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Whales and the Pursuit of Oil: When Scientists and Big Oil Team Up

By Laura Dattaro
Published: January 20, 2014

Scientists studied a group of critically endangered gray whales to learn how to reduce the negative effects of sound surveys used by oil and gas companies. (Yuri Yakovlev)

Whales and the pursuit of oil don’t tend to mix well. Companies often search using pulses, seismic surveys that employ sounds the same frequency as those that certain types of whales use to communicate.

Now, for the first time ever, an international group of scientists and an energy company have partnered to reduce the environmental impact of searching for oil and gas. It’s a move they hope will guide future interactions between the energy industry and the marine environment.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) created the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP) in 2006 after Sakhalin Energy Investment Company wanted to conduct a survey for oil near Russia’s Sakhalin Island — in the same waters where a population of critically endangered gray whales feeds and breeds.

Many environmental groups, including the WWF, launched a campaign against the project because of worries about the impact on the whales, including ship strikes, sound disturbances and pollution, according to Carl Gustaf Lundin, IUCN Global Marine and Polar Program director.

“That really raised the profile of the project internationally,” Lundin told weather.com. It forced Sakhalin to demonstrate a real commitment to mitigating any harm to the whale population, he added. (MORE: A New Way to Listen In On Dolphins and their Environment)

To help Sakhalin minimize its impact on the whales, scientists from the WGWAP began by studying the whales’ behaviors. They continued monitoring the whale population while the company worked, and adjusted the survey as needed, ultimately finding that the whales experienced few negative effects from the process. The researchers published their strategy in the journal Aquatic Mammals, in the hopes it could be a model for future surveys.

“What we’ve tried to do is provide the stepping stones [that] people need to follow,” Greg Donovan, chair of WGWAP, told weather.com. “But it's a feedback process, so that you need to continually learn. You should never assume that what you're doing is working.”

It’s this feedback system that makes the new work “a real step-change” for seismic surveys, Nathan Merchant, a Syracuse University researcher who studies the effects of man-made sounds on marine life, told weather.com. Merchant, who was not involved in this research, said this study is the first monitoring of noise levels in real time, allowing the team to intervene and stop the survey if necessary.

“It always feels a little strange talking about the environmental impact of seismic surveys on marine mammals when the whole issue is massively dwarfed by the question of whether we should be going to ever greater lengths to extract these fossil fuels in the first place,” Merchant said. “That said, if the impact these surveys have on the environment can be reduced, then by all means those measures should be taken.”

Whether to move away from fossil fuels is another question. Regardless, study lead author Doug Nowacek told weather.com that seismic surveys aren’t going away anytime soon. Companies survey existing oil fields every three to five years, and placing offshore wind turbines also requires surveying the sea floor.

“We’re not going to see a diminution of seismic surveys in the near future,” Nowacek said. “So hopefully what we’ve done will help inform those efforts.”

MORE: Incredible Photos of Surfing Dolphins

Dolphins ride the waves off the coast of South Africa. (Greg Huglin/greghuglin.com).


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