February 4, 2023

Even among a species with its own complex sound syntax, a rice whale’s call, much like the creature itself, is entirely unique. While many whales communicate on a level inaudible to human ears, the rice whale emits a sound you could hear or even feel if you encountered it anywhere out in the Gulf of Mexico.

These haunting, oscillating, low-frequency moans are critical to the rice whale’s survival. It is an endangered species Scientists believe only 50 exist in the northern Gulf – and one of the rarest marine mammals on earth. If these whales cannot communicate, they cannot forage, navigate, and most importantly, mate and breed with one another.

Unfortunately, rampant human activity in the Gulf, primarily from oil and gas drilling, has drowned out the whale’s calls, damaging its habitats and jeopardizing its chances to recover and thrive. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill alone wiped out nearly a quarter of Rice’s whale population.

The seismic oil and gas exploration adds an overwhelming cacophony to its acoustic environment. The whale’s relatively shallow resting depth makes it vulnerable to ship strikes. Even our own garbage can be devastating. A few years ago, a 38-foot rice whale washed up on the shore of Sandy Key near the Florida Everglades. A jagged 2.5 inch piece of plastic had sliced ​​open its insides, causing the whale to die of internal bleeding and starvation.

rice whale
rice whaleNOAA fishing

More than 50 years after whaling was banned in the United States, humans are still the primary threat to the survival of these wondrous, highly intelligent mammals. Without significant safeguards from the Biden administration, the rice whale will become a tragic victim of our own ravenous appetites for energy and commodities, and the waste these activities produce.

All types of whales can be spotted in the Gulf, from killer whales to humpback whales, but the rice whale is the only regularly occurring baleen whale – so Named for the whalebone plates in its mouth that it uses to eat – found in these waters. For years, these whales were thought to be Bryde’s whales, another far more common species of baleen. But tissue samples collected by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and extensive study of the whale’s skull that washed up in Florida was enough evidence to distinguish it as its own species, named after renowned marine biologist Dale Rice would.

While some baleen whales appear bulbous and pockmarked, rice whales have been described as smooth and streamlined, with a dark gray sheen and pale pink bellies, typically 40-45 feet long and weighing around 60,000 pounds. Most rice whales are found in the northeastern Gulf off the coast of Florida and Alabama, specifically in an underwater canyon 60 miles offshore and 3,000 feet deep. Scientists believe the slopes of this continental shelf known as DeSoto Canyon protect the whales from the noise of seismic activity, a natural safe haven for them to mate and feed. However, a lone rice whale was sighted in the western Gulf off the coast of Texas in 2017, suggesting they were far more widespread at one point.

All of this changed with the spread of seismic oil and gas exploration in the Gulf. Offshore drillers look for oil and gas wells far beneath the sea floor, so deep that they are extraordinarily difficult to map. Specialized survey vessels tow air cannons that send massive amounts of concentrated low-frequency sound into the seabed, the vibrations of which disrupt fundamental behaviors of all species of marine life. Studies have found that so much seismic exploration is being conducted in the Gulf that it has become the dominant source of underwater noise pollution.

But the Biden administration’s strategy to protect these rare whales is incoherent at best. In a draft outlining the government’s plan to locate offshore wind turbines in the Gulf, NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management pledge to provide developers with mitigation guidance to avoid disturbing whales. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is currently reviewing its seismic survey regulations, has not recently proposed any additional measures to protect the whales or other marine mammals in the Gulf.

There is no question that the oil and gas industry is vital to our country’s economy. No one is proposing mothballing offshore rigs or laying off thousands of workers who make a living from energy exploration. However, protecting the natural environment does not have to be excluded from our energy needs. While the government is considering a new five-year program for offshore oil and gas leasing, it should ensure that at least the small part of the Gulf where these whales live is closed to exploration.

As for shipping, the administration should look to the thriving orca population in the Salish Sea off British Columbia to see what’s possible when industry and conservation groups work together. A program launched in 2014 by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority reduced ship speeds to protect the endangered orca. The results are extremely encouraging: The Pacific Whale Watch Association announced last year that 2022 set a new record for sightings of orcas and humpback whales.

Rice whales still have a chance to recover. They are still producing calves and where there is life there is hope. But it will take a concerted, coordinated effort to ensure we don’t kill these extraordinary creatures.

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