On a January day two years ago, an emaciated whale washed up dead on Sandy Key, at the southernmost reaches of Florida’s Everglades National Park. The 38-foot-long male had the long white throat grooves characteristic of baleen whales, which are rare in the Gulf of Mexico. A team of biologists soon gathered to examine the whale.
During the necropsy, a sharp piece of stiff plastic, not much bigger than a credit card, was removed from its second stomach chamber. The whale had probably swallowed the shard while feeding near the ocean floor, and it had perforated the stomach lining. There were no other injuries. Plastic had killed this whale.
The animal’s DNA matched that of a small population of endangered whales that resides off the Florida Panhandle, thought to be a subspecies of the Bryde’s whale, found in warm waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, examined the bones, and after making skull measurements and reviewing genetic data from other similar whales, they came to an exciting conclusion: These gulf whales were not a subspecies of the Bryde’s whale at all, but a new species unique to the Gulf of Mexico.
Here was Darwin’s “mystery of mysteries” at work: These whales apparently diverged from other baleen whales because of their long isolation in the gulf. With limited opportunity for gene flow with other related whales, they evolved in their reclusion into a species of their own.
The newly described species, Balaenoptera ricei, is the only great whale believed to occur in the waters of only one country. It has gone by several names: Rice’s whale, Bryde’s whale, the Gulf of Mexico whale. The marine mammalogist Peter Corkeron at the New England Aquarium suggests that we call it what it is: the American whale.
It is also critically endangered: With an estimated population of just 50 or so, all in the United States, the whale’s fate rests entirely in America’s hands.
This whale once lived in the highly productive waters off the Mississippi Delta and swam along the coasts of the Yucatán. They are the only filter-feeding cetaceans known to inhabit the region year-round, capturing small fish at the bottom of the gulf with sievelike baleen. The surviving whales tend to be solitary and skittish, and they have remained mostly hemmed into their small pocket of the gulf. A few sightings have been reported as far west as Texas.
But it’s tough to make a living and raise your young in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the most industrialized seas on Earth. Death comes in the form of ships, oil rigs and plastic. The gulf whale could be the first baleen whale to go extinct since the Atlantic gray whale disappeared 300 years ago.
Around 2,000 oil and gas platforms and more than 20,000 miles of active pipelines lie in the Gulf of Mexico. One of those rigs, the Deepwater Horizon, spilled an estimated 210 million gallons of oil in 2010, the biggest accident of its kind in the United States. The vast slick of oil covered about half of the whale’s known habitat. Predictive modeling by scientists estimated that almost one in five of these gulf whales were killed outright; another 18 percent experienced adverse health effects, including lung and adrenal disease. More than a fifth of the females may have suffered reproductive failure.
The whale was listed as endangered a few months after the Everglades stranding. Fortunately, the area around the nutrient-rich De Soto Canyon, 60 miles off Florida’s northwest coast, where these whales tend to dwell, has been excluded temporarily from direct oil and gas leasing. But that does not preclude energy exploration. That means seismic surveys — in which air guns or other sound devices are used to map oil and gas deposits — are allowable in this area and in other habitats used by the whales, with potentially devastating effects on whales, including permanent hearing loss. The Cornell scientist Chris Clark has described the soundscape of industrialized oceans as “acoustic hell.”
Commercial shipping also presents a threat. About half of all merchant vessel traffic in the United States passes through the Gulf of Mexico’s ports, putting whales at risk of ship strikes.
The best hope for this new species is the deindustrialization of the gulf. During a presidential debate in October, Joe Biden said the oil industry “has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.” But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So the immediate question is: What can be done to keep these whales around until a green future arrives in the gulf?
Several steps will help. Mandatory slowdowns should be imposed on commercial vessels in the whale’s core range to avoid collisions. Oil exploration and drilling should be limited, to reduce noise. Last year, a moratorium on offshore drilling for an area that included the whale’s range was extended for ten years. A permanent ban should follow. Finally, the federal government should identify habitat critical to the whale’s survival and protect it.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has spent $2.3 million since 2017 to examine the whale’s ecology and habitat, but it has yet to identify the whale’s critical habitat, as the Endangered Species Act requires. These whales have been sheltering in a small corner of the gulf for too long. Habitat along the edge of the continental shelf, where the whales feed at depths below 300 feet, should be protected and restored from Florida to Texas.
Each of these steps is urgent. Others will be necessary. As the federal team of scientists behind the endangered listing wrote in 2016: “Small-scale incremental impacts over time or a single catastrophic event could result in extinction.”
This is America’s whale. We shouldn’t allow that to happen.
Joe Roman (@roamnjoe) is a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont and the author of “Listed: Dispatches From America’s Endangered Species Act.”
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