June 23, 2024

It was a whale of an announcement.

After years of research, scientists said they had discovered an entirely new species of whale swimming right under their noses in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Yet as soon as scientists identified Rice’s whale, also known as the Gulf of Mexico whale, two years ago, there was a problem. There were hardly any left. With only about 50 remaining, the whale is one of the most endangered marine mammals on Earth.

Now efforts to protect the whale are running headfirst into that other behemoth off the Gulf Coast: the offshore oil and gas industry.

The Biden administration has proposed protecting a massive swath of ocean from Texas to Florida, potentially restricting fossil fuel activity in one of the nation’s top oil-producing spots. Already Biden’s deputies sought to remove millions of acres within its habitat from an offshore oil lease sale originally scheduled for Wednesday.

Offshore oil drillers and Republican lawmakers from Gulf Coast states responded with lawsuits to stop protections they say are economically crippling and hastily executed.

A federal district judge last week agreed, ordering the Biden administration to reverse course on the upcoming lease sale. An appellate court Monday delayed the lease sale until November.

The decision to remove acreage from auction “circumvented the law, ignored science, and bypassed public input,” said Erik Milito, head of the National Ocean Industries Association, an offshore energy lobbying group.

But scientists say oil extraction still poses a clear risk to the whale, with officials estimating the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 wiped out about one-fifth of the population. With so few Rice’s whales left, the loss of even a single individual is devastating for the species.

“The science is quite clear that these whales won’t survive in an environment with such heavy industry,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “It would just be an incredible tragedy to watch this whale species go extinct, especially so soon after we learned that it was its own species.”

An all-American whale

In early 2019, a whale washed ashore in the Florida Everglades. It was a bad day for the whale, which died, but a great one for Michael McGowen.

Like many marine biologists, McGowen, a research zoologist and curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, knew there was something special about the whales in the Gulf of Mexico.

For decades, the region’s whales were thought to be members of a widespread species called Bryde’s whales. But a genetic analysis in 2014 suggested that the whales were so different that they might be a species unto themselves.

But to officially declare an animal a new species, scientists needed a body – a single example of an organism used to formally describe a new branch on the tree of life. For years, marine biologists struggled to find that first specimen – what scientists call a holotype – for the Gulf of Mexico’s whales.

So when he got the call in 2019 about the whale, McGowen was elated. “We said that we would take the whole thing.”

Transporting a rotting, 38-foot carcass up the East Coast is not easy. To allow its flesh to decompose, the body was loaded on a flatbed truck and driven 200 miles north to be buried in a secluded sand spit south of St. Petersburg. “People are going to complain if this giant whale is stinking up everything,” McGowen said.

Five months later, the team exhumed the bones and drove them to the Bonehenge Whale Center in North Carolina to be buried in manure for further composting. Finally, the skeleton was shipped to a Smithsonian storage facility in Maryland to remove the grease from the blubbery remains.

“This skeleton of a mature male was very greasy,” said John Ososky, who led the carcass retrieval for the museum.

After examining the whale’s skull, scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service published a study in 2021 declaring Rice’s whale a new species. The animal was named after the late biologist Dale Rice, the first to identify the whales in the Gulf of Mexico.

Because the whales appear to live exclusively in U.S. waters, only the United States can protect them.

“This is the only whale in the world that lives entirely in the waters of one nation,” said Peter Corkeron, a whale biologist who has been ringing the alarm bell. “I initially wanted to see it called the ‘American whale.'”

A whale in ‘prime real estate’

Despite the discovery, very little is known about America’s newest whale.

They are “very difficult to work with because they’re very shy,” said Jeremy Kiszka, a Florida International University marine biologist who helped decipher their diet. The whales are picky eaters, diving deep for fatty fish.

“They will not let you come too close,” he said.

Another thing we know: Humans are a big threat.

