With only an estimated 50 Gulf Of Mexicowhales remaining, the immediate adoption of these measures is critical to the whales’ survival.
Scientists from NOAA Fisheries published a paper in January recognizing the Gulf of Mexico whale as a unique species. In the wake of that paper, some scientists have begun dubbing it “America’s whale” since it is the only great whale known to live entirely off the U.S. coast. The species’ small population and the threats it faces in the industrialized waters of the Gulf of Mexico make it one of the most endangered species of whales on earth.
“One of the rarest, most endangered whales on the planet is in our backyard, and we have a responsibility to save it,” Michael Jasny, Director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, said in a statement. “Slowing down ships in the whales’ habitat is more than common sense. It’s basic human decency. It’s what we should do for a neighbor.”
The species is experiencing more injury and death from vessel strikes than it can currently withstand, with at least one whale known to have died and others showing signs of injury. The whales spend much of their lives within the draft depths of most commercial vessels, particularly at night when they are resting just beneath the surface. This makes them extremely vulnerable to deadly collisions with fast-moving ships.
The mandatory slow-down would also reduce vessel noise in the whales’ core habitat. Vessel noise is known to disrupt vital behaviors such as feeding and breeding, and puts chronic stress on whales, which can impair their health and reduce their ability to reproduce.
The petition cites NOAA Fisheries’obligation under the Endangered Species Actand Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect the species from these threats. NOAA Fisheries has previously mandated vessel slowdowns to protect the North Atlantic right whale, finding that speed limits of 10 knots would significantly reduce the likelihood of lethal strikes.
“Speed limits save endangered whales from deadly ship strikes. They’ve helped save whales on the East Coast and they’ll help save the Gulf of Mexico whale from extinction,” stated Kristen Monsell, Oceans Legal Director with the Center for Biological Diversity.“Simply slowing down through whale habitat will give this great American whale a fighting chance.”
In addition to a 10-knot speed limit, the petition recommends requiring vessels to avoid transit through the core habitat at night, when whales are resting near the surface; to maintain a minimum distance of 500 meters from observed whales; and to monitor the water around the vessel when traveling through the speed zone. Similar measures were set forth last year by NOAA Fisheries for oil and gas industry vessels operating in the species’ core habitat off Florida and Alabama,as necessary to avoid jeopardizing the continued survival of the species. NOAA Fisheries has not yet adopted measures for any other classes of vessel.
NRDC petitioned to list the whale in 2014,citing the species’ low numbers and the significant threats it faces from a number of human activities. After two lawsuits over the agency’s delays, NOAA Fisheries listed the whale under the Endangered Species Act in 2019.NRDC and Healthy Gulf are presently litigating over NOAA’s failure to designate critical habitat for the whale, as required by the ESA.
Other threats to the whales include oil and gas exploration and development, including from seismic blasting, which a NOAA Fisheries report in 2016 identified as a threat likely to eliminate or seriously degrade the population. The agency estimates that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed roughly 17% of the population. A whale found dead along Sandy Key, in the Florida Everglades, in 2019 is believed to have died from ingestion of plastic.
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