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Shipping interests are pushing back on a proposal to save endangered Gulf whales

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 fewer than 100 Rice's whales left in the Gulf of Mexico.

A move to restrict ship movements in the Gulf of Mexico could strangle maritime commerce, the Florida Ports Council says.

A move to restrict the movement of vessels in the Gulf of Mexico to protect endangered whales is encountering resistance, as representatives of Florida's ports say it could hurt the state's economy.

The move comes after several environmental groups petitionedthe National Marine Fisheries Service to set a 10-knot speed limit for vessels where fewer than 100 Rice's whales remain. That area is where the Gulf is from three hundred to 1,500 feet (100-300 meters) deep, between Pensacola and just south of Tampa.

The petition says they're trying to avoid the first-ever human-caused extinction of a whale species.

But that could strangle maritime commerce in the Gulf, countered Mike Rubin, chief executive officer of the Florida Ports Council. It represents shipping interests at the state's 15 public seaports.

"If enacted, it's pretty much a danger to our economy and public safety, and really are probably the most restrictive regulations that I've seen in my time dealing with these types of issues," Rubin said. "To come up with, what in our minds is really a draconian, oppressive regulation to do something on this, is a little crazy."

Rubin said shipping interests are particularly worried about a move to restrict ship movements at night in those waters.

"And it really looked like to us that whoever put it together just to put a 'closed for business' sign up on what we're doing," he said. "It would be impossible for our seaports and maritime traffic to deal with that issue at a time when we've seen a growth in a lot of the cargo movements.''

Rubin said during a hurricane or other emergency, Port Tampa Bay and SeaPort Manatee are responsible for 40 percent of the fuel used by the state, including the international airports in Tampa and Orlando. And there's been a significant increase in cargo since the supply chain squeeze during the recent pandemic.

But backers of the restrictions say it's needed to protect one of the rarest whales in the world.

Many Rice's whales have been hit by vessels, and the Deepwater Horizon spill may have cut their numbers by one-fifth.

Several environmental groups 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.

Here's a summary of the petition:

The petition proposes a year-round 10-knot vessel speed restriction within waters between 100 meters (m) and 400 m deep from approximately Pensacola, FL, to just south of Tampa, FL (i.e., from 87.5° W longitude to 27.5° N latitude) plus an additional 10 kilometers (km) around that area (referred to in the petition as the “Vessel Slowdown Zone”).

The petition proposes the following additional restrictions within this “Vessel Slowdown Zone”: (a) no vessel transits at night;

(b) vessels transiting through the zone must report their plans to NOAA Fisheries, utilize visual observers, and maintain a separation distance of 500 m from Rice's whales;

(c) use and operate an Automatic Identification System, or notify NOAA Fisheries of transits through the zone; and

(d) report deviations from these requirements to NOAA Fisheries.

Federal environmental regulators are taking comments from the public through July 6th.

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