for National Geographic News
Development of oil and gas fields in Russia's Far East would expose the highly endangered western gray whale to the threat of a pollution disaster that could take years to clean up, a new report warns.
Should a major oil spill occur off eastern Siberia, the event could push one of the world's rarest whales into extinction, environmentalists say. (Also see "Oil Spills Pollute Indefinitely and Invisibly, Study Says" .)
The warning is just the latest raised by wildlife campaigners fighting an oil and gas program on the Siberian island of Sakhalin in the Sea of Okhotsk (map of Russia). The project's estimated cost is equivalent to 20 billion U.S. dollars.
The report was commissioned by WWF, the global conservation group. It says icy seas around Sakhalin, which can remain frozen for six months or more, could delay an oil-cleanup operation for up to six months.
Such a disaster could ruin the feeding grounds of the last known population of western gray whales, the report adds.
"This is the most difficult place on Earth to have to respond to an oil spill," said Paul Steele, WWF International's chief operating officer, based in Gland, Switzerland.
"Even with the latest technology it would be impossible to clean up oil spills" six months out of the year, Steele added.
"Wave heights in spring and winter are often five times higher than current recovery methods can cope with."
Recent surveys suggest just 123 adult western gray whales still survive.
Whale experts say the death of just one extra female per year would likely lead to the western gray whale's extinction.
Campaigners also noted more emaciated whales in the region last summer. WWF says this suggests the animals' feeding is being disrupted by construction off Sakhalin.
The island, which lies north of Japan, is as long as Britain and is rich in oil and gas reserves.
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