July 3, 2007 / 1:01 PM / in 10 years

Russia gas field noise harms whales, says WWF

SAKHALIN, Russia (Reuters) - Noise from a Russian gas field in the Pacific Ocean is driving the endangered grey whale away from one of its few feeding grounds, says the WWF environmental group.

The grey whale is one of the largest and oldest mammals on earth -- it can grow larger than a city bus and the species is thought to be 30 million years old.

But environmentalists say there are only 100 grey whales left off the Asian Pacific coast, with another 300 off the North American coast. Now construction work at a Russian gas project is forcing them away from their natural habitat.

“I feel that a huge construction bulldozer is working near my tent. I feel the vibration and hear the low, hollow rumble,” said Natalia Illarionova, who monitors the whales from a camp on the island of Sakhalin for the WWF.

She said the whales were disappearing from the area she was monitoring because of the noise, putting more pressure on other feeding grounds.

Russia has grown rich from soaring energy revenues over the last few years and the $20 billion Sakhalin-2 project, majority owned by Gazprom with Royal Dutch Shell as a minority partner, is central to its plans to sell gas to Asia.

The Sakhalin Energy project leaders had agreed to recommendations from a whale conservation panel prior to starting the project, and a company spokesman said they had not broken those guidelines.

“The acoustic monitoring buoys detected no unusual noise and at no time did noise levels at the outer edge of the feeding area exceed the action criteria levels,” spokesman Ivan Chernyakhovsky said.

Sakhalin Energy is ready to share and discuss data with environmentalists, he said.

The whales eat shrimps and small fish during the summer feeding season to fatten themselves up ahead of their winter migration towards warmer waters.

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