(OCEANS) Even though sperm whales are currently listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced it will decide whether or not the 1,300 sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico should be considered for special protection as a “distinct population segment.” Because sperm whales are genetically different than most whales and face unique threats in the Gulf area, the NOAA will now conduct a 12-month review to consider listing the whales as separate from whales outside of the Gulf—although it’s still unclear what protective measures might be taken. Continue reading to learn more about the reasons for the deliberation and the potential impact this status change could have on the whales as well as the environment. — Global Animal
The fluke of a sperm whale is visible as it dives near an oil platform at Mississippi Canyon Block 127 in 2002. Photo Credit: NOLA.com
The fluke of a sperm whale is visible as it dives near an oil platform at Mississippi Canyon Block 127 in 2002. Photo Credit: NOLA.com

NOLA, Mark Schleifstein

The National Marine Fisheries Service on Thursday announced it has agreed to determine whether sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico are a distinct population that should be listed as an endangered or threatened species, separate from sperm whales outside the Gulf.

The status change, requested by the WildEarth Guardians environmental group in December 2011, could result in the designation of portions of the Gulf as “critical habitat,” and could require federal actions in the Gulf, including the issuance of oil and gas leases, to undergo more comprehensive environmental reviews for their effects on the whales.

The species is probably best known for Herman Melville’s use of a huge, albino sperm whale in the classic novel, “Moby Dick.”

The relatively small population of sperm whales in the Gulf are 4 to 6 feet shorter than those in other areas, and rarely leave the Gulf’s comparatively protected waters, according to studies conducted for the Minerals Mangement Service – now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Those studies also show that the whales have different speech and socialization patterns than their larger cousins in other oceans, and tend to congregate in shallower waters. They are most often found in a wide swath along the coast of the northern Gulf of Mexico, especially right at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where its fresh water mixes with the Gulf’s saltwater.

WildEarth Guardians contends that the whales could fall victim to the effects of a variety of environmental threats in the Gulf:

  • A reduction in their food sources caused by annual spring “dead zones,” which are areas along the Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi coasts where nutrients from farmland in the Midwest are delivered by the Mississippi River, feeding blooms of algae that die and sink, using up oxygen as they decay.
  • Getting hit by ocean-going vessels, especially in locations near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
  • Stress and damage to their hearing resulting from sound pollution, including ship traffic noise, the use of air guns to survey for oil and gas, and the use of sonar and explosives by the Navy and other armed forces.
  • Chemical pollution from contaminants entering the Gulf from the Mississippi and other rivers, as well as oil exploration and production accidents like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or from future accidents involving the 25,000 miles of pipelines on the Gulf floor.
  • Global warming, including the direct effects of traveling through increasingly warmer surface water temperatures, as well as the effects of warmer water temperatures and changing rainfall patterns on food sources.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service also is required to determine whether governmental differences could affect the whale. In this case, the service will be reviewing whether Mexico’s environmental laws that govern about half of the Gulf can provide similar protection to those of the United States.

The fisheries service will accept scientific and commercial information from the public through May 28, and has 12 months to complete its study and issue a preliminary determination on whether the Gulf population warrants a separate endangered or threatened status. It then has another 12 months to finalize the decision.

More NOLA.com: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2013/03/gulf_sperm_whales_to_be_studie.html