Gulf of Mexico whale (also known as Rice’s whale) is among the most endangered marine mammal species on the planet; experts estimate only 50 currently remain. These whales are victims of the industrialized waters of the Gulf, threatened by oil and gas development, discarded fishing gear, ocean noise pollution, and vessel strikes.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is seeking comments on a petition filed by NRDC and our partners to help address two of those major threats. The petition asks for specific vessel-related mitigation measures for the whales’ habitat. If accepted, it would guide rulemaking to reduce vessel speeds and noise pollution, both of which pose existential threats to the species.
Speed reduction measures are key among the achievable solutions that will protect Gulf of Mexico whales and their habitat. We know from studies of similar baleen whales, such as the endangered North Atlantic right whale, that reducing vessel speeds to 10 knots or less can help reduce the risk and severity of collisions.
Because they rest just below the surface at night, Gulf of Mexico whales are particularly vulnerable to collisions with quick-moving vessels. In 2009, a lactating female whale was found dead in Tampa Bay with blunt force trauma likely caused by a vessel strike. Ten years later, another whale was seen with a deformed fin consistent with a similar collision. These instances illustrate the dire need for action.
Limiting vessel speed will also reduce the underwater noise emitted by ship propellers. Underwater noise pollution from ships and other human activities, such as seismic blasting, create a low-frequency smog that overlaps with the hearing range of Gulf of Mexico whales. Inhibiting the whales’ ability to hear affects critical life functions, including communication, reproduction, and feeding.
Other measures outlined by the petition include maintaining a minimum buffer of 500 meters between vessels and whales, as well as avoiding nighttime transit through the whales’ habitat. Additionally, ships would be required to use Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking or mandatory reporting when traveling through the habitat, and report deviations from these requirements.
Though time is running out, it is not too late to save this remarkable species. Visit this page to tell the Biden administration you support strong protections for the Gulf of Mexico whale.