For the first time in 300 years, a special population of Bryde's whales in the Gulf of Mexico is at risk of becoming the first baleen whale to go extinct since the Atlantic gray whale.
Bryde’s whales (pronounced bruh-dihs), also called “tropical whales”, are found around the world but are the only species to hang around in the warm waters near the equator all year round. The population in the Gulf, however, is likely a genetically separate species from other Bryde's whales (Balaenoptera edeni).
The latest list of threatened species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the baleen whale subspecies as critically endangered – just one tier from becoming extinct in the wild.
Scientists believe there are fewer than 50 left in the Gulf, meeting threatened criteria after a 2009 survey found just 33 in the wild.
The Gulf of Mexico whales appear to live primarily around De Soto Canyon in waters between 100 and 400 meters (328-1,300 feet) deep along the continental shelf break, but little else is known about them.
Like their baleen cousins, it’s believed that the Gulf of Mexico whales feed on small fish near the bottom of the seafloor. Here, bottom longline fishing is still common and threatens the feeding whales. In 2003, an adult whale was stranded in North Carolina and died after becoming entangled in fishing gear.
Fishing, heavy tourism, and oil exploration all pose serious threats. Approximately 85 percent of known Bryde’s whale deaths come from being hit by a boat.
Scientists also believe stress caused by seismic survey noise could affect the whales, although exactly how remains poorly understood.
That brings us to the next – and potentially most detrimental – threat currently facing these elusive whales: offshore drilling.
It’s estimated that almost half of their habitat was affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Close to half of the whales were exposed to oil and 18 percent of the overall population suffered adverse health effects. Meanwhile, 22 percent of females experienced total reproductive failure.
A moratorium on offshore oil exploration in the area is set to expire in 2022. When you add that to President Trump’s proposition earlier this year to open nearly all US waters to offshore drilling, the fight for the Gulf of Mexico whale might seem hopeless.
With little media attention, it seems scientists might never get the chance to learn more.
“A first step must be to raise society’s and scientists’ awareness of their status,” said a statement in Nature. After that, scientists say immediate action must be taken to protect the whales from known human-caused threats (hint hint).