YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, Russia – A massive oil and natural gas project under way off Sakhalin is threatening Steller’s sea eagles, which breed on the island and migrate to Japan in the winter, according to ornithologists and other experts.
Excavation work and the laying of pipes are well under way and year-round crude oil output is due to gradually start at the end of next year.
Experts appealing for the protection of the sea eagles from extinction cast doubt on claims made by the project promoters that they are taking steps to protect the environment.
The oil developers have divided the sea surrounding Sakhalin into nine zones. Thus far, Sakhalin 1 and 2 are in the phase of development and production, with more than $10 billion invested by non-Russian firms in each zone.
An international consortium that includes Exxon Mobil of the United States and Japanese trading firms Itochu Corp. and Marubeni Corp. is in Sakhalin 1, while Royal Dutch Shell and Japanese trading companies Mitsui & Co. and Mitsubishi Corp. are participating in Sakhalin 2.
The project’s base is in Chaybo Bay in the northeastern part of Sakhalin, where an excavation rig of the world’s largest class, at about 70 meters tall, and other facilities overlook the Sea of Okhotsk.
A team composed of academics from Moscow University and people from the Wildlife Preservation Bureau of Hokkaido, a nonprofit group based in Kushiro, studied the sea eagles’ habitat in July and August and found 15 fledglings in nests in “kuy” pine trees in areas around the oil facilities.
The yellow-beaked sea eagles are the world’s largest eagle species and have a wingspan of about 2.5 meters when fully grown.
The World Conservation Union lists them as in danger of extinction. They breed in the Sea of Okhotsk coastal areas of the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin, among other places.
Of the some 5,000 estimated to exist, around 2,000 fly to parts of Hokkaido to winter, including the Shiretoko Peninsula.
They are designated as a “natural monument” in Japan.
“There is no doubt that the sea eagle’s inhabitable environment is becoming smaller year after year,” said professor Vladimir Mastrov, 43, of the department of biology at Moscow University, who has been regularly observing the birds on Sakhalin for 15 years.
Mastrov said the ramifications of the oil project — the laying of pipelines, deforestation, the entry of people and large vehicles into construction sites, and the flow of mud into the sea — pose serious impediments to sea eagles in their efforts to nest in trees for breeding and to catch flatfish in shallow waters.
Local fishery industry people say the causal relationship between the oil and gas project and fish catches remains unknown, but the catch of “komai,” a cod-like fish that is Sakhalin’s primary haul, has dropped to 10 percent of what it was several years ago.
They also said something unusual has been happening, noting that about 5,000 tons of dead fish washed ashore along some 12 km of coastline five years ago.
The international oil majors involved in the project said they received permission from the Russian government to exploit oil and gas reserves after they examined the environment for rare life forms.
They said they are prepared to move sea eagle nests if they are found or establish artificial nests.
Regarding the present situation, they claimed there is no problem because they are paying attention to the environment.
However, the number of sea eagles they reported in an environmental impact assessment submitted to the Russian government in order to obtain the permission for the project was about half the number Moscow University and the Wildlife Preservation Bureau found in the past five years.
Their report did not make clear who was in charge of the assessment or the way the study was conducted.
Keisuke Saito, 39, a veterinarian involved in the Hokkaido group’s section of the joint survey, said, “We have to keep an eye on the whole development project, because we have our doubts about the credibility, as they haven’t even grasped the present situation on rare types of living things for which they were supposed to work out steps to protect.”