Marine scientists are working hard to protect an extremely rare species of whale off the Florida Coast as manmade threats push the seafaring beasts to the brink of extinction.
According to the Pensacola News Journal, this extremely rare and critically endangered whale species is known as the Gulf of Mexico or Rice’s whale. And it’s currently even more threatened than the right whale, the species believed most at risk for extinction until now. For comparison, the Atlantic right whale population numbers 350.
Researchers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration only identified the Gulf of Mexico whale as a unique species last year. Since then, they have now categorized it separately from its closest marine cousin, the Bryde’s whale. And while various efforts to protect them have been taken, it might just be too little, too late.
Per the news outlet, the Rice’s whale inhibits an extremely specific location within the Gulf of Mexico. The species, which numbers less than 50 individuals, lives 60 miles off the coast of Northwest Florida. The whales populate a deep depression in the region. That depression is as unique as the Rice’s whale, located along the continental shelf known as DeSoto Canyon.
The Rice’s whale is also unique because it’s the only one native to American waters. That, therefore, makes our contribution to its conservation even more important.
How Human Impact Pushed the Gulf of Mexico Whale to Near-Extinction
Unsurprisingly, humans have had the harshest impact on the Gulf of Mexico whale’s population. NOAA Fisheries reports that common threats include vessel strikes, ocean noise, energy exploration, development and production, oil spills and responses, entanglement in fishing gear, and overall ocean debris.
Because of all these threats, Christian Wagley, a Pensacola resident and Florida representative of the environmental group Healthy Gulf, says the small population has fled to the far northeastern Gulf.
“They would have historically ranged along the entire shelf,” Wagley explained, “but they’ve been pushed to the Northeastern Gulf because it’s the quietest part of the Gulf of Mexico.”
He added, “the drilling and shipping activity…in the Central and Western Gulf is like a heavy metal concert to them.”
So far, environmental activist groups have managed to keep this small portion of the ocean safe for the Rice’s whale. However, that hasn’t kept various oil drillers from scouting out the area. Currently, there is heavy interest in exploiting potential fossil fuel riches occupying Gulf of Mexico whale territory.
In order to protect the rare species, 100 marine scientists banded together to bring the issue to national attention. They wrote a letter to the Biden Administration, detailing the tragic realities the ocean-dweller faces. Part of the letter read, “unless significant conservation actions are taken, the United States is likely to cause the first anthropogenic extinction of a great whale species.”
We continue to wait and see whether the Biden Administration will take action to save America’s whale. However, the outlet did emphasize that the former Trump Administration nor the current administration expressed or expresses any serious interest in drilling off Florida’s northwest coast.