OSLO Jan 20 Safeguards on seismic testing for
an oil and gas project in the Pacific have shielded endangered
whales from harm and are a model for managing the deafening
blasts, the world's largest environmental group said on Monday.
Conservationists working with Sakhalin Energy Investment Co
Ltd in Russia from 2006-12 said the tiny population of
endangered Western Grey whales had risen about 3 percent a year
to 140, despite seismic testing near their feeding grounds.
Seismic testing bounces sound waves into the seabed to seek
deposits of oil and gas. It can harm whales and other marine
life with blasts of 230 to 250 decibels, so loud that they that
can sometimes be detected 4,000 kms (2,500 miles) away.
"This work helps to set a standard," Carl Gustaf Lundin,
director of the global marine and polar programme at the IUCN
(International Union for Conservation of Nature), told Reuters.
"Once you have raised the bar ... other companies will look
bad if they are not deploying it," he said. The IUCN includes
governments, scientists and conservation organisations and is
the world's biggest environmental alliance.
He said there was no sign of "significant direct impact on
the whales" from the testing off Sakhalin island north of Japan.
Sakhalin Energy groups Gazprom, Royal Dutch
Shell, Mitsui and Mitsubishi.
A common and worrying effect of seismic testing was that the
whales move away from their normal feeding grounds, Doug Nowacek
of Duke University, lead author of the findings published in the
journal Aquatic Mammals, told Reuters.
"The potential exists, if animals get too close (to testing
areas), for trauma and injury," he said, adding that to his
knowledge no such cases have been documented.
The IUCN said the guidelines called for thorough advance
study of wildlife to help decide when it was best to carry out
seismic tests, limiting noise levels, halting surveys if animals
were seen in the area and follow-up monitoring.
"This is a comprehensive guidebook for how to do this with
minimal impact," said Nowacek.
Off Sakhalin, for instance, understanding whale migrations
meant it was best to do seismic testing in spring, after ice had
melted but before many whales had returned to the region.
Whale sightings also varied a lot from year to year.
"A clear message is that it is not enough to send out a few
people for a week or two in a boat and then decide how many
whales there are," said Greg Donovan, who chairs an IUCN group
looking into the problem of the whales and seismic surveys.
More stringent guidelines would tend to push up costs of
environmental monitoring, especially if it meant million-dollar
delays to drilling. On the other hand, harming wildlife could
damage companies' reputations.
Whales are especially vulnerable to seismic testing.
"Whales rely on sound for communication, navigation and
foraging," an IUCN statement said. "Exposure to loud noise from
seismic surveys can result in stress and behaviour changes,
affect foraging and nursing, or cause direct physical damage."