A news story has been published widely over the past few weeks, speaking to the proposed protection of a ‘unique’ species of whale in the Gulf of Mexico.
The species in question is the Bryde’s whale (confusingly pronounced ‘broodus’ whale), more specifically, the Gulf of Mexico population of Bryde’s whales. The articles correctly mention that due to a combination of genetic and acoustic data, this population is likely an entirely separate species from other Bryde’s whales.
Followers of Ocean Alliance and Sea Shepherd might also remember that during the 2014 Operation Toxic Gulf, Ocean Alliance and Sea Shepherd collected a biopsy from one of these whales with the hopes of gathering more information on them.
On the surface, this is nothing but wonderful news. The stock assessment for this population is around 33 individuals, making it critically endangered, on the very cusp of extinction. This species, already living in a heavily industrialized body of water, needs all the protection we can afford it.
However, to us at Ocean Alliance, this revelation hides potential sinister undertones. The articles point to this recent proposal being pushed forward after new areas of the Gulf of Mexico, areas constituting critical habitat to these whales, are being opened up to oil drilling. What the articles missed was that the proposed amendment allows the company involved in oil & gas drilling operations to emit an increased amount of greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds. The specific area being opened up is called DeSoto Canyon, a submarine canyon located around 75 miles south of the Florida panhandle.
Why is this worrying? Or perhaps more appropriately, is there a reason this is particularly worrying?
I can assure you that there is. During Operation Toxic Gulf, it was my responsibility as Science Manager, along with Captain Bob Wallace, to collect as much data as we could on offshore gulf whales. This included, but was not limited to, collecting a statistically valid number of tissue samples (50 Sperm whales biopsies). This level of responsibility afforded us the right to decide where we went to search for whales. Almost every single time we left our home port of Pensacola, we headed directly for one place. We would have gone there every time if not for concerns over encountering the same group of whales. Where you ask?
Throughout Operation Toxic Gulf we traversed thousands of square kilometres. And consistently, the richest and most bio-diverse place, the place where we were most likely to see not just Sperm whales, but an extraordinary wealth of other species (many endangered) was DeSoto Canyon. This adage held true to the extent that towards the end of the expedition we often made predictions that within 30 minutes of entering the DeSoto Canyon area we would see at least 100 dolphins. This was incredible considering that in our typical research area, spanning a few thousand square kilometres across the Gulf of Mexico, it is very easy to go days without seeing a single dolphin. Without fail, our predictions regarding the dolphins would be proven right, their presence first made known acoustically as an almost inexplicable blend of whistles, clicks, squeaks and groans poured into the pilot house through the hydrophone trailing behind the boat.
A look over our data shows that we recorded 9 different species of marine mammal in the DeSoto Canyon area. This amounts to almost half the marine mammal species to be found in the entire Gulf of Mexico. All of which were encountered in such a relatively small area, during an accumulated period of time spanning less than a week. To us DeSoto Canyon represented the richest and most biodiverse region in the northern Gulf of Mexico. This is by no means an authoritative, official statement, but one borne out of many thousands of hours spent collecting environmental and biological data in the northern Gulf. This year our CEO has had meetings with both the Marine Mammal Commission and BOEM – at both meetings he proposed that critical or designated hotspots for marine mammals be created in the Gulf of Mexico and the poster child for such a critical habitat should be the DeSoto canyon.
Certainly, we can point to the fact that this proposed amendment to drilling in the area has offered special protection to this population of Bryde’s whales as a major positive. However, personally I see this a rather moot point. If legislation is passed through declaring this stock a separate species (an outcome likely if the genetic data is to be used), then this will be the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. It should not need its critical habitat being opened up for drilling to afford it special protection! A population comprising of around 33 animals should have it anyway!
I perhaps have more faith than most in the ability of environmental law makers and government organisations to protect regions of particular environmental importance. Certainly, a delicate balancing act is involved. The economic riches to be had from fuelling our thirst for hydrocarbons is an intense pressure. But in a changing world, where the footprint of man is becoming increasingly intense, places of significant biodiversity must be protected. This is particularly crucial in an already heavily industrialised body of water, and one which has recently seen one of the worst environmental disasters in human history.
In my opinion this represents a stark, and incredibly disappointing, failure on their behalf.
– Andy Rogan, Ocean Alliance Science Manager