Another oil and gas problem, what it is doing to this whale which lives in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists from around the world are sounding the alarm about the threat oil and gas exploration poses to an exceedingly rare whale recently found to be a unique species that lives only in the northern Gulf of Mexico. In an open letter to President Joe Biden’s administration, more than 100 marine scientists from as far away as Norway and New Zealand said stronger protections are needed to avoid the extinction of a species that has only about 50 individuals left. “The Gulf of Mexico whale is the most endangered whale species in the world,” said Peter Corkeron, a whale researcher with the New England Aquarium in Boston and one of the signatories. “To the best of our knowledge, it occurs only in U.S. waters, so Americans have a special responsibility to work together to save it.”

Illustration of a Bryde’s whale. The population of Bryde’s in the Gulf of Mexico are now considered a distinct species known as the Rice’s or Gulf of Mexico whale.

Officially a Rice’s Whale this offshoot lived in the Norther Gulf close to the oil and gas energy sites.

Officially named Rice’s whale but commonly referred to as the Gulf of Mexico whale, the species prefers the deep, dark waters of DeSoto Canyon, one of the busiest commercial areas of the Gulf, where oil and gas development pose a “clear, existential threat,” the letter says. The canyon is located east of Louisiana’s coast in the northern Gulf. The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster killed about 20% of the whales and caused long-lasting reproductive issues in the population’s females, according to federal natural resource damage assessments. The species is also harmed by the use of seismic airgun blasts used to find undersea oil and gas deposits. The deep-penetration blasts interfere with the whales’ ability to navigate, find food and communicate. At 250 decibels, the blasts are louder than the detonation of a pound of dynamite, and nearly two times as loud as the Superdome on game day. The blasts are typically repeated every 10 seconds, sometimes for weeks, on vessels that pull several guns. The American Petroleum Institute credits the technology with revealing vast oil and natural gas deposits that had gone undetected by other surveys. In the late 1980s, surveys estimated just under 10 billion barrels of untapped oil in the Gulf. But with seismic airguns, oil companies in 2011 were able to update their estimates to nearly 50 billion barrels, according to API.

Distribution of all sightings and strandings of Bryde’s-like whales (now considered Rice’s whales) in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. 

As with all whales collisions with ships is a definite problem.

Collisions with ships are another concern. At night, Gulf of Mexico whales rest near the water’s surface, making them vulnerable to ship strikes. A lactating female and another member of the species were recently found with injuries likely caused by ships. “A number of shipping routes traverse the whales’ habitat along the northern Gulf, and the collision risk is likely to increase with new offshore oil and gas development,” the letter says. “With abundance so low, the loss of even a single whale threatens the survival of the species.” The letter was sent to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and four other federal agency leaders last week. It was signed by experts at top U.S. marine research centers, including Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, several aquariums, and universities in Canada, Ukraine, South Africa, Australia and other countries. Less than two years ago, Gulf of Mexico whales were thought to be Bryde’s whales, an endangered baleen whale that ranges around the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Both species grow to about 55 feet long and weigh around 30 tons, making them part of what are known as the ‘great whales,’ a group that includes other large filter-feeders like humpbacks and blue whales.

In 2021 the whale was named as a new species.

In early 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed the Gulf of Mexico whale’s status as a distinct species. NOAA scientists named it Rice’s whale in honor of Dale Rice, the biologist who first recognized that a version of Bryde’s whales were in the Gulf in the 1960s. But the name Gulf of Mexico whale is more commonly used by non-government scientists and conservation groups. Unlike the rambling Bryde’s, the Gulf of Mexico whale appears to be a homebody, sticking to the waters between Louisiana and Florida. They also feed in deeper water and have some small but important physical differences, according to NOAA scientists. The Bryde’s whale was granted protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2019. The Gulf of Mexico whale retained its protected status under the ESA after it was found to be a distinct species. Despite the challenges the whale faces, scientists are confident it can recover, but that will take significant changes in the way the Gulf is managed.

Aerial photo of a Rice’s whale, also known as the Gulf of Mexico whale, in the Gulf of Mexico. The rare whale was recently determined to be a distinct species from the similar Bryde’s whale. 

The letter asks that seismic use and drilling not to be done in the area these whales use.

The scientists’ letter urges federal regulators to halt oil and gas drilling and seismic blasting in the whale’s primary habitat, a strip of water running along the continental shelf from the eastern through central and western Gulf. “Continuing with seismic exploration or drilling in the northern Gulf is antithetical to basic principles of conservation and would jeopardize the species’ survival and recovery,” the letter says. The scientists also advocated for a ship speed limit in the whale’s habitat and urged the government to steer future industries, including offshore wind turbines and floating fish farms, away from the whales. “The Gulf of Mexico whale is a unique part of the Gulf’s natural history … yet few on-water measures have been established to protect it,” the letter says. “Unless significant conservation actions are taken, the United States is likely to cause the first (human-caused) extinction of a great whale species.”

When I first posted on the Rice’s Whale I did not know that this would be a continuing story.

Brydes whale endangered by man