The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced it will consider listing sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico as a “distinct population segment” as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in response to a petition that was filed by WildEarth Guardians in 2011.
“I’m glad to see our Gulf whales move one step closer to better protections,” said Taylor Jones, Endangered Species Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “After two and a half centuries of unregulated whaling, humanity owes this species every opportunity for recovery.”
It’s estimated that as many as 1,000,000 were killed by whalers, but commercial whaling of sperm whales declined decades ago and essentially stopped when the moratorium against whaling was put in place.
Today, sperm whales are listed as endangered, but the population of 1,300 in the Gulf may be different enough to warrant separate protection. Jones told the AP the group is happy but not surprised, because their petition is based on information in NOAA Fisheries’ recovery plan for sperm whales.
Not only are these year-round residents genetically different, but they are unique in a number of ways. According to WildEarth Guardians:
They are a resident population that generally does not migrate beyond the Gulf. They use a different repertoire of vocalizations than other sperm whales. These vocalizations, called “codas,” have distinct patterns and are likely culturally learned, much like human language. Sperm whales in the Gulf have a “dialect” that is rarely encountered outside the Gulf. They are smaller than other sperm whales and group in smaller numbers, and have been observed foraging in shallower water than other sperm whales. Because of these unique adaptations, if the Gulf sperm whales were to become extirpated, there is little evidence that other sperm whales would or could colonize the area.
They also face unique threats in the area ranging from oil and gas development, climate change, dead zones caused by runoff and the after effects from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, along with possible future catastrophe if anything happens to pipelines currently running through the Gulf. They’re also known to congregate near the mouth of the Mississippi River, which is a busy area that leaves them vulnerable to noise pollution and ship strikes.
If they are listed, the government will have to put additional safeguards in place which could limit activities in the Gulf and require industries to undergo more comprehensive environmental reviews to show that their activities will not harm either the whales or their habitat, along with possibly designating critical habitat for sperm whales. The government will also review whether Mexico’s environmental laws can offer similar protection to those of the U.S., reports the Times Picayune.
NOAA will now conduct a 12-month review. Marta Nammack of NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources, told the AP that if NOAA finds the Gulf sperm whales are a “distinct population segment,” proposing rules and getting public comment on them would take another year and it’s still unclear what protective measures might be taken will be.
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