Most Endangered Whale on Earth is America’s–and you’ve never heard of it

//Most Endangered Whale on Earth is America’s–and you’ve never heard of it

Most Endangered Whale on Earth is America’s–and you’ve never heard of it

2023-08-06T17:25:52-07:00 August 6th, 2023|News|

By David Kwon.
In 2021, a joint team of researchers led by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) revealed the discovery of a new species of baleen whale: the Rice’s whale. Baleen whales (mysticetes) are whales that don’t have teeth. Instead, they have bristle-like structures called
baleen that are perfected for filter-feeding. Unlike most new species, which are often small critters hidden in corners seldom disturbed by humans, this cetacean was hiding in plain sight all along. Long as a school bus, it inhabits the northern Gulf of Mexico (GOMx), not far from United States shores [1]. In fact, if you hitch a seaplane in Pensacola, Florida and fly a 40-minute trip about 60 miles south) to the offshore De Soto Canyon (roughly the distance from Davis to Berkeley), you’ll have reached the area these whales call home. Perhaps you’ll even spot a surfacing individual! But alongside the distinction as its own species, this baleen whale had eluded another, more dire secret–it’s on the very brink of extinction with only about 51 whales remaining [2]. It is already the second most endangered marine mammal in the world.


A new species is, whale, very hard to name

Figure 1. Maximum size of a Rice’s whale scaled to a human and a school bus with the whale’s diagnostic features labeled


How have we missed a giant whale swimming along our doorstep? Actually, we have known a population of baleen whales has existed in the GOMx since at least 1965 [3], and historical records suggest that local whalers attempted to hunt them since at least the late 1700s [4]. However, scientists initially believed that they were members of another wide-ranging tropical species called the Bryde’s whale, which frequents the neighboring Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. This is easily forgivable, as the outward appearance of these GOMx whales are virtually indistinguishable. Both have essentially the same streamlined, sleek bodies of uniform dark charcoal gray or brown coloration on top, and a mix of pale and pink underneath. A large, hook-shaped dorsal fin is placed around two-thirds down from the tip of the snout. The snouts themselves are spear-shaped with three distinct prominent ridges on top (a thick central one extending from snout end to blowhole, and two slightly smaller ones flanking both sides) (Figure 1) [1]. It was not until the 1990s [3] when scientists realized that the GOMx whales inhabits an extremely narrow and isolated area. Nearly all reside within the scientist-dubbed “core habitat”—a thin deep-water stretch off the western coastlines of Florida with seafloors between 150-410 meters deep—while a few exist in even narrower secondary habitats of similar seafloor depths extending to Texas (Figure 2) [1]. This hinted that they may be set apart from the Atlantic Bryde’s whales.

Figure 2. Map of the Rice’s Whale habitat within the GOMx


The possibility that populations thought to be an existing known species are actually new species is nothing new with cetaceans. Mobile marine mammals that seek refuge below the surface can be difficult to study, and granting any divergent population its own scientific name requires (1) substantial morphological and genetic evidence from bone and tissue samples to prove it’s not simply a variant of an existing species, and (2) a skull to serve as a defining specimen, or holotype. In other words, we need good DNA and dead whales. As a result, many potential species are left undescribed as scientists wait for a beached individual to obtain a cetacean cadaver without needing to harm the same whales they seek to study and save [1].


This was the case for the GOMx whales when Rosel & Wilcox (2014), two NMFS geneticists, compared the genetic sequences of the mitochondrial DNA control region (mtDNA CR) collected from beachings and biopsies with other Bryde’s whales. The mtDNA CR is often used by geneticists to study recent evolutionary histories due to its exceptionally fast mutation rate, capturing even the most subtle of population diversity [5][6]. The geneticists found that the GOMx whales were actually most closely related to a similar Asian species called the Eden’s whale–also previously thought to be a Bryde’s whale–with a ~10% net nucleotide divergence. This was far above the 2% divergence threshold for a distinct species, establishing that a new species likely exists [7]. A multi-year hunt for a holotype followed. First, the NMFS visited museums that held skeletons of GOMx Bryde’s whales, but none had a complete skull. Then, they attempted to recover the skeleton of a whale that washed up in Tampa Bay, Florida after colliding with a ship in 2009 and was subsequently buried in a nearby park [1] as standard disposal practice to prevent spreading infectious diseases or attracting scavengers [8]. Unfortunately, upon excavation in 2018, they found that seeping tides had damaged much of the specimen over its years of burial. Finally, a stroke of luck occurred when in 2019 another individual washed up in Everglades National Park, which had bled to death due to a laceration in its stomach caused by a tiny piece of plastic it swallowed. The NMFS and National Park Service quickly genetically sampled and buried the whale in a more secure location, exhumed the skeleton, and safely transported it to the Smithsonian’s Whale Collections. There, Rosel et al. (2021) had the holotype and morphological evidence, in the form of a unique cranial and nasal structure, needed to formally describe a new species, giving it the scientific name Balaenoptera ricei [1].


