Unique Subspecies of Bryde's Whale Found Only in Gulf of Mexico

By Linda Rudin

Gulf of Mexico x whale

In the United States, the first 100 days of a newly elected president’s term are thought to represent the new administration’s ability to reach their proposed targets.  While largely symbolic rather than statutory, “the first 100 days” are closely watched by the media and their success measured by public approval ratings.  It is with the idea in mind of measuring the actions of the administration’s first 100 days that we are bringing you our 100 day blog series. The series highlights 6 populations of whales and dolphins for which fewer than 100 remain while arming you, our supporters, with clear information on these critical issues and how you can get involved.  Some are at risk of extinction within our lifetimes; some are at risk of extinction within the next 2 to 5 years.  All of them need your help to survive.  

Gulf of Mexico X Whale, a subspecies of which fewer than 50 remain

What was once thought to be a population of Bryde's (Brood-ess) whale population in the Gulf of Mexico has become a bit of a mystery. It is hard to say how many whales there are in this population, how many there used to be, where they came from but recent genetic and taxonomic evidence suggests they are not exactly Bryde’s whales, but rather a unique subspecies. Living only in the northeastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, they are the only resident species of baleen whale in this area and are now referred to as the Gulf of Mexico ‘x’ whales, or GoMx whales. 

The population consists of about 25 to 40 individuals, the last estimate was 33 whales – calculated from a survey in 2009.

In the past the distribution of Bryde’s whales in the Gulf of Mexico may have been wider, but it seems very restricted nowadays – potentially due to the increase of human activity in many areas.  The most significant threats to these whales are potential collisions with vessels and impacts due to energy exploration and production.

Map showing distribution of Gulf of Mexico x whales, off the northwest corner of Florida

  •  Ship Strikes

Between 2006 and 2012 there were four reported strandings of Bryde’s whales in the Gulf of Mexico. One of them (a lactating female) was found to have been struck by a ship, whereas the cause of death could not be determined in the other cases.

Ship strikes are a problem for many large whale species but the high intensity of vessel traffic in the Gulf of Mexico, including shipping lanes that cross through their habitat,  has lead government scientists to conclude that ‘ship strikes pose a “high severity threat” with “high certainty”

  • Oil Exploration

The effects of the industrial utilization of the waters and resources in the Gulf of Mexico pose further dangers. The Gulf of Mexico is the most important source of crude oil for the US and therefore subject to large amounts of industrial and shipping activity. Apart from collision risk this means lots of underwater noise, potential habitat modification and even oil spills with all of their consequences. 

Tragically, an estimated 17% of this subspecies was killed in 2009 as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

  •  Climate Change

Changes in water temperature and currents can change where whales, and their food, can survive.  Because this subspecies lives in such a relatively small area, impacts to their habitat can be catastrophic. 

It’s also important to remember that these whales play a role in helping to fight climate change as ecosystem engineers.  The loss of these whales is a loss to nutrient availability and carbon sequestration in the Gulf of Mexico. 

  •  Small Population Size

Apart from all human-made problems and threats, being such a small population brings many problems in itself: a large enough proportion of the population needs to be able to reproduce to ensure a new generation can exist.  A single catastrophic event like an oil spill or a disease can easily wipe out a small population like the GoM x whales. 

So what can we do?

The good news is, quite a bit of work has already been done!

In 2014, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the US government to list this subspecies under Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency charged with implementing the ESA for large whales, agreed and just this week, WDC in collaboration with the Humane Society of the United States, Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, submitted formal comments asking the government to formally declare this subspecies as endangered and provide it with the full suite of protections afforded to it under the ESA.

Here’s what you can do to help:

  • Follow the rule of R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse.
  • Make smart choices to reduce your impact on the planet and our waterways.
  • Use reusable items whenever possible to cut down on single-use plastic and waste.
  • Check your area’s regulations for recycling on Earth911.
  • Refuse to buy a ticket to an aquarium that holds whales and dolphins captive.
  • What WDC is doing: working with national partners to secure an ESA listing for this subspecies.

Saving GoM x whales can help to fight climate change but it  is always a good idea to think about how you could reduce your own use of fossil fuels: use a fuel-efficient car, car-pool, or even replace your car by a different means of transport once in a while: try public transportation if available or get some exercise while by biking or walking shorter distances.

You can support our policy and research efforts by Adopting an Whale, subscribing to our blogs and enewsletters, or making a donation to help us continue our work.

Remember, all water goes to the ocean, so whether you live on the beach or in the mountains, your everyday life can affect and is affected by our oceans.  It’s also important to remember that regardless of where you live, whales affect your life by fertilizing the phytoplankton that provide the oxygen for every other breath you take!

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to speak up – knowledge is catching! Explain your choices and actions to your friends and family.  You may inspire them to make positive, whale-friendly changes, too. 

Together we can create a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free

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