Whale Woes: NRDC Petitions for Endangered Species Act Protections

Gulf of Mexico’s Resident Bryde’s Whale Population “can’t make it in the Gulf if we don’t help them out…”

LOS ANGELES (September 18, 2014) —The Gulf of Mexico’s only non-migrating  great whales are in big trouble, which is why the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) today petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to add the region’s Bryde’s (pronounced BROO-dus) whale population to the federal endangered species list. Recently published studies identify the Gulf population as genetically unique numbering fewer than 50 animals.

This small population – whose habitat appears to have dwindled to a single area, the DeSoto Canyon, off the Florida panhandle – faces a suite of potential threats in the Gulf’s highly industrialized waters. Collisions with ships, deafening ocean noise from oil and gas exploration, and pollution from the Deepwater Horizon spill and other sources make the population’s prospects dim without federal protections.

“This is a unique group of whales, different from all others of its kind, and it’s threatened six ways to Sunday,” said Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal  Protection Project and lead author of the petition. “An Endangered Species listing would bring a recovery plan and the resources needed to save these animals … they just can’t make it in the Gulf if we don’t help them out.”

In July, biologists from the National Marine Fisheries Service published an article in Endangered Species Research detailing the genetically unique nature of the Gulf of Mexico’s population from Bryde’s whales across the world’s oceans. The paper concludes that the population is distinct and suggests an independent singular evolutionary trajectory. The small population size and markedly low genetic diversity raise conservation concern for the Gulf’s only baleen, or filter-feeding, whale.

“The unique nature and tiny population of Bryde’s whales in the Gulf deserve our attention,” said NRDC Wildlife Program Director and petition co-author Dr. Sylvia Fallon. “With help, these amazing whales can be saved.”


Bryde’s Whales

Named after Norwegian commercial whaling pioneer Johan Bryde, these baleen whales are closely related to blue and humpback whales. The 35- to 50-foot marine mammals can be found in warm waters in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. While not targets of contemporary whaling operations, the whales face huge threats in the Gulf, including ship strikes, toxic pollution, and noise from seismic airgun surveys for oil and gas. Known for spectacular feeding behaviors, which involve lunging mouth agape through schools of fish and krill, Bryde’s whales have a diverse diet that allows them to find food and stay in the Gulf’s waters all year long.


Endangered Species Act Process

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) provides protections for plant and animals under threat of extinction. The National Marine Fisheries Service must make its initial assessment of NRDC’s petition within three months. If the Service finds that the petition presents “substantial scientific evidence” that the whales are endangered, the agency is required to conduct a formal status review of the species and to make a preliminary listing decision within the year. The petition is available online.


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