Petitioners urge Biden administration to establish mandatory vessel speed limits within core habitat of severely endangered whale

 “The Gulf of Mexico whale already faces an uphill battle for survival—one that becomes increasingly steep each day that ships continue to tear through its habitat. This speed limit is a safety measure with clear benefits. We urge NOAA Fisheries to act before it’s too late.” 

Elizabeth Neville, senior Gulf Coast representative at Defenders of Wildlife.
Washington, DC

Defenders of Wildlife and partners filed a petition today with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) to establish a year-round mandatory 10-knot speed limit and other vessel-related regulations within the core habitat of the Gulf of Mexico whale, south of the Florida panhandle.  

With an estimated 50 individuals remaining, the immediate adoption of these measures is critical to the whales’ survival. 

NOAA Fisheries scientists published a paper in January recognizing the Gulf of Mexico whale as a unique species. In the wake of that paper, some scientists have begun dubbing it “America’s whale” since it is the only great whale known to live entirely off the U.S. coast. The species’ small population and the threats it faces in the industrialized waters of the Gulf of Mexico make it one of the most endangered species of whales on earth. 

 “The Gulf of Mexico whale already faces an uphill battle for survival—one that becomes increasingly steep each day that ships continue to tear through its habitat,” said Elizabeth Neville, senior Gulf Coast representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “This speed limit is a safety measure with clear benefits. We urge NOAA Fisheries to act before it’s too late.” 

The species is experiencing more injury and death from vessel strikes than it can currently withstand, with at least one whale known to have died and others showing signs of injury. The whales spend much of their lives within the draft depths of most commercial vessels, particularly at night when they are resting just beneath the surface. This makes them extremely vulnerable to deadly collisions with fast-moving ships. 

“One of the rarest, most endangered whales on the planet is in our backyard, and we have a responsibility to save it,” said Michael Jasny, Director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “Slowing down ships in the whales’ habitat is more than common sense. It’s basic human decency. It’s what we should do for a neighbor.”

The mandatory slow-down would also reduce vessel noise in the whales’ core habitat. Vessel noise is known to disrupt vital behaviors such as feeding and breeding, and to chronically stress whales, which can impair their health and reduce their ability to reproduce.  

"Protecting the whale and restoring its population will mean creating a cleaner, healthier and quieter Gulf of Mexico," says Healthy Gulf coastal organizer Christian Wagley. "The tremendous amount of interest in the whale already says that the public wants to protect this magnificent animal and the Gulf ecosystem that supports it. If we can save the species, that brings hope that we can ultimately save the Gulf." 

The petition cites NOAA Fisheries’ obligation under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect the species from these threats. NOAA Fisheries has previously mandated vessel slowdowns to protect the North Atlantic right whale, finding that speed limits of 10 knots would significantly reduce the likelihood of lethal strikes. 

“Speed limits save endangered whales from deadly ship strikes. They’ve helped save whales on the East Coast and they’ll help save the Gulf of Mexico whale from extinction,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Simply slowing down through whale habitat will give this great American whale a fighting chance.” 

In addition to a 10-knot speed limit, the petition recommends requiring vessels to avoid transit through the core habitat at night, when whales are resting near the surface; to maintain a minimum distance of 500 meters from observed whales; and to monitor the water around the vessel when traveling through the speed zone. Similar measures were set forth last year by NOAA Fisheries for oil and gas industry vessels operating in the species’ core habitat off Florida and Alabama, as necessary to avoid jeopardizing the continued survival of the species. NOAA Fisheries has not yet adopted measures for any other classes of vessel.  

“As the most endangered whale in the world, the loss of this species would be a tragedy and is a conservation emergency that must be addressed urgently,” said Peter Corkeron, Ph.D., with the New England Aquarium. “This petition is a critical first step in the long road to saving this species from preventable extinction.” 

NRDC petitioned to list the whale in 2014, citing the species’ low numbers and the significant threats it faces from a number of human activities. After two lawsuits over the agency’s delays, NOAA Fisheries listed the whale under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2019. NRDC and Healthy Gulf are presently litigating over NOAA’s failure to designate critical habitat for the whale, as required by the ESA. 

Other threats to the whales include oil and gas exploration and development, including from seismic blasting, which a NOAA Fisheries report in 2016 identified as a threat likely to eliminate or seriously degrade the population. The agency estimates that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed roughly 17% of the population. A whale found dead along Sandy Key, in the Florida Everglades, in 2019 is believed to have died from ingestion of plastic.  

“Considering all they’ve had to endure from offshore drilling, it’s a gift that these whales have survived in the Gulf of Mexico and it’s critical that we put measures in place to avoid collisions with boats, especially since the Gulf of Mexico whales typically rest just beneath the surface,” said Steve Mashuda, Managing Attorney for the Earthjustice Oceans Program. 

###  

Additional Press Contacts:  
Kari Birdseye, NRDC,(415) 350-7562, kbirdseye@nrdc.org  

Kristen Monsell, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 844-7137, kmonsell@biologicaldiversity.org 

Steve Mashuda, Earthjustice (206) 715-4912 smashuda@earthjustice.org 

Pam Bechtold Snyder, New England Aquarium, (617) 686-5068, psnyder@neaq.org  

 

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.   

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. 

Healthy Gulf’s purpose is to collaborate with and serve communities who love the Gulf of Mexico by providing the research, communications, and coalition-building tools needed to reverse the long pattern of over exploitation of the Gulf’s natural resources. A healthy Gulf of Mexico returned to its former splendor that supports a thriving ecosystem that includes the Gulf’s natural resources and, just as importantly, the people, communities, and cultures that depend on those resources. 

The New England Aquarium is a global leader in ocean exploration and marine conservation. With more than 1.3 million visitors a year, the Aquarium is one of the premier visitor attractions in Boston and a major public education resource for the region. 

Earthjustice, the nation’s premier nonprofit environmental law organization, wields the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. Because the earth needs a good lawyer. 

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With nearly 2.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

Media Contact

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Jake Bleich headshot
Jake Bleich
Communications Specialist
jbleich@defenders.org
(202) 772-3208

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