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Unique Sperm Whale Population Faces Serious Threats
Washington, DC – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will consider listing the sperm whale population in the Gulf of Mexico as a “distinct population segment” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The announcement comes in response to a petition filed in December 2011 by WildEarth Guardians as well as a recent legal settlement.
Although the worldwide population of sperm whales is listed as “endangered,” the resident population in the Gulf is distinct, and faces unique threats including oil and gas development, high levels of shipping traffic and noise, and effects from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
With this finding, NOAA acknowledged that the Gulf population may warrant a separate, potentially more protective listing under the ESA. The agency will conduct a 12-month review of the species to determine if listing is warranted. Moby Dick, the subject of Captain Ahab’s obsession in the classic book, was a sperm whale.
“I’m glad to see our Gulf whales move one step closer to better protections,” said Taylor Jones, Endangered Species Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “After two and a half centuries of unregulated whaling, humanity owes this species every opportunity for recovery.”
Sperm whales in the Gulf are unique in several ways. They are a resident population that generally does not migrate beyond the Gulf. They use a different repertoire of vocalizations than other sperm whales. These vocalizations, called “codas,” have distinct patterns and are likely culturally learned, much like human language. Sperm whales in the Gulf have a “dialect” that is rarely encountered outside the Gulf. They are smaller than other sperm whales and group in smaller numbers, and have been observed foraging in shallower water than other sperm whales. Because of these unique adaptations, if the Gulf sperm whales were to become extirpated, there is little evidence that other sperm whales would or could colonize the area.
“Moby Dick is an American icon and it would be tragic if we lost a whole unique population of these beautiful animals,” added Jones. “The oil and gas industry has mistreated and abused the whale’s habitat throughout the Gulf and so we’re encouraged that greater protections could be soon be forthcoming.”
Sperm whales reproduce very slowly. Females have only one calf at a time and nurse offspring for multiple years. NOAA scientists have determined that as few as three human-caused sperm whale deaths per year in addition to natural deaths could jeopardize the future of the Gulf population.