Rice’s Whales issue in the gulf of Mexico

A petition was raised in 2021 to enact a vessel speed limit in a huge area in the western Gulf of Mexico, from just south of Pensacola, FL, to just south of Tampa Bay, FL, ranging from 100-400 meters (around 320ft to 1300ft).

The petitioners also asked for a 10-kilometer buffer in this area, which they refer to as a core distribution area or CDA. 

The petitioners requested the following actions from NOAA:

  • No transit at night.
  • Maximum speed limit of 10 knots.
  • Must report to NMFS if you plan to transit without AIS.
  • Must utilize visual observers in this area.
  • Must stay 500m away from Rice’s whales or any Gulf of Mexico whale that cannot be confirmed as a Rice’s whale.
  • Must report any deviation from these rules to NMFS.

It’s important to note that this petition was raised by environmental groups and the New England Aquarium, and it is not a proposed rule from NOAA or any government body. However, the administration has given this petition excessive attention and consideration.

Why is there even a petition in 2021? This was before any real scientific research had been conducted. They didn’t know what these whales ate, where they resided, or even if their population could recover. To this day, we still don’t have real answers to any of these questions. This is the main issue that many people have, and the petition should have been immediately dismissed until NOAA could establish a designated critical habitat area, which they were already sued over for not doing yet. This is something that should have been done in 2019 when the animal was listed under the Endangered Species Act as a Gulf of Mexico subspecies of Bryde’s whales. They weren’t even referred to as Rice’s whales until much later in 2021 when further research and taxonomy inference revealed that they were a whole new species.

The 2021 Soldevilla et al. research project showed that the CDA or core distribution area for this species was likely extremely inaccurate. Currently, the petition and petitioners want a vessel slowdown area in the eastern Gulf from Pensacola to Florida, ranging from 100-400 meters to 1300ft. However, according to the two projects that the Soldevilla research showed, these whales are actually living throughout the entire Gulf, both on the east and west sides of the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA will likely designate the entire Gulf, ranging from 100-400 meters, as this animal’s core habitat when they release the critical habitat area designation for this species soon. If that is the case, it could be argued for expanding the petition to include a larger area of vessel slowdown. The Soldevilla et al. paper showed that out of 5 locations where acoustic sounders were placed in the Gulf, 3 of the 5 locations were in the western Gulf outside the currently proposed vessel slowdown area, and all three recorded the whale’s calls and activity.

Another major issue is that NOAA’s own technical memorandums state that the population has to be more than 100 individuals to prevent inbreeding over the next 5 generations. This would help ensure the population’s ability to proliferate and reproduce. However, the current population size is only believed to be 51 individuals. Furthermore, the latest stock assessment stated that it was uncertain whether the population would ever be able to recover due to the 22% population decline this animal experienced following the BP oil spill in the Gulf, where 48% of the animal’s distribution area was covered by spilled crude oil.

If the whale’s population has already dropped to a point of no return, why would a petition that could affect a $214 billion recreational boating industry be even remotely considered or entertained? Why would our country’s defenses be endangered for this uncertainty? Why cripple our Southeast trade and commerce and hinder multiple large ports from shipping traffic? All of this would happen if this petition is considered for rulemaking when vessel strikes are not a real concern compared to other threats to this animal, such as oil and gas exploration and spills. It’s important to note that between 2011 and 2013, there were 46 spills in the Gulf, while there have only been two proposed vessel strikes, but only one has been proven. Both of these incidents involved large ships, but the petitioners don’t differentiate between vessels and ships, which is a significant issue. Ships are much larger, with drafts over 8 meters and displacing tons of water, while most recreational vessels have drafts of less than 4 meters and are under 120ft in length. It’s crucial to remember that there has NEVER been a recreational vessel strike of a whale in the Gulf, and there is only one such incident in history that I know of. The one that did occur involved a baby right whale off the coast of northeast Florida, where a 54ft Viking Sportfish hit the baby whale, causing the boat to sink and seriously injuring passengers. This is not something we want to happen to our boats, and it’s not something we need a rule to prevent. The petitioners assert that recreational vessels could hit these whales without reporting it or even being aware it happened. However, the only time a recreational vessel hit a whale, it was a smaller baby whale, and it completely destroyed and sank the vessel. It’s completely absurd and outrageous to claim that we would hit a whale and not be aware of it. This is just one part of this ridiculous and laughable petition.

When this petition came out, I honestly dismissed it because it wasn’t based on any scientific research, it preceded any real work by NOAA, and it required unrealistic reporting to NOAA, which lacks the necessary infrastructure and logistics to handle such reports. Additionally, the petition is completely unenforceable due to the lack of enforcement in federal waters and underfunded law enforcement operations across the Gulf. How can you enforce a speed limit when millions of boats access this area without any vessel monitoring requirement? Wouldn’t it be simpler and more cost-effective to tag and real-time monitor the whales? There are only 51 left in the Gulf, so tagging would be much more affordable and have less impact on our Southeast region’s economy.

Why can we visit a website and track a bunch of great white
sharks in real-time, but not an endangered whale? I am severely confused as to
why this petition is even being entertained.

-Angry fishermen across the Gulf and Capt. Dylan Hubbard.