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Drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay threatens endangered whales


Anchorage, Alaska, US – Oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay could threaten the eastern North Pacific right whale, the most endangered whale population in the world, according to a new WWF report released at the 59th meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

A planned lease sale area in Bristol Bay overlaps with critical habitat designated for the eastern North Pacific right, as well as for other endangered cetacean species including bowhead, blue, fin, sei, humpback and sperm whales.

"Offshore oil and gas development in Bristol Bay would be the wrong step for the right whale,” said Margaret Williams, director of WWF’s Bering Sea Programme.

According to the WWF report, oil and gas exploration in the Bristol Bay area would expose whales to noise pollution, oil spills, chemical pollution, vessel collisions and entanglement with or ingestion of marine debris.

There are no reliable estimates of current abundance or trends for right whales in the North Pacific. According to US government sources, there may be fewer than 300 of these animals left compared to a pre-whaling population of more than 11,000.

Bristol Bay is also the epicenter of the Bering Sea fishery whose commercial salmon, halibut, herring and crab fisheries generate more than US$2 billion annually. Sport hunters and fishermen flock to the bay each year, pumping millions of dollars more into the economy. And the region’s spectacular wildlife supports scores of Alaskan natives who rely on a healthy ecosystem for food.

On 9 January 2007, US President George Bush rescinded a long-standing presidential moratorium that prohibited drilling in Bristol Bay. In July, the new Five Year Oil and Gas Leasing Program of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) — a US government agency — goes into effect and includes plans for a lease sale in Bristol Bay and other areas along the US coastline. Bills to block leasing in Bristol Bay are pending in the US House of Representatives and the Senate.

The MMS has calculated average estimates from drilling to generate a total of US$7.7 billion, but that’s just a fraction of the annual flow of US$2 billion from the Bering Sea’s renewable and sustainable fishery.

“This is a risk we simply can’t afford to take,“ Williams added. ”It [drilling] would jeopardize the nation’s most important fishery, the hundreds of communities that rely on fishing and a treasure trove of wildlife.”


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