Beyond oil spills, seismic air guns that blast sound waves underwater to search for oil and gas deposits can create a deafening environment for marine mammals. Other threats include vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and debris in the ocean. A hard piece of plastic found in the stomach of the Rice’s whale that washed up in the Florida Everglades may have contributed to its death.

Prompted by lawsuits from environmental groups, the Biden administration started taking greater steps this summer to protect the whales under the Endangered Species Act and other laws.

In July, National Marine Fisheries Service proposed designating a 28,000-square-mile swath in the Gulf of Mexico as critical habitat for Rice’s whales.

And in August, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which oversees offshore oil and gas leasing, removed 6 million acres of Rice’s whale habitat from the Wednesday offshore oil lease sale.

The agency also wanted to require oil companies to lower the speed of their vessels in the whales’ waters and avoid the area after sunset. The whales rest at the surface at night, making them vulnerable to being hit by boats.

“This whale is really a poster species for why we need to end offshore oil and gas drilling,” Monsell said.

But immediately, Republican lawmakers complained that throttling vessel traffic would hamper the Gulf Coast economy. The speed limits, said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), would “detrimentally impact our nation’s ability to domestically produce oil and gas in hopes of becoming energy independent.”

Milito, the offshore lobbyist, said it is too early to tell right now how offshore wind and other industries would be impacted by protections for the whales. But he and other lobbyists said they could lead oil companies and investors to rethink their plans for the region.

“For oil and gas, it could be significant,” Milito said. “The withdrawn acreage, it’s prime real estate.”

A ban on overnight maritime shipping could cause gridlock for an industry that runs around-the-clock, oil lobbyists said. Such changes could lead to offshore operations consuming more energy or a sharp increase in the cost of running them, they said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘The least we could be doing’ to protect the whale

The state of Louisiana and the oil giant Chevron joined the American Petroleum Institute (API), a top lobbying group, to sue the Biden administration and put those 6 million acres back on the auction block on Wednesday without the new stipulations for the whales. They argued officials made a last-minute decision that the science supported restrictions across the Gulf.

“At 11th hour, right before this lease sale, the administration did a 180 turn,” said Ryan Meyers, API’s senior vice president and general counsel.

In a decision issued Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge James D. Cain Jr. ruled in favor of Louisiana and the oil sector. The judge, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, wrote the “process followed here looks more like a weaponization of the Endangered Species Act than the collaborative, reasoned approach.”

Environmental groups responded by appealing the decision while BOEM asked for an emergency stay of the judge’s order. On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit delayed the lease sale until Nov. 8.

“These baseline protections for the Rice’s whale are quite literally the least we could be doing to save the species from extinction,” Steve Mashuda, an attorney at the green group Earthjustice, said in a statement.

Despite the legal battle, the Biden administration is still considering designating a long stretch of the Gulf of Mexico as critical habitat, a move that could end up imposing more restrictions on oil and gas activity in future lease sales.

Many oil lobbyists are still wary of President Biden’s campaign promise to ban offshore drilling. His administration is expected to announce this week a long-awaited plan for offshore oil leasing for the next five years.

The oil and gas sector is the first affected by the whale protections because the environmental groups’ lawsuit targeted it specifically, but other industries might face restrictions, too, Milito said. The proposal arrives at a time of transformation in U.S. waters, with anti-wind advocates worried about the impact of offshore turbines on whales.

“It might be oil and gas now,” Milito said. “But eventually it’s going to apply to every maritime business” in the Gulf.

For environmentalists and scientists, there is little time left to protect the whales. The Smithsonian plans to raise awareness with a forthcoming exhibit of one of its Rice’s whale bones and the piece of plastic from its stomach. And marine biologist Kiszka will continue studying what the whale eats.

“I’m not confident that in 50 years they’re going to be around,” Kiszka said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t bet my life on it.”

This article is part of Animalia, a column exploring the strange and fascinating world of animals and the ways in which we appreciate, imperil and depend on them.

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