Oil and Gas Exploration in the Gulf of Guinea

Whale Photo
A humpback whale breaching.
©Tim Collins

As oil and gas companies expand their reach into the world’s oceans, probing the depths for untapped stores of energy, many marine creatures may come under threat. Declining reserves in Arabia, the North Sea, and North America and political instability elsewhere have made Africa’s waters a new target for oil companies. New technologies for deepwater drilling and the worldwide increase in seismic surveys are resulting in an overall rise in sound in the marine environment. The WCS Ocean Giants Program is working off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea in central west Africa to identify and mitigate the potential impacts of the oil and gas industry’s exploration and production activities to marine mammals and their habitats.

Challenges

While there is a growing body of research on marine ecosystems and species in Africa, the growth of the oil and gas industry’s influence in the region has sometimes outpaced the scientific work. As a result, risks of industrial development to critical marine habitats are not well understood. We do know that noise disturbance brought on by seismic surveys potentially impacts cetaceans and other fauna. For example, critically endangered western gray whales have been profoundly affected by seismic surveys. Oil exploration and exploitation around Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia, the only known feeding grounds for the whales, forced this small population from nearshore into deeper waters to feed. This causes serious concern for the viability of the population, which is estimated to number only 120 individuals. Noise disturbance is not the only consequence of the oil and gas industry’s offshore activities. Increased shipping traffic and chemical pollution also pose major threats.

Goals

  • Document marine mammal presence, diversity, and movements in key marine habitats that the oil and gas industry expects to explore.
  • Train local conservationists to collect data, such as through conducting interviews with fishers and villagers about their observations of patterns of distribution, behavior, and relative abundance, as well as levels of by-catch and hunting.
  • Use research on cetaceans to recommend best practices for exploration activities to minimize any potential impacts, such as identifying seasonal periods when migratory whales might not be present.
  • Foster greater cooperation between research and conservation organizations and the hydrocarbon industry.

What WCS is Doing

The WCS-Ocean Giants Program has conducted significant work in the coastal waters of Gabon and the Gulf of Guinea, where the oil industry has requested our assistance and experience. In some cases, new industry practices have led to improvements, such as reducing waste disposal into the waters, changing the timing of seismic surveys, and minimizing disruptive lighting. These and other modifications have served as a start to minimizing impacts for marine creatures including marine turtles and whales, among others. WCS is hopeful that additional progress can be made.


From the Newsroom

"Save the Whales" Still the Rallying CryApril 15, 2013

Reflecting on the American Museum of Natural History’s captivating new whale exhibition, Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, director of WCS’s Ocean Giants program, describes the challenges these beloved, but troubled creatures face in today’s oceans.

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