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Critically Endangered Rice's Whale

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

You might have seen a headline that said: "World Scientists named a new species of whale last year. Now, they're on the edge of extinction." ...but it doesn't paint the full picture. Let's dive into the facts of the whale formerly known as a Bryde's whale [ now known as the Rice's whale].

Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

The Eden's whale [Balaenoptera edeni] is a smaller form of the Bryde's whale that seems to remain in the Indo-Pacific region. It was studied by John Anderson in 1878 - he named it after Sir Ashley Eden, who helped obtain the type specimen. In 1913, the "Bryde's whale" [Balaenoptera brydei] was discovered off the coast of South Africa and studied by Ørjan Olsen - he named the species after Johan Bryde. The Bryde's whale and Eden's whale (in addition to other similar "Bryde's-like whales") are referenced within the "Bryde's whale complex"due to the current lack of definitive information and research.

  • In 1965, Dale W. Rice first published evidence of the Bryde's whales living within the Gulf of Mexico.

  • In the 1990s, scientists believed the group of whales living within the Gulf of Mexico were rare and needed additional study. Genetic samples were taken from this specific grouping of Bryde's whales.

  • By 1999, scientists reported that this group of Bryde's whales remain in the Gulf of Mexico all year (no migration to other regions).

  • In March 2003, scientists Ann Pabst and Bill McLellan examined the remains of a deceased whale (died from fishing gear entanglement) that eventually ended up on Carolina Beach, NC. Genetic samples were collected and sent to the NOAA lab in La Jolla, California, where it was identified as a potential subspecies of Bryde’s whale. Years later - it was determined that this was a Rice's whale.

  • In 2008, Dr. Rosel and NOAA scientist Lynsey Wilcox, examined the first genetic data of a (what was then referred to as) the Bryde's whales from the Gulf of Mexico.

  • In 2019, a "Bryde's-like whale" stranded (and died) on the Gulf coast of Florida. Scientists collected the entire specimen and determined this whale to be a Bryde's whale specifically from the Gulf of Mexico.

  • In 2020, Dr. Rosel worked with Dr. Tadasu Yamada on the study of the remnants of the Bryde's-like whale that had stranded/died on the Gulf coast of Florida. They note the morphological differences, when combined with the genetic data Rosel and Wilcox had collected, were enough to distinguish this as a new species of baleen whale.

  • In January 2021, researchers Patricia Rosel, Lynsey Wilcox, Keith Mullin and Tadasu Yamada published their research paper identifying the whales formerly referred to as the Bryde's whales of the Gulf of Mexico - and reported them as a separate species - now referred to as the "Rice’s whale" [Balaenoptera ricei].

  • When the name (Rice's whale) is formally accepted by the Society for Marine Mammalogy Committee on Taxonomy , NOAA Fisheries will go through the regulatory process to update the name used in the endangered species listing.

Critically Endangered status:

In 2019, NOAA Fisheries listed the "Bryde's whales" of the Gulf of Mexico as an endangered subspecies under the Endangered Species Act. In 2021, NOAA Fisheries revised the common scientific name to show as the Rice's whale. This new classification maintains the same endangered status. The Rice's whale is also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act - which also notes the species to be 'depleted'. The most recent estimate (NOAA survey from 2017-2018) notes that approximately 50 individual Rice's whales remain in the Gulf of Mexico.

Threats to the Rice's whales:

  • Vessel strikes - commercial and individual

  • Ocean noise - Shipping traffic, energy exploration and development activities, such as seismic airgun surveys to find oil and gas fields, create low frequency noise, which overlaps with the hearing range of Rice’s whales.

  • Oil spills - Lung and respiratory issues, increased vulnerability to other diseases and infections, and irritation of the skin or sensitive tissue in the whale’s eyes and mouths. Additionally, the food source is often killed or contaminated by the spill. Exposure to oil spills can also have reproductive impacts.

  • Chemicals used to respond to oil spills, called dispersants, may also be toxic to Rice’s whales.

  • The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 negatively affected Rice's whales. The platform was located outside Rice's whale habitat - however - scientists estimate nearly half of the oil spill footprint overlapped with the whales’ habitat in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of this one oil spill, it is estimated that the depleted population of Rice's whales was further decreased by 17-22 percent.

  • Fishing gear - The Rice's whales habitat overlaps with several commercial fisheries and their foraging behavior may place them at risk for becoming entangled in certain types of gear. In 2003, the stranded (deceased) whale on Carolina Beach, NC was determined to be a Rice's whale that died from fishing gear entanglement.

  • Aquaculture activities - Increased risk of vessel strike from support vessels, added noise to the environment from vessel traffic, water quality may also be affected, etc.

  • Ocean debris / Plastic pollution - The "Bryde's-like whale" that stranded/died on the Gulf coast of Florida in 2019 (which was determined to be the Rice's whale and contributed to the new name designation) was found to have plastic in it's stomach.

  • Small population and limited range (staying within the Gulf of Mexico) - In addition to the threats already mentioned, the Rice's whales are extremely vulnerable to environmental change, decreased disease resistance, and habitat loss. At this point the loss of a single individual could prevent recovery due to the very small population size.

What can we do to help the Rice's whales?

'Healthy Gulf' is calling on the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to designate a critical habitat in the Gulf and develop a recovery plan that addresses current threats to the Rice's whale. Additional measures of protection include: reduced vessel speed, vessels to avoid the area at night or during reduced visibility, limited or halt seismic survey in the area, restrict/prohibit oil and gas exploration in this area, and modify/prevent fishing activity within the whales core habitat.

'Healthy Gulf' has created a form and pre-written email that can be sent on behalf of the endangered Rice's whales. Simply enter your details and hit 'send'. Please click here to review the campaign to protect the Rice's whales and send the e-message!

If you're in the Gulf of Mexico - you can take additional measures to avoid being on a vessel in the whale's habitat. Stay a minimum of 500 meters (1640.42 feet - or a third of a mile) away from the Rice's whales if you spot any. These are critically endangered animals - getting close to them will greatly increase the risk of harm and could result in damage that cannot be undone.

Whether or not you're located in the Gulf of Mexco region - all Ocean life is greatly impacted by plastic pollution. Please do what you can to avoid single-use plastics and utilize reusable water bottles, mugs, grocery tote bags, etc.

Thank you for diving in with us and doing what you can to help us protect these amazing cetaceans!

Sources and additional reading:

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