Second most endangered in the world


Though identical in external appearance, the Rice’s and Bryde’s whales are otherwise very different. A molecular clock shows that they diverged at least 4-8 million years ago [1, 9], and the few hints we have so far suggest a unique biology for the former. But as further study of the new species unfolds, understanding how exactly it stands apart continues to develop [1, 2, 10, 11]. We know that it’s the only baleen whale native to the GOMx. While the basin receives occasional fin, blue, sei, minke, and right whale visitors, they never stay for long and have no influence on the local ecology [1, 12]. Rice’s whales are also entirely resident, meaning the species stays in the same area year-round and doesn’t migrate. This is the only instance we know of that an entire species of mysticete is tied to a tiny piece of the ocean. While other baleen whales hold populations and subspecies that have settled into areas of reliable year-round productivity, such as the Arabian Sea humpback whales [13] and Gulf of California fin whales [14], their species still include wide-wandering members that will endure when one population tragically dies out. To lose the Rice’s whales is to lose a special diversity, endemism, and ecological role of an entire classification of animals in the GOMx.


This newest species of marine mammal is, ironically, also one of the closest to extinction. The most recent population study from a 2017-2018 survey within US waters numbers 51 individuals left in existence [2], with only 26 of them being mature individuals capable of reproduction [15]. This makes it the second most endangered marine mammal species and arguably the fourth most endangered mammal species in the world. Only the Sumatran rhinoceros, with a slightly lower population of 34-47 individuals [16], Hanian gibbon, with at least 35 individuals [17], and vaquita, with merely 10 individuals remaining [18], inch closer to extinction. As is often the consequence of such a low population, the Rice’s whale also suffers from extremely low genetic diversity. Only two haplotypes, inherited chromosomal DNA variants, were identified from a sample of 36 individuals. Tests for Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium yielded a mean observed heterozygosity frequency of 0.256, meaning that on average, over 74% of the samples’ gene pool were homozygous genotypes that carried only one allele each. Previous studies have shown that healthy Bryde’s whale populations can display an average of 3.6 to 9.3 alleles per loci, or different genes within fixed positions on chromosomes. But examination of 42 loci within the Rice’s whale population showed an average of 2.5 alleles per locus. This lack of diversity underlines the genetic threat Rice’s whales face in restoring populations [5]. With less available alleles, a population has less variety of traits that support adaptability. In addition, increased homozygosity decreases the ability to suppress recessive genes that are deleterious, or cause genetic diseases. Such a low genetic diversity further puts the Rice’s whale at risk of inbreeding depression, which can cause the accumulation of deleterious genes that will further weaken the population [1, 5, 12]. At worst, pessimistic ecologists expect the species to be the first great whale to go extinct in over 300 years and largest victim of the Anthropocene extinction to date [19, 20].


Things look grim for the Rice’s whale, but there is hope: rebounding from the spiral toward extinction is possible. For this, ecologists recommend the 50/500 rule, which postulates that a minimum of 50 viable individuals are required to escape inbreeding depression and 500 individuals to reduce harmful genetic drift [12]. It has been projected that a population of 35 Rice’s whales could achieve the 500 threshold within 68 years if conservation efforts can successfully sustain a recovery trend [12, 21].


