A 38-foot-long baleen whale that washed up near the Florida Everglades was later found to be a distinct species, now called the Rice’s whale, that lives only in the Gulf of Mexico. A necropsy determined it died after a piece of plastic became lodged in its stomach. 
National Park Service

A newly discovered whale in the Gulf is almost extinct.

Thousands of people have weighed in on a proposal that would set a speed limit in the Gulf of Mexico where a newly discovered but nearly extinct whale spends much of its time. More than 75,500 comments have streamed in to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in recent weeks over a plan to slow ship speeds to 10 knots across an area between Louisiana and Florida. The comments show sharp divisions, with one commenter calling it a “necessary step to prevent extinction,” while others regard it as “insane,” with some choice words thrown in for good measure. The possible 18,000-square-mile speed zone is the dwelling place of what some scientists consider the world’s most endangered whale. Officially named Rice’s whale but commonly referred to as the Gulf of Mexico whale, the species has only about 50 individuals left. The whale, which can grow to 55 feet and weigh 30 tons, faces a host of dangers: oil spills, seismic airgun blasts used to find undersea fossil fuel deposits, and plastic pollution, which claimed the life of a Gulf of Mexico whale in 2019.


Slower speeds less whale strikes.

The proposed speed limit is aimed at reducing the danger of vessel strikes. At least two Gulf of Mexico whales over the past decade have shown evidence of injuries from ships. One was a lactating female that was struck by a freighter and carried into Tampa Bay with the body draped on the ship’s bow. The other, spotted in 2019, had spine injuries consistent with a ship collision, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the environmental groups that petitioned NOAA to establish the speed limit in 2021. Opposing the speed limit are the shipping and fishing industries. While relatively few groups from Louisiana offered comments on the measure, several from Florida did. The Florida Ports Council said the speed zone would dampen a recent shipping boom. “Florida seaports have seen record growth in cargo movements,” wrote Michael Rubin, president of the council, which represents 16 deepwater seaports. “This rule runs counter to efforts … to ensure an effective and efficient supply chain system for U.S. businesses and citizens.”

The fishing industry was also not happy.

Several fishers said having to slow their boats would make fishing some parts of the Gulf impossible. “Our family fishes the areas in question and absolutely cannot continue to do so with these new ridiculous rules in place,” fisher John Simmons wrote. “We have to travel above 10 knots to go such distances efficiently and in a timely manner.” Other fishers doubted the rarely-seen whale’s existence. “This is an absolutely ridiculous proposal,” wrote fisher Nick Kirby. “As a professional fisherman in this area for over 20 years I’ve never seen a Rice’s whale once and I spend 150-plus days a year in this proposed area.” Proposed restrictions would also limit nighttime vessel trips in the speed zone. Travel plans and any deviations from them would need to be reported to NOAA. Vessels would also need to maintain a distance of 500 meters – about a quarter mile – from Gulf of Mexico whales.

The newly-discovered Rice’s whale, also known as the Gulf of Mexico whale, was long thought to be a type of Bryde’s whale that lived only in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal scientists recently learned the whale is a distinct species. With only about 50 alive, the species is teetering on the brink of extinction. 

The comment period ended 06 July.

NOAA began collecting public input on the proposal in April and ended the comment period on July 6. The agency hasn’t set a timeline for making a decision on the measure. The speed zone is modeled after one NOAA enacted for endangered North Atlantic right whales along the East Coast. In 2013, the agency capped speeds at 10 knots at certain times of the year for all vessels 65 feet or longer in three areas. A federal analysis found compliance was quite high, with about 85% vessels keeping speeds at or under 10 knots. Newer voluntary speed zones were much less effective, with only a small percentage of vessels reducing their speeds.

The Rice’s whs was there before it was named.

Until 2021, scientists thought the Gulf of Mexico whale was a regional variety of the endangered Bryde’s whale. The two whales are filter-feeding baleens that look almost identical. But the two species behave very differently. While the Bryde’s roam widely, the Gulf of Mexico whale sticks close to home, rarely straying from the Gulf’s northeastern waters. The whales also differ in how they feed. The Bryde’s prowls near the surface for small crustaceans and schooling fish, but the Gulf of Mexico whale dines in the deep. Scientists aren’t totally sure what the whale eats down there. “One of the rarest, most endangered whales on the planet is in our backyard, and we have a responsibility to save it,” said Michael Jasny, director of the NRDC’s marine mammal protection project. “Slowing down ships in the whales’ habitat is more than common sense. It’s basic human decency.”

I think the fishing industry complains too much on the impact.

Speed zones in the Gulf to save whales
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