In a letter sent today to senior government officials, more than 100 marine scientists are urging the Biden administration to protect the endangered Gulf of Mexico whale, “a unique part of the Gulf’s natural history,” from extinction.
Since the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was enacted a half-century ago, no species of marine mammals has gone extinct in U.S. waters. But with only about 50 individual remaining, according to federal government estimates, the Gulf of Mexico whale faces dire threats from fossil fuel exploration and development and other human activities.
In the letter, which was sent to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, the scientists sound an alarm about the potential loss of a uniquely American species. The whale, they observe, is “the only large whale species resident year-round in the waters of the United States. Yet few on-water measures have been established to protect it. Unless significant conservation actions are taken,” they conclude, “the United States is likely to cause the first anthropogenic extinction of a great whale species.”
“The Gulf of Mexico whale is the most endangered whale species in the world. To the best of our knowledge, it occurs only in U.S. waters, so Americans have a special responsibility to work together to save it,” said Dr. Peter Corkeron, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.
The Gulf of Mexico whale, also known as Rice’s whale, was recognized only last year as a distinct species, although it has long been known to reside in the Gulf’s offshore waters.
Continued oil and gas development in the Gulf represents a “clear, existential threat to the whale’s survival and recovery,” the scientists state, citing the impacts of far-reaching airgun surveys and of oil spills. The government estimates that close to 20% of the population was killed in the wake of the Deepwater Horizonspill.
Decisions governing future oil and gas activities in the Gulf will be made over the next several months. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is expected to issue a new five-year oil and gas leasing program for the Outer Continental Shelf, while the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to issue a new regulation for the conduct of airgun surveys in the Gulf.
“Our future depends on a transition away from fossil fuels, and renewable energy will benefit the Gulf of Mexico in the long term,” said Dr. Joe Roman, fellow at the Gund Institute for the Environment and the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. “But we need to do everything possible, from preventing ship strikes to protecting critical habitat, to secure the Gulf of Mexico whale’s place in this greener future.”
Among the signatories are experts from Cornell University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, marine research centers from around the world, and several aquariums.
The scientists also call for aquaculture, offshore wind farms, and other new industries to be sited outside of the whales’ 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. They also ask for vessels transiting through the whales’ habitat to be required to slow down and take other measures to reduce the risk of a fatal collision. The whales rest close to the ocean surface at night, the scientists note, “leaving them acutely vulnerable to ship strikes.”
“I’ve seen two dead Gulf of Mexico whales — both had died because of human neglect,” said Matthew Leslie, Adjunct Professor in the Environmental Studies Program at Ursinus College. “We cannot let this species go extinct by continuing business as usual in the Gulf of Mexico.”
“This extraordinary species can recover, but the situation is urgent,” said Francine Kershaw, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Delay is not an option.”
Read the scientists’ letter.
Listen to recordings of the Gulf of Mexico whale, including a call known as the “long moan” that is unique among marine mammals: