Forty years ago, western gray whales were thought to be extinct. Thankfully, talk of their demise proved unfounded, and western grays can still be seen today, summering in the Okhotsk Sea off the northeastern coast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island. But extinction remains a perpetual threat.

There are only around 150 western gray whales so their survival remains precarious, especially as their summer feeding grounds are not only rich in the small crustaceans beloved by mothers and their calves but also in oil and gas.

Exxon, Sakhalin Energy, British Petroleum, Gazprom and Rosneft are some of the major oil and gas companies with operations in the area. Left to their own devices, their activities could have inadvertently spelled the end for the few remaining western gray whales. But for years, WWF, Sakhalin Energy Watch, Pacific Environment and IFAW have been keeping a close eye on their operations, trying to minimize the negative impact on the whales.

Over the past decade, a panel of independent cetacean experts – now called the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel – has also been providing scientific and technical advice about how to protect the whales, which was required before banks could finance Sakhalin Energy’s major Sakhalin II oil platform.

And there have been some significant successes in recent years. An underwater pipeline was re-routed to avoid key feeding grounds, necessitating an extra 180 km of piping. Sakhalin Energy also postponed its plan to build a third platform until at least 2020, after WWF and partner NGOs launched a campaign against it.

But the threats are far from over. Currently, there are serious concerns about the potential impact of Exxon’s plans to build temporary unloading facilities in Piltun bay. As if that weren’t enough, both Sakhalin Energy and Exxon are preparing to carry out seismic surveys in the summer, just as the whales start arriving. But WWF and others will continue to fight for them – and will hopefully make enough noise to silence the surveys.

Check out the video below to learn more about the impact of oil and gas on whales.