Demystifying Gulf of Mexico’s only native mysticete


Setting the stage for this recovery requires better understanding of the ecological dynamics of the Rice’s whale and how it intersects with potential environmental threats. Although the existence of its population was acknowledged for decades, they remained unstudied [4] until the mid 2010s, meaning research of the whale is novel. To unravel the secrets mystifying a new mysticete, scientists face the challenge of finding a starting point to begin at. For the Rice’s whale, this was identification. Because Bryde’s whales were never known in the GOMx, one could infer that any similar baleen whale spotted in the area is likely a Rice’s whale. But since the two can’t be visually distinguished, this geographic inference isn’t an objectively rigorous method. Genetically testing biopsy samples, while conclusive, isn’t feasible for every encounter. Instead, scientists are adopting acoustic measurements as a method of differentiation that is both efficient and readily available [2, 22, 23]. By sticking microphones underwater during ship expeditions, in a procedure called passive acoustic monitoring (PAM), scientists can collect a soundscape of the surrounding ocean environment. While the soundscape will contain ambient noises of both random water sounds and the ship’s own propeller, it may also pick up vocalizations of marine animals that are stereotyped, or unique to them. By identifying these stereotypes from ambient noise, scientists can identify the animal producing them. The possibility of identifying Rice’s whales through their vocalizations was recognized in literature as early as 2014 [22, 23], but it took years of PAMs, survey expeditions, and painstaking data analysis to connect beyond reasonable doubt each potential whale vocalization to the species. It was eventually concluded by 2022 that Rice’s whales have a vocal repertoire of at least three stereotyped call types, the most common and diagnostic being dubbed the long-moans. Sounding like a faraway airplane’s takeoff but slowed-down and muffled, this call was especially easy to identify for its unusually long duration of about 22 seconds on average [2].


Scientists then studied the whale’s feeding behavior. In 2015 and 2018, scientists tagged two Rice’s whales. The suction-cup tags, which contained kinematic recorders, collectively provided nearly 90 hours of data of the individuals’ exact positions and orientations in a 3D space. This revealed their quarter-week routines. With a big gulp of air, the whales descended to the twilight zone and foraged near the seafloor for up to 10 minutes at a time. There, the whales swam large circles around their prey before capturing them with a powerful lunge or two. They spent the entire day cycling between entering deep water to feed (up to 271 meters below the surface) and surfacing to breathe. At nightfall, the whales ascended and hung around the surface, spending 85% of the night within 15 meters of the surface, and descended again at daybreak. [2, 11, 24] This pattern of oscillating between deep and shallow water through day and night is a typical example of diel vertical diving [10]. If the two samples are representative for the Rice’s whale, it’s an unusual strategy, as most baleen whales like the Bryde’s whale will typically feed at the surface or within the sunlight zone [25].


A 2023 study investigated the deep-water diet behind this peculiar behavior using the emerging techniques of stable isotope models. Each animal carries a distinctive signature of stable isotope ratios that broadly reflect that animal’s ecology, most significantly its diet. True to the phrase “you are what you eat,” when a predator eats another animal, the prey’s isotope signatures are integrated into the predator’s tissue. How the predator’s resulting signature is made up depends on what prey it ate and how much of it, creating a sort of chemical food diary. By comparing the stable isotope ratios of tissue samples of the predator and suspected prey and using a set of probabilistic models that addresses the abundance and biomass of suspected prey relative to its ecosystem, one can reconstruct and quantify the entire food web of the predator, including what it specifically targets as its favorite food. This is all without cutting open a single stomach [26, 27]. The scientists measured the stable isotope ratios of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N), the most informative in revealing diet, in skin and blubber biopsy samples of Rice’s whales collected during survey expeditions. They then compared with the ratios found in potential prey species caught during a July 2019 trawling survey in the core habitat, whose relative abundances and biomasses were also determined. The resulting analysis found that the Rice’s whales are picky eaters. Their diet is overwhelmingly composed of a single prey–a stumpy sardine-like schooling fish called the silver-rag driftfish (Ariomma bondi)–which made up over two-thirds of Rice’s whale diet. Interestingly, Rice’s whales do not appear to target the extremely common Atlantic pearlside (Maurolicus weitzmani), a similar schooling fish that made up over 88% of the core habitat’s ecological community by abundance. By contrast, the silver-rag only comprised 1.21% of community abundance. Why bother the effort to seek out a far rarer species? It turns out that the energy content of silver-rags surpasses all other prey by a wide margin. Every pound in wet weight of silver-rag contains on average over 36% more calories than the next animal on the menu. Rice’s whales seem to actively select their prey based on nutritional quality rather than abundance, singling out the silver-rag as the best bang for buck [26].


