Feds Propose New Critical Habitat Designation for Endangered Whale 

NMFS proposes habitat designation in Gulf of Mexico to protect Rice’s whale 

July 21, 2023

The National Marine Fisheries Service has submitted a proposed rule designating critical habitat for the highly endangered Rice’s whale. With only approximately 50 whales remaining, Rice’s whales are among the most endangered whales in the world, making this habitat designation essential to the species’ survival. The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register on Monday, July 24. 

The proposed designation would enable the Fisheries Service to protect Gulf habitat vital to the species’ survival. Major threats to the whales include oil spills, vessel collisions, and chronic noise from seismic blasting and other oil and gas development activities, which interferes with the ability of whales to feed and other essential behaviors.  

“As we’ve come to recognize the tremendous ecological value that whales provide, it’s clear they are a bedrock for productivity in the open ocean,” said Christian Wagley, the Florida and Alabama coastal organizer for Healthy Gulf. “With the Rice’s whale down to such a small population, large areas of the Gulf of Mexico are being starved of the many benefits these whales provide.” 

In protecting their habitat, the Fisheries Service is taking a key step toward both preserving the species and restoring healthy ecosystems. Over time, the whales’ remaining habitat—a narrow strip of water running along the continental shelf edge from Florida to Texas—has been degraded by oil and gas development and other industrial activity. Fisheries Service biologists have stated that this development is likely to have compromised the whales’ use of much of their range. 

NOAA Fisheries scientists published a paper in 2021 recognizing the Rice’s whale as a unique species. In the wake of that paper, some scientists have begun dubbing it the “Gulf of Mexico whale” since it is the only great whale known to live entirely in the Gulf of Mexico. 

“Because the Rice’s whale doesn’t migrate like other large whales—the entirety of the whale’s known habitat lies within United States territory—their survival as a species falls on U.S. shoulders,” said Michael Jasny, the director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “This critical habitat designation is a step in the right direction; now we need to roll up our sleeves and do the work to actually save the whales.” 

The proposed habitat designation comes as the result of a settlement agreement reached with Healthy Gulf and NRDC, which challenged the agency’s failure to designate critical habitat within the time period required by the Endangered Species Act. Last fall, a group of 100 scientists sent an open letter to the Biden administration, warning that, without “significant conservation action” to sustain Rice’s whale, “the United States is likely to cause the first anthropogenic extinction of a great whale species.”  

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