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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.
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.
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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.
“The loss of any individual Rice’s whale is a pretty big blow to the overall population,” Carden said.
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Other threats are ocean noise from shipping traffic and from seismic blasting — when powerful horns are used to blast the seafloor to map offshore oil and gas reserves. The noise can confuse the whales, which rest at night within 50 feet of the gulf’s surface, and interfere with their communication, making it harder for them to find food, navigate and mate, according to NOAA.
Late last year, about 100 scientists warned in a letter to the Biden administration that measures are urgently needed to reduce mortality of the Rice’s whale — and if none are taken, the world could see the first human-caused extinction of a whale species.
Carden said it’s critical to reduce “human-caused activity” in the gulf, which has thousands of active oil wells and underwater pipelines.
The oil and gas industry is a major part of the Texas economy. According to data from Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Texas oil and natural gas producers are paying record amounts of production taxes to the state. The oil industry paid $666 million in April 2022 and the natural gas industry paid $413 million in May, which the Texas Oil and Gas Association says are the highest amounts in Texas history.
In 2020, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in a Maryland federal court on behalf of Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, arguing that oil and gas companies negatively impact endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico and that federal regulatory agencies like the NOAA are not doing enough to prevent that.
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.
The lawsuit argues that the analysis — also known as a biological opinion — is a flawed analysis of the risk of massive spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster and asks the federal judge to force NOAA Fisheries to write a new report.
Eaton said the biological opinion also failed to consider climate change impacts like more powerful hurricanes in the gulf that could severely damage oil and gas facilities and cause more oil spills.
Lisa Belskis, a spokesperson for NOAA, said in a written statement that the agency “utilized the best available science in the development of its biological opinion” by analyzing oil and gas activity in the gulf.
Belskis said the agency did “consider and take into account the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident on marine life and habitats.”
She said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies that regulate offshore oil operations to ensure that their activities are not likely to damage threatened species or their habitats.
In November, NOAA asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit and give its scientists two years to see if a reevaluation of its biological opinion for the Gulf of Mexico is needed.
“The concern is that in two years, they’re going to produce a new biological opinion that’s basically going to repeat most, if not all, of the same errors that the current one has,” Eaton said.
Last week, the judge denied the agency’s request to dismiss the case and sent both parties to mediation. Eaton said he is not sure what will happen in mediation, but he expects it will involve discussing potential interim mitigation or protective measures for Rice’s whales.
Carden said she worries that a drawn-out court case will mean nothing will be done to protect the whales in the short term.
“The only way to really truly mitigate harm to Rice’s whales is not to drill at all,” she said. “It would be a tragedy to watch this whale species go extinct, so soon after we learned that it was there.”
Disclosure: The Texas comptroller of public accounts has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.