positive outcomes of this collaboration is the above-mentioned MMP for the 2010 Piltun-Astokh seismic survey that was designed in partnership with the scientific community over a two-year period prior to the execution of the survey.

The Panel typically meets twice a year and is attended by representatives of IUCN, Sakhalin Energy, project financers and NGOs, company consultants, the Russian joint programme team leaders, panel and associate scientists, and guest participants. With a dual goal of a) minimizing industry's cumulative impact on Western gray whales, and b) optimizing Western gray whale research, the Panel regularly issues recommendations to various stakeholders, including Sakhalin Energy. Sakhalin Energy has committed to adopt all reasonable recommendations generated by the Panel.

The Panel has established several task forces to facilitate technical discussions and collaboration& on specialized issues such as noise, environmental monitoring, photo ID programmes, and oil-spill response plans. In 2010, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources established a new interagency working group (IWG). Staffed with representatives of governmental agencies as well as key Russian whale scientists, the IWG works with industry representatives to benefit the gray whale by promoting effective regulation and management of industrial activities in waters near Sakhalin Island and the adjacent shelf.


By considering the "whole landscape" around Sakhalin Island and its adjacent gray whale feeding ground, the Monitoring and Mitigation work has helped to significantly increase the scientific understanding around the gray whales and minimise the impact of the Company's operations. The collaborative effort has yielded important new findings on the location of gray whale feeding grounds, migration routes, population dynamics, population health, feeding habits and prey availability, and also the whales behaviour in response to sound. While more research is needed to confirm potential long-term impacts of increased sound levels on the gray whales these programmes are generally acknowledged by scientists to have provided the Company with a comprehensive plan to manage the risk to ALARP (As Low As is Reasonably Practicable).

The Marine Mammal Protection Plan owns a clear record of success: since its implementation in 2003, no collisions or near collisions with western gray whales have been recorded, despite a substantial increase in the number of industrial vessels plying the waters near Sakhalin Island. This Marine Mammal Monitoring and Mitigation Programme demonstrates how industry and eco-science can cooperatively pursue mutual goals.

Lessons learned

Assess sensitive areas: A solid understanding of marine mammal ecology is a prerequisite for any industrial activity in waters where endangered marine mammals are found.

Consult openly: Creating the WGWAP provided the scientific community and NGOs with an opportunity to become directly involved in an engagement process, to the benefit of all Stakeholders and the whales.

Begin yesterday: An earlier start to the whole WGWAP engagement process might have allayed concerns (reported in the news media) that attended the start of phase 2 of the Sakhalin II project. Similarly, earlier engagement with the scientific community might have identified the best route for an offshore pipeline before construction began – thus saving the expense of later relocating the pipeline to a more gray whale-friendly location recommended by the scientific panel.

Adapt and improve: The scope of the annual gray whales research programme is reviewed and adapted on a regular basis to address research findings and existing data gaps. Furthermore new methodologies are being developed to analyse the multi-year data set that has been obtained over the years. Changes to the research programmeme and the marine mammal protection plan are made based on recommendations from the gray whales WGWAP scientists.

Contact details

HSE General Manager, Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd, 35 Dzerzhinskogo Street, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Russian Federation. 693020.