A rare baleen whale found in the Gulf of Mexico has gained protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale is a subspecies of the Bryde’s whale and one of the most endangered whales in the world, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA announced the decision to list the whale as endangered Friday (April 12.) The rule will go into effect May 15.
Threats to the species include energy exploration and development, oil spills and clean up efforts, vessel strikes, human noise and entanglement in fishing gear. There are less than 100 of the whales left in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico near the De Soto canyon, where the population resides.
Genetic testing revealed that the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whales represent a unique evolutionary lineage distinct from two other populations of Bryde’s whales and should be considered a subspecies, said Laura Engleby, a marine mammal biologist with NOAA Fisheries. “This listing provides important tools to saving these whales,” she said.
Despite their genetic differences, the whales look very similar to other Bryde’s whale subspecies. But researchers have documented unique low-frequency calls from the Gulf of Mexico whales, including a long low moan.
The whales are typically seen alone or in pairs. Recent sightings of the whales have been limited to the northeastern Gulf, but historic whaling records indicate that the whales’ range included waters in the north-central and southern Gulf, Engleby said.
Still, not much is known about the subspecies. Research is underway to better understand the whales, including their physical, oceanographic and biological features. The project is funded by administrative and civil penalties for Clean Water Act violations stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Bryde’s (pronounced “broodus”) whales are members of the baleen whale family. They are considered one of the “great whales,” or rorquals, a group that also includes blue whales and humpback whales. Bryde’s whales are named for Johan Bryde, a Norwegian who built the first whaling stations in South Africa in the early 20th century.
Bryde’s whales are found in warm, temperate oceans including the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific. Some populations of Bryde’s whales migrate with the seasons, while others do not migrate, making them unique among other migrating baleen whales.
Bryde’s whales are vulnerable to many stressors and threats, including vessel strikes, ocean noise, and whaling outside the United States. The Gulf of Mexico subspecies is also threatened by oil and gas activities, as well as oil spills and cleanup. Scientists believe that there are fewer than 100 Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whales.
All Bryde’s whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 2019, NOAA listed the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.