Greece urged to drop offshore gas drilling project to protect whales

Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0 Author: Gabriel Barathieu
Mediterranean’s deepest waters constitute a vital habitat for the few hundred sperm whales and other marine mammals.

Greenpeace has called on Greece to drop a gas exploration project in the Mediterranean, citing just published research that suggests the potential harm to endangered whales and dolphins could be much greater than previously understood.

A survey last year in waters earmarked for exploratory drilling off southwestern Greece and Crete found that sea mammals frequented the area in winter, and not just in summer, as had been believed earlier.

The area being explored for gas overlaps much of the Hellenic Trench, which includes the Mediterranean’s deepest waters, at 5,267 metres. This constitutes a vital habitat for the few hundred sperm whales that congregate in the Mediterranean, as well as other marine mammals now threatened by fishing, collisions with shipping and the toxic blight posed by plastic pollution.

Environmental safeguards currently in place limit project exploratory activities to the winter months as a means of reducing the impact on whale and dolphin, or cetacean, breeding periods.

However, the survey published this week in the Endangered Species Research journal noted that at least four species of cetaceans — including sperm whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales — are present year-round in the area of activity.

Greenpeace Greece’s Kostis Grimanis characterised the drive to pursue hydrocarbon exploration in this ecologically important stretch of Mediterranean waters as “an absurd crime against nature.” Quite apart from the added risk posed to “these iconic marine fauna species”, efforts “to exploit undersea fossil fuels” served to undermine the “fight against the climate crisis”, he declared.

Greenpeace has called on the Athens authorities to cancel all offshore drilling permits.

In 2019, Greece granted an international consortium the rights to explore two blocks of seabed to the south and southwest of Crete. Smaller projects are underway further north. This year, ExxonMobil and Greece’s Helleniq Energy wrapped up a three-month seismic survey of the seabed in the two blocks, with the Greek government greenlighting a start to initial exploratory drilling in 2025.

Officials insist that the strictest environmental standards are being followed. However, seismic survey techniques bounce sonic blasts off the seabed to identify potential gas deposits, a process that would be deafening to sound-sensitive cetaceans. Environmentalists also maintain that drilling and extracting gas cause significant undersea noise.

According to the latest report from Greenpeace Greece, the University of Exeter and the Athens-based Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, at least five species of cetaceans were detected in 166 encounters recorded over the winter of 2022. Fourteen of these were with sperm whales.  This followed similar research carried out during the summer months.

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