Under the definition of “in harm’s way,” there should be a photo of the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s (pronounced BROO-dus) whale.
This forty-foot whale—cousin to blues and humpbacks, and the only great whale known to reside in the Gulf—is in desperate straits. The population numbers fewer than 50 individuals according to the government’s best estimates, and its range appears to have contracted to the baleen whale equivalent of a postage stamp: to a single underwater canyon off the Florida panhandle.
Last July, NOAA biologists published a study confirming that the Gulf Bryde’s have a unique evolutionary lineage, distinct from all others of their kind. On Thursday my colleagues and I at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) petitioned the administration to add them to the endangered species list.
Clearly the whales are in need of special protection, and not simply for their small numbers. The massive industrialization of the northern Gulf threatens them six ways to Sunday. Their only known habitat, the DeSoto Canyon, lies adjacent to the canyon where the BP blowout occurred, and was contaminated with BP oil. They have been struck by ships making their way to and from major ports. And of course new oil and gas leases are slated for the eastern Gulf, encroaching further on their habitat and adding to the risk of future spills. With so few remaining, the loss of even one Bryde’s whale puts the entire population in jeopardy.
Adding insult to injury is the near-constant presence of airgun fire.
Gulf Restoration Network, NRDC, and others have written repeatedly about the large airgun arrays that industry uses to prospect for oil and gas, blasting the water about every 10-12 seconds with noise as loud as dynamite. These airgun surveys have a vast environmental footprint, especially for baleen whales (see fact sheet here), and the Gulf of Mexico is the most heavily prospected body of water in the world. An agreement we reached last year with the government put the DeSoto Canyon off limits to seismic surveys, but it’s only an interim solution.
Much more is needed to ensure the recovery of these critically endangered whales.