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New whale species is already threatened with extinction

At the beginning of 2021, a team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has identified a new species of whales in the Gulf of Mexico, which they called Rice’s whale or the Gulf of Mexico whale. This majestic animal can grow up 42 feet in length and weighs 60,000 pounds (roughly the weight of a firetruck). Unfortunately, these whales are at risk of extinction, the entire species currently consisting of just about 50 individuals.

On Thursday, October 13, 2022, more than 100 marine scientists signed an open letter to the Biden administration, pleading for more protective measures for what they called “one of the most endangered marine mammal species” on Earth.

“Some of us have been trying to raise the profile of this whale for many years now,” said Peter Corkeron, a senior scientist and whale researcher at the New England Aquarium. Despite such efforts, many people remain completely unaware of the dangers Rice’s whales currently face. “It is really just the forgotten whale at the moment.”

In their letter, the scientists argued that, as the Biden administration considers additional offshore oil and gas drilling over the next few years, it should pay close attention to the hazards such projects may pose to Rice’s whale. “Continued oil and gas development in the Gulf represents a clear, existential threat to the whale’s survival and recovery,” the scientists warned.

Exposures to seismic air gun blasts accompanying oil and gas exploitation, as well as to oil spills, can severely impact the whales’ health and disrupt “activities vital to feeding and reproduction over large ocean areas.” Moreover, collisions with vessels can also pose significant dangers to these whales since, at night, they usually rest in the upper reaches of the ocean.

“A number of shipping routes traverse the whale’s habitat along the northern Gulf, and the collision risk is likely to increase with new offshore oil and gas development. With abundance so low, the loss of even a single whale threatens the survival of the species,” the researchers warned.

Although these whales were already declared as endangered in 2019 – meaning the government is now forced to monitor their status, designate their “critical habitats,” and develop a clear recovery plan – additional measures are urgently needed to safeguard this threatened marine mammal.

“Do we want the oceans to be places where whales can live and thrive, or not? If we don’t care enough to save them, that speaks volumes about who we all are,” Corckeron concluded.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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