Gulf of Mexico
A Rice’s whale surfaces in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists call the endangered whale, discovered in 2021, “the rarest whale left on the planet.” Credit: NOAA Fisheries

TX - Environmentalists push for tougher oil and gas restrictions to protect rare whale in Gulf of Mexico

Environmentalists push for tougher oil and gas restrictions to protect rare whale in Gulf of Mexico Environmental scientists say Rice’s whale, discovered in 2021, faces extinction unless the federal government sets tougher restrictions on oil and gas activities in the gulf.

Two years ago, scientists announced they had discovered a new species in the Gulf of Mexico: Rice’s whale, which they called one of the rarest whales on the planet.

The endangered species — only about 50 are believed to exist — lives in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Environmental scientists and advocacy groups are now pressing the federal government to set tougher restrictions on oil and gas companies operating in the gulf to prevent the whale from going extinct.

“It’s not too often that we discover new species of whales. And to discover that was exciting, but it was also a little bit bittersweet because they are so critically endangered,” said Kristin Carden, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity oceans program.

Discovered by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the whale can weigh up to 60,000 pounds — about the same as a firetruck — and is part of the baleen whale family, toothless whales that use hairy fringes called baleen to filter food from seawater. It’s the only baleen whale known to live in the gulf, and Carden said its isolation led to it evolving into its own species.

The environmental groups claim that a more than 700-page analysis released in 2020 by NOAA Fisheries of the oil and gas industry’s projected impact on creatures in the Gulf of Mexico over the next 50 years “greatly underestimates the degree to which oil and gas development is going to hurt or harm the species,” said Chris Eaton, a senior attorney at Earthjustice.

Rice’s whales usually hang out near the northeastern Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida, but a single whale has been observed off the coast of Texas, suggesting they move throughout the gulf. Scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA Fisheries, are conducting research to understand the whales’ migration patterns.

According to NOAA, the most significant threats Rice’s whales face are energy exploration and development, oil spills and chemicals used to disperse oil after a spill. The whales were hit hard by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which killed 11 workers when a British Petroleum drilling platform exploded and sank, spilling 4 million barrels of oil into the gulf over 87 days.

NOAA estimates that about 22% of the whale population was lost because of the spill, along with countless other marine mammals, sea turtles, fish, birds and other wildlife.

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