In 2021, Scientists Identified a New Whale Species in the Gulf of Mexico

Here’s how Earthjustice is working to protect marine creatures and biodiversity.

When you think about the Gulf of Mexico, whales probably aren’t the first thing that pops into your  mind. But the Gulf is astoundingly biodiverse, and several kinds of whales regularly swim in its waters.

Now, there’s a new one in the science books.

In an exciting moment for marine science, researchers announced in January 2021 that they’ve identified a distinct, new-to-us whale species, tentatively being called the Rice’s whale (named after one of its researchers), or simply the Gulf of Mexico whale.

There may be only 50 of these whales on the planet, and most sightings have been documented around a remarkable deep-water feature called the DeSoto Canyon about 60 miles off Pensacola, Florida. The Gulf of Mexico whales have also been sighted near Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Since the 1960s, scientists thought these were just a population of another kind of whale, the endangered Bryde’s whale. But further sleuthing by scientists in Japan and the U.S. revealed that some of the whales that they thought were Bryde’s are a different species altogether.

The discovery underscores how much we still need to learn about our oceans and puts a focus on how we need to vigilantly protect what’s living in our waters before species dwindle and disappear.

In October 2022, 100 scientists warned in a letter to the Biden administration that, unless protections are increased for the Gulf of Mexico whale, we could see the first human-caused extinction of a whale species in history.

Soon after the news broke about the new Gulf of Mexico whales, Earthjustice joined with partners to push for a special speed zone to slow down ships in places where the whales are most frequently spotted. They can grow to be as big as a railroad box car and as heavy as a typical fire truck. Since the Gulf of Mexico whales spend time hanging out within 50 feet of the water’s surface, they are especially at risk for ship strikes.

In May 2021, Earthjustice joined the Natural Resources Defense Council, Healthy Gulf, the Center For Biological Diversity, Defenders Of Wildlife, and the New England Aquarium in filing a petition calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service to set a 10-knot speed limit in an area covering about 11,500 square miles off Florida and Alabama where the whales typically hover near the surface. NOAA hasn’t yet acted on the petition.

It’s one of several legal strategies we’re pursuing to protect these whales and other Gulf species from the risks posed by fishing gear, vessels, plastic pollution, seismic blasting, and offshore oil drilling. Here’s a rundown of some of our ongoing Gulf court cases:

Challenging Offshore Oil & Gas Leases

When the Biden administration decided in August 2021 to offer 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas leasing, Earthjustice immediately filed a challenge to the lease sale in court on behalf of Healthy Gulf, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and the Center for Biological Diversity. As Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy noted, the lease sale is “deeply disappointing” and makes little sense on a planet suffering because of fossil fuel burning. (Editor’s Note: On Jan. 27, 2022, the D.C. District Court ruled in the lawsuit, invalidating the Department of Interior’s decision to offer 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas leasing and holding that Interior failed to accurately disclose and consider the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the lease sale. Nevertheless, Congress made a pro-industry deal as part of the Inflation Reduction Act that undercut that legal win. The Biden administration then offered the Gulf leases up to oil companies. We’re fighting back.)

Protecting Gulf Wildlife with Better Scientific Information

Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in October 2020 challenging the federal government’s failure to comply with the Endangered Species Act when it made an official assessment of the harm that the offshore oil industry inflicts on endangered and threatened marine wildlife in the Gulf.

Federal agencies began this long-overdue assessment of needed wildlife protections in response to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy that killed or seriously harmed more than 100,000 protected species. But the government dragged its feet for more than a decade on assessing that damage and the need for greater protections.

Our lawsuit, filed on behalf of Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and Turtle Island Restoration Network, plainly states what’s at stake in the Gulf and urges the court to order the agencies to use updated science that complies with the law. “The Gulf of Mexico is home to some of the most productive and biodiverse tropical and temperate habitats in the United States, including coral reefs, wetlands, seagrass beds, mangroves, Sargassum, and hard- and soft-bottom marine communities,” the lawsuit says.

Among the endangered species harmed by offshore oil drilling are the endangered Gulf of Mexico whale, the Bryde’s whale, sperm whale, blue whale, sei whale, and North Atlantic right whale.  All five sea turtle species found in the Gulf are listed as endangered or threatened: Kemp’s ridley, green, hawksbill, leatherback, and loggerhead turtles. Also at risk are oceanic whitetip sharks, giant manta rays, Gulf sturgeon, Nassau grouper, smalltooth sawfish, and seven coral species.

Protecting Sea Turtles

Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in April 2021 to prevent sea turtles from drowning when they get caught in shrimp trawl nets in the Gulf of Mexico and southeast Atlantic. These deaths could be prevented if all fishing fleets used turtle excluder devices. With a 2019 rule, the Fisheries Service under the Trump administration  allowed a significant number of shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic to avoid installing these devices. We filed suit to undo this harmful rule on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Turtle Island Restoration Network. The case is on appeal.

Every year, we continue our efforts to protect Gulf species with a growing legal team that insists on proper enforcement of our laws and holds regulators accountable.

It was devastating to hear recently that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared 22 species once protected by the Endangered Species Act are now extinct, gone forever from our planet. It’s our duty to future generations to do what we can to prevent the fantastic species in the Gulf of Mexico from meeting the same fate.

Originally published on December 17, 2021.

Based in the Northwest office in Seattle, Steve is the managing attorney of Earthjustice's Oceans Program.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.

A Gulf of Mexico whale.
A Gulf of Mexico whale. With likely fewer than 100 individuals remaining, the Gulf of Mexico whale is one of the most endangered whales in the world. (NOAA Fisheries)