Environmentalists are pushing for tighter restrictions on oil and gas to protect rare whales in the Gulf of Mexico.

Two years ago, scientists announced the discovery of a new species in the Gulf of Mexico: Rice’s whale, which they called one of the rarest whales on the planet.

An endangered species – only about 50 species – lives in the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental scientists and advocacy groups are now pushing for the federal government to impose tighter restrictions on oil and gas companies operating in the Persian Gulf to prevent whales from becoming extinct.

“It’s not often that we discover new species of whales. And it was exciting to find that, but also a bit bittersweet because they are endangered,” said Christine Carden, senior program scientist at the Center for Ocean Biological Diversity.

Discovered by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the whale can weigh up to 60,000 pounds – about the same as a fire truck – and is part of the baleen family, toothless whales that use hairy strips called baleen to filter food from sea water. . It is the only baleen whale known to live in the bay, and Cardin said its isolation has led to it becoming its own species.

Rice’s whales usually hang out off the northeast coast of the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida, but one whale has been sighted off the coast of Texas, suggesting they move around the entire Gulf. Scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA Fisheries, are conducting research to understand whale migration patterns.

According to NOAA, the most significant threats facing Rice whales are energy exploration and development, oil spills, and chemicals used to disperse oil after a spill. Whales were hit hard by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which killed 11 workers when a British Petroleum drilling platform exploded and sank, spilling 4 million barrels of oil into the bay in 87 days.

NOAA estimates that the spill killed about 22% of the whale population, as well as countless other marine mammals, sea turtles, fish, birds and other wildlife.

“The disappearance of any single Rice whale is a pretty big blow to the entire population,” Carden said.

Other threats are ocean noise from shipping and seismic surveys, when powerful horns are used to blast the seafloor to map offshore oil and gas reserves. The noise can confuse whales that rest at night within 50 feet of the bay’s surface and interfere with their communication, making foraging, navigation and mating difficult, according to NOAA.

Late last year, about 100 scientists warned in a letter to the Biden administration that measures were urgently needed to reduce the mortality of rice whales — and if they were not taken, the world could witness the first human-caused extinction of a whale species.

Cardin said it was critical to reduce “human activity” in the bay, which has thousands of active oil wells and underwater pipelines.

The oil and gas industry is an important part of the Texas economy. According to Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Texas oil and natural gas producers pay the state record amounts of production taxes. The oil industry paid $666 million in April 2022 and the gas industry paid $413 million in May, the highest in Texas history, according to the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

In 2020, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in Maryland federal court on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, alleging that oil and gas companies are negatively impacting endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico. and that federal regulators like NOAA are not doing enough to prevent it.

Environmental groups argue that a more than 700-page analysis published in 2020 by NOAA Fisheries of the oil and gas industry’s projected impact on creatures in the Gulf of Mexico over the next 50 years “grossly underestimates the extent to which oil and gas development is going to harm or harm species.” “said Chris Eaton, Senior Associate at Earthjustice.

The lawsuit alleges that the analysis – also known as biological opinion – is a flawed analysis of the risk of massive spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster and is asking a federal judge to force NOAA Fisheries to write a new report.

Eaton said the biological mind also doesn’t take into account the effects of climate change, such as stronger hurricanes in the Gulf that could severely damage oil and gas facilities and cause more oil spills.

Lisa Belskis, a spokesperson for NOAA, said in a written statement that the agency “used the best available science in developing its biological opinion” when analyzing oil and gas activity in the bay.

Belskis said the agency “reviewed and took into account the implications of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident on marine life and habitat.”

According to her, the agency does not comment on the upcoming trial.

The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies that regulate offshore oil operations to ensure that their activities do not harm endangered species or their habitats.

In November, NOAA asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit and give its scientists two years to see if its biological view of the Gulf of Mexico needed to be reassessed.

“The worry is that in two years they will create a new biological mind that will basically repeat most, if not all, of the same mistakes as the current one,” Eaton said.

Last week, a judge denied the agency’s motion to dismiss the case and sent both parties to mediation. Eaton said he’s not sure what will happen in the mediation, but he expects it to include a discussion of possible temporary mitigation or protection measures for Rice’s whales.

Carden fears that due to the protracted litigation, nothing will be done to protect the whales in the short term.

“The only way to truly reduce the harm of Rice whales is to not drill at all,” she said. “It would be a tragedy to watch this species of whale go extinct so soon after we knew it existed.”

Disclosure: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts was a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial sponsors play no role in Tribune journalism. Find the complete list them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/17/texas-gulf-of-mexico-rices-whale/.

The Texas Tribune is an unbiased, member-supported newsroom that informs and engages Texans about state politics and politics. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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