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Shipping speed limits being eyed to protect rare whales in the Gulf of Mexico

 whale coming up for air
NOAA Fisheries
Rice's whale — a new species of whale recognized in 2021, previously known as a subpopulation of Bryde's whale, endemic to the Gulf of Mexico.

Comments are now being taken by federal environmental regulators on setting boat speed limits around areas in the Gulf of Mexico known to be the home for the rare Rice's whale.

Federal environmental officials are taking commentson a new rule that might mean slower speeds for ships in an area that's home to an endangered Gulf of Mexico whale. This could help protect one of the rarest whales in the world.

There's fewer than 100 Rice's whales remaining, mostly off the Gulf coast, from Florida to Texas. They've been hit by vessels, and the Deepwater Horizon spill may have cut their numbers by one-fifth.

Several environmental groups have petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Serviceto set a 10-knot speed limit for vessels in their habitat. They included a letter sent to the Biden Administration last year by100 scientists that says without action we could see the first human-caused extinction of a whale species in history.

"The Gulf of Mexico whale is a unique part of the Gulf’s natural history and the only large whale species resident year-round in the waters of the United States," the scientists wrote. "Yet few on-water measures have been established to protect it. Unless significant conservation actions are taken, the United States is likely to cause the first anthropogenic extinction of a great whale species."

The Rice's are the only resident baleen whale in the Gulf of Mexico and are most closely related to Bryde’s (pronounced Broodus) whales. In 2021, scientists determined that the Rice’s whale was a unique species, after one floated ashore dead at Everglades National Park.

Commentsare being taken through July 6th.

Here's part of the letter to the Biden administration from the 100 scientists:

"Gulf of Mexico whales can recover. They continue to produce calves, and our experience with other baleen whales shows that populations can rebound as conditions improve. But Gulf of Mexico whales are on the edge of extinction, and measures are urgently needed to reduce mortality and serious injury as well as to alleviate human stressors.

"Aquaculture, offshore wind farms, and other new development should always be sited outside of their known habitat, which is limited to a strip of water running along the continental shelf break from the eastern through the central and western Gulf. Vessels transiting through the whales’ habitat should be required to slow down and take other measures to reduce the risk of a fatal collision."

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.