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Scientists are calling on the White House to save a whale species unique to the Gulf of Mexico

Close-up shot of the head and nose of a gray Rice's whale coming out of blue water with some water splashing on top of its head.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
There are only about 51 known Rice's whales left in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act last month, a group of scientists asked the federal government for protection and funds for recovery of Rice’s whales.

About 100 marine scientists signed a letter sent to the Biden administration recently asking for help in preventing the extinction of the Gulf of Mexico whale, also known as Rice's whale. Human activities are their biggest threats.

Click here to read the letter from scientists to the Biden administration.

They can get up to 40 feet long, are sleek in form, and have long calls that have not been heard in other species. They’re filter feeders that dive down to the Gulf floor, take gulps of water, and separate the tiny fish to eat before going back up to the surface for a breath.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials confirmed just last year that Rice's whale is a unique species that has diverged from other baleen whales through long isolation in the Gulf.

But there are only about 51 of these creatures left, so they are considered one of the most endangered marine mammal species on the planet due to vessel collisions and oil and gas development, according to the letter.

Matthew Leslie, a whale scientist and conservation biologist, was a co-signer.

“Honestly, very few people on this planet have seen live ones. And both of the animals that I've seen died because of human activity, and so it's clearly us that's having the impact,” Leslie said.

"Several animals have been found with human induced injuries, be that ship strikes from large ships just running into them, or net entanglements, or rope entanglements … or the last one that that I saw had ingested a piece of plastic that had caused internal damage to his digestive tract, so there's a lot of threats and they seem to all be coming from us."

Aerial shot of a Rice's whale from above showing its whole body against bright blue water.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Rice’s whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act, but no critical habitat has been designated yet.

"There's no restriction of activities that would normally come along with the Endangered Species listing within that critical habitat, so we're basically saying make good on your promises through the act," Leslie said.

Leslie and his colleagues would like to reduce large boat traffic and ship speed because these animals sleep at night in the upper 15 meters of the water column, making them vulnerable to collisions. They’d also like to see a moratorium put on seismic oil and gas exploration, which involves setting off large explosions in the water column.

“That's detrimental to not only the acute health of the animals, but also to their behavior, to their communications, that sort of stuff," Leslie said. "And then you get to the actual extraction part of oil and gas, and that … has its own risks, right? It wasn't that long ago, the Deepwater Horizon happened. And that was really in this at this animals’ historical habitat.”

BP’s oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in the Macondo Prospect in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, spilling 4 million barrels of oil over an 87-day period before being capped. It’s “the largest spill of oil in the history of marine oil drilling operations,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

The government’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill estimates that nearly 20% of Gulf of Mexico whales were killed, with additional animals suffering reproductive failure and disease, according to the letter.

Leslie said it’s this country’s responsibility to save this whale.

“We can't blame this on Canada. We can't blame it on Mexico. It's in our backyard, and we need to take responsibility for it. And it's a reflection of our environmental conscience, right? It's like, if we can't do this for this really cool whale that's right off of our coasts, what can we do it for?” Leslie asked.

The scientists have so far not yet received a response from the White House.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.
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