Whale Advocates Say Gulf Species on Brink of Extinction

(Photo via NOAA)

WASHINGTON (CN) — U.S. regulators are over a year late in their duty to adopt protections for the Gulf of Mexico whale, a species believed to be down to its last 33 members, two advocacy groups claim in a federal complaint.

Joined by the nonprofit Healthy Gulf, the National Resources Defense Council says in the lawsuit that the National Marine Fisheries Service faced a December 2017 deadline to take action because of a previous legal battle.

Following a settlement with the NRDC in 2016, the Fisheries Service agreed to publish a 12-month finding on the petition to have the species also known as Bryde’s whales listed as endangered.

The NRDC says the government’s findings that year were conclusive: with a population of fewer than 50 concentrated in industrialized waters off the Florida panhandle, the Gulf of Mexico whale was on the brink of extinction.

Within 12 months of that determination, according to the complaint, the Fisheries Service had to either list the whale as endangered, obtain a six-month extension on the period of review, or withdraw its listing proposal.

The NRDC returned to court Thursday because the service has failed to take any action over a year later.

“The Gulf of Mexico whale is unique to this region of the world, being the gulf’s only year-round resident baleen whale,” Zak Smith, senior attorney with the NRDC said Thursday in an email. “Unlike other baleen whales that migrate great distances throughout the year, the Gulf of Mexico whale never leaves this area. If the Gulf of Mexico whale goes extinct, the gulf will needlessly lose some of its unique biodiversity heritage.”

Representatives for the Department of Commerce, the umbrella agency for the Fisheries Service, declined to comment. 

Thursday’s complaint quotes some of the 29 threats to the whale’s survival, as determined by the government in its December 2016 finding.

“These threats include energy exploration and development, oil spills, oil spill response, ship strikes, entanglement in commercial fishing gear, anthropogenic noise associated with seismic surveys, and military training and testing activities,” the complaint states.

Because oil spills occur frequently in the gulf and are difficult to clean up, this threat was listed as a “high” risk to the whale.

Smith noted that analysis of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill was found by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to have killed about 17 percent of the Gulf of Mexico’s whale population.

In addition to wiping out the whale’s prey and established habitats, the NRDC says additional oil spills could cause general health maladies, including reproductive failure, lung and respiratory impairments, and burns to the whales’ eyes and mouths.

“Even absent the long list of identified anthropogenic threats,” the NRDC complaint states, “the whale’s natural life-history characteristics coupled with the documented low level of genetic diversity, small population size, and restricted range put it at severe risk of extinction. Large baleen whales, like the Gulf of Mexico whale, are slow to mature and have energetically expensive reproduction, resulting in offspring that are typically years apart.”

The whale’s already low numbers make it likely that inbreeding has caused reduced fitness in the species. NRDC experts believe it unlikely that the species would have the genetic diversity to adapt to a disaster.

The complaint says Gulf of Mexico whales are found almost exclusively in the DeSoto Canyon off Florida. 

“It is highly distinctive from other Bryde’s whales — differing in size and communicating using unique calls — and evolutionarily divergent and genetically separate at least to the subspecies level,” the complaint states. 

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