Saving the ultra-rare Rice’s whale: Should ships slow down in the Gulf of Mexico?

A new debate is surfacing around a critically endangered species.
Scientists estimate there are only 50 Rice's whales left in the Gulf of Mexico, including the one seen here. Now, a proposal to slow down ships crossing the gulf has the Florida port industry up in arms.
Scientists estimate there are only 50 Rice's whales left in the Gulf of Mexico, including the one seen here. Now, a proposal to slow down ships crossing the gulf has the Florida port industry up in arms. [ Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries ]
Published June 28|Updated July 1

Should ships in the Gulf of Mexico slow down while crossing the habitat of one of the rarest whales on earth?

That’s the question swirling around a new proposal to protect the roughly 50 Rice’s whales left in existence.

Scientists and ocean advocates say it’s a no-brainer: There’s evidence that boats have struck and killed the whales. A speed limit and nighttime shipping ban in and around the whales’ habitat would curb deaths, they say.

On the other side of the debate, Florida ports fear a speed limit and night-time travel restriction would hinder the state’s shipping industry, which saw record-high cargo last year. Industry leaders told the Tampa Bay Times they fear the state’s port economy would be in danger, or even shut down, if the proposal was approved.

As federal environment regulators gather public feedback on the proposal through July 6, the debate exemplifies how future policy changes may try to address the human toll on wildlife as the world grapples with accelerating biodiversity loss. Solutions are hardly one-size-fits-all.

“This may be the only large whale that lives strictly in American waters,” said Grant Baysinger, a contractor with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is currently accepting public comments. “We’re trying to be as conservative as possible in our decision-making — because they’re so vulnerable.”

Baysinger said the federal agency already has received more than 30,000 comments about the proposal from all sides of the issue.

“Any useful information that industry, the public or the scientific community can provide to help us inform our decision making would be really appreciated,” he said. “That’s really what we’re looking for at this stage.”

Florida ports: We’re ‘disturbed’ by proposal

As a 90-day public comment period comes to an end, Florida’s port industry is making its stance known: It’s against new regulations.

The proposal, submitted in May 2021 by a coalition of environmental advocacy groups, would create a year-round, 10-knot speed limit for ships traversing through Rice’s whale habitat, extending from Pensacola to just south of Tampa.

The slow zone would cover waters from about 300 to 1,300 feet deep and extend roughly 6 miles out beyond the established habitat zone as a buffer for ships. The proposal also calls for no ship movement at night, when the whales rest near the surface. Port officials say those changes would reshape how ships do business in the Gulf.

“Disturbed is probably an understatement,” Mike Rubin, president of the Florida Ports Council, said in an interview. The Council is the professional association representing Florida’s 16 deepwater seaports, including Port Tampa Bay.

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“We see this as a clear and present danger to Florida’s economy and public safety,” Rubin said. “I don’t know of any more restrictive regulations than what they’re proposing to enact here in Florida waters.”

In early June, Rubin penned a letter to the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in which he called into question the accuracy of the scientific data cited by the advocacy groups who filed the petition. (Until recently, scientists believed Rice’s whales were a subspecies of the more common Bryde’s whale. But a peer-reviewed genetic testing process determined in 2021 that Rice’s was a species of its own).

Rubin underscored how the region’s supply chain would be impacted if shipping were slowed during the day and halted at night.

“Imagine what the impact will be if a hurricane hits somewhere in Florida and NOAA has instituted a rule that essentially limits or even shuts down fuel vessel transits to Florida Gulf Coast ports,” Rubin wrote to Rick Spinrad, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Port Tampa Bay, the largest bulk cargo seaport in Florida, saw an increase to more than 34 million tons of cargo tonnage in 2022, compared to 31.6 million tons the previous year, he noted.

NOAA geneticist Patricia Rosel examines the skeleton of a Rice's whale.
NOAA geneticist Patricia Rosel examines the skeleton of a Rice's whale. [ Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries ]

Ocean advocates: Shipping traffic ‘certainly’ a threat

The organizations that filed the petition say not only is the science sound, but the restrictions are also necessary steps to protect the elusive whale species.

They point out two instances when a Rice’s whale showed evidence of a boat strike: once in 2009, when an adult female stranded in Tampa Bay with injuries from blunt-force trauma; and in 2019, when a free-swimming whale was spotted in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico with a deformed spine from a boat strike.

If the critically endangered species is to recover, it can afford to lose only one whale about every 15 years from deaths caused by humans, the petitioners argue.

“Shipping traffic certainly is one of the number of threats to the whales,” said Christian Wagley, the Florida and Alabama Coastal Organizer for Healthy Gulf, who helped write the slow-speed proposal. Loud noises from ships can interrupt whale breeding and feeding behaviors, and there are several shipping lanes — including some out of Tampa — that cross the whale’s habitat.

“The world’s oceans are a richer place with whales in them. And we’ve come to recognize the tremendous ecological value that whales have,” Wagley said, citing how whales bring valuable nutrients up from the seafloor for other surface-dwelling creatures.

Wagley takes issue with the port industry’s claim undermining NOAA’s science: The process was well-documented, peer-reviewed and based on both genetic analysis and whale skull morphology.

“There’s no question that it’s a fully distinct species,” Wagley said.

Once the comment period ends next month, NOAA will deliberate internally and make a decision on whether to move forward with formal rulemaking or deny the petition outright, Baysinger said. It’s a lengthy and careful process that takes into account all sorts of professional feedback.

“It’s going to take us some time to go through all of these comments and pull out important and relevant information,” Baysinger said. “A lot of important things are going on with this whale right now.”