The Gulf of Mexico’s only Baleen Whale Faces a Multitude of Threats as Drilling Continues
When the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded and sank in April 2010, hemorrhaging 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I was finishing up my first year of environmental policy and science courses. There could not have been a more depressing send-off to final exams for an ardent environmentalist than witnessing the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Five years later, more than emotional scars remain as oil exposure continues to affect marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Gulf of Mexico is home to just one species of baleen whale: the Bryde’s whale (pronounced BREW-duhs). It lives in tropical waters in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, but one unique and isolated population makes its home in a small area of the Gulf of Mexico, just off the Florida Panhandle. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, when these whales skimmed the ocean surface to filter-feed, they risked ingesting oil that would stick to their baleen plates. The Deepwater Horizon blowout was bad enough, and scientists are still determining the full scope of how exposure to so much oil from this well has affected Bryde’s whales and other marine mammals. But that was neither the first nor the last threat to the Bryde’s whale. Today this small population is in danger of extinction as it faces the impacts of years of oil and gas-caused pollution in the Gulf as well as the threats of further oil and gas exploration and development.
(story continues below)
In April, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) began the process to determine whether or not the Gulf of Mexico population of Bryde’s should be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Defenders and our conservation allies all support an ESA listing for this species. We recently provided the agency with additional information on the many threats the Bryde’s whale faces to reinforce the case for listing the whale as endangered. NMFS will have to make its decision on whether to propose listing the species later this year. The agency estimates that there are 33 individual Bryde’s whales in the Gulf, but given the difficulty in tracking such a small population, there could be as few as just 16 whales. With such a frighteningly small population, losing even a single whale can mean almost certain extinction.
A variety of threats puts the Bryde’s whale in clear and present danger. Like most large whales, Bryde’s can become entangled in fishing gear. This can be an especially serious concern if fishing vessels fail to report an incident, which means no official response to help free the whale. Ships can also run directly into whales, often with deadly consequences. The Gulf of Mexico has some of the busiest ports in the world, and vessel traffic will only increase in the area, making collisions with Bryde’s whales even more likely. Increasing ship traffic, paired with expanding oil and gas exploration and development, also make for a very noisy backyard. Because the pitch of the Bryde’s whale’s call falls within these disruptions, all this noise could drown out their calls to one another, affecting mother-calf communication, causing stress, and even changing vital behaviors like breeding and foraging for food. Climate change also threatens these whales, as rising sea temperatures and levels could affect their food and habitat, while increasingly severe weather events like hurricanes could lead to more oil spills as storms damage drilling platforms.
Although the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill left lasting impacts on marine mammals in the Gulf, apparently it did not teach lasting lessons. Oil and gas exploration and development continues around the Gulf. The Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management has opened up more areas in the Gulf for oil and gas drilling, including in one area next to Desoto Canyon, a habitat the Gulf of Mexico population of Bryde’s whales needs to survive. Desoto Canyon lies very near where the 2010 blow-out occurred, and where oil exposure and contamination in Bryde’s whales is already highly likely. As drilling in and around the whales’ habitat increases, so does the risk of future devastating spills.
By providing NMFS with additional analysis and research on Bryde’s whales and the myriad threats they face, we have urged the agency to take the next steps to protect this unique and vulnerable population. NMFS will now conduct a comprehensive review of the species’ status and decide whether to propose the Gulf of Mexico population of Bryde’s whale for ESA listing. This decision cannot come soon enough for these imperiled whales.