When I think of the great filter-feeding whales, I don’t tend to think of the Gulf of Mexico. However, I was recently reminded that the Gulf is home to some of these amazing whales. They are called Bryde’s (pronounced BROO-dus) whales, and they are found around the world, but only 33 of them live in the northern Gulf. A recent genetic study by NOAA biologists reveals that this small group of whales may be a completely unique subspecies!
These Bryde’s whales are unique in their size, as well as in the calls that they use to communicate with each other. Through genetic analysis, scientists have determined that this subspecies has undergone a dramatic decline in population. “It’s unclear based on the genetics exactly when [the decline] occurred,” said Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “It’s possible humans were involved in the decline, through whaling or industrial activities.”
With only 33 whales and little genetic diversity, the newfound subspecies is particularly vulnerable to threats such as ship strikes, noise and pollution. The Bryde’s whales’ home range is also adjacent to the Mississippi Canyon, the area where the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster occurred, raising questions about how this small group of whales may have been impacted by that disaster.
The NRDC has submitted a petition to have the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale federally listed as endangered. As a genetically distinct subspecies, these whales are eligible for additional protections under U.S. law—protections that are necessary if we want to improve their chance for survival and recovery.
Scientists are continuing to study these whales. The information they gain will help them understand the history, biology, status and conservation needs of Bryde’s whales and others that live in the area—such as the Gulf of Mexico sperm whale population discovered last year —because the first step in protecting something is understanding what it needs to survive. This information is also a key part of restoring the Gulf of Mexico to the vibrant, diverse ecosystem that we depend on.