Plans for another oil rig off the coast of Russia threaten a critically endangered whale population.

Sakhalin Energy Consortium, a joint venture by Shell, Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Gazprom, plans to place a third rig near Sakhalin Island. BP and Exxon are also active in the area. This area is the Western North Pacific Gray Whale's habitat, the world's most critically endangered whale, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The proposed site near Sakhalin Island, about seven miles off the east coast of Russia, is home to 11 endangered species. The Western North Pacific Gray Whale is one of those species most threatened with extinction. Studies suggest that less than 100 individual whales survive, and perhaps fewer than 20 are females of reproductive age.

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Whale conservationists fear that the oil rig will further endanger the whales with an increased threat of boat collisions and constant noise which will disrupt their communication, navigation and ability to find food. Another rig also increases the chances of a spill, like the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez disasters. Construction of the rig will also damage the ecosystem with sediment dredging and dumping of drilling wastes, according to the World Wildlife Funds' position paper.

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Sakhalin Energy operates two rigs in the area already. An official Sakhalin Energy document stated that having two rigs in the area as opposed to three, "significantly reduces the potential for environmental impact."

"We are astonished by the announcement from Sakhalin Energy that it intends to build a third platform," said Wendy Elliott, of the World Wildlife Fund-International, in a press release. "The company's own detailed assessments concluded previously that two platforms would be preferable, both for environmental reasons and for the efficiency of the operation."

Seismic surveys have already been conducted in the area. These surveys use extremely loud sound bursts to study the ocean floor. These surveys can be highly disruptive because whales rely on hearing to find food, communicate with each other, and navigate. Another study is planned for 2011.

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“It is totally inappropriate for Sakhalin Energy to plan another seismic survey in 2011 before we have the opportunity to examine the health of the animals," said Doug Norlen, Policy Director at Pacific Environment.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the Western North Pacific Gray Whale a separate population from other Gray Whales, since genetic studies suggest the eastern and western populations don't mix. The population is also considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

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The western population depends on the waters off Sakhalin Island for fattening themselves up before their migration to distant breeding grounds. The area near the proposed platform is also used by mother whales to teach their young how to feed off the sea bed.

PHOTO 1: An adult Gray Whale with her calf; Wikimedia Commons