These feeding preferences also demonstrate an ecological importance of Rice’s whales: as ecosystem engineers. Whales feeding at the seafloor consume nutrients essential for photosynthesis, like iron and phosphorus, and then release them at the surface in massive fecal plumes. Through their diel vertical behavior, Rice’s whales are essentially pumps, cycling nutrients tucked away hundreds of meters deep up into sunlight-rich waters where they stimulate primary productivity. The amount of biomass this can produce is immense; one 2023 study suggests that a population of 2,500 minke whales, the smallest of the baleen whales, can cycle enough phosphorus to support over 70 metric tons of carbon biomass per day [28]. If Rice’s whales achieved a similar population in the past, they would have been no different.


Collision course with an industrialized Gulf


We do not yet know how the Rice’s whales came to be so endangered. Although historical records suggest attempted hunting during the 1700s and 1800s, the NMFS ruled out historical whaling as a likely factor for population decline. None of these records included successful kills, and the population evidently never experienced the dramatic rebound characteristic of other whales hunted to near-extinction in the past once overhunting by humans stopped [29]. But we know what threatens the species today is industrialization. Both the core habitat and secondary western habitats of the Rice’s whale are situated right within the intersection of the most commercially and industrially active waters in North America [10, 12, 29]. This is a place home to ten of the fifteen largest ports in the US and holds vast networks of shipping lanes with hundreds to thousands of giant commercial ships that carry nearly half America’s sea cargo by weight per year [12]. This places Rice’s whales at high risk of a literal collision course with vessel strikes that are prone to going unreported. Because of the species’ diel vertical behavior, risk of collision is especially high during nighttime, when the whales reside at the surface while visibility is reduced [10]. At least two instances of vessel strikes are already documented: the 2009 Tampa Bay beaching and a survivor left with a deformed spine [30]. Using a model for unreported collisions, the NMFS estimated that up to 20 ship strikes already occurred between 2002 and 2018. They further extrapolated that strikes may kill or seriously injure up to 17 Rice’s whales, over 30 percent of the current population, in the next 50 years without increased vessel restrictions [31]. Ships that don’t run over whales still produce voluminous quantities of underwater noise that muffle out vocal communication between whales and cause heavy stress that adversely alter behavior [12, 29].


Figure 3. Diagram illustrating Rice’s whale foraging behavior and its risks by human activity


The northern GOMx is also one of the US’ most active sites for offshore oil exploitation. Since the first drillings in 1942, over 6,000 oil rigs have been installed, with 3,200 active rigs still extracting fossil fuel from the seafloor, and oil companies continuing to explore new marine reservoirs to tap [32]. Exploration involves the frequent use of powerful airguns to blast ground-penetrating sound waves with intensities of up to 260 dB, which easily rupture cetacean eardrums. These airguns fire every few seconds in many parts of the GOMx [12, 29]. But the greatest threat to the Rice’s whales is the oil itself. With so many active oil rigs, the GOMx is a site for frequent spills of this environmentally toxic substance, which ocean currents can carry eastward into the core habitat. While the majority of spills are rather small-scale [33], a combination of wavering environmental regulations and susceptibility of oil companies to skirt those regulations set the groundwork for a catastrophe. We know this because it has already happened. In 2010, an explosion of the BP-operated rig Deepwater Horizon off the coast of Louisiana leaked over 4 million barrels of oil into water. Federal litigation ruled that this would have been preventable if regulations were followed, but BP chose to ignore them [34]. Policy scholars also cited those regulations as too lax to enforce proper accountability anyways [35, 36]. The result was the worst environmental disaster in North American history. Caught in the center were the Rice’s whales. Their core habitat was near the oil rig, and as a result nearly half of this critical refuge was smothered in oil (Figure 2). The consequences on the population are staggering. A 2015 federal investigation found that the event directly killed 17 percent of the population and caused reproductive failure in 22 percent of the female population, in total single-handedly reducing the Rice’s whale population by 22 percent. Take a moment to let that sink in. One-fifth of an entire species was wiped out by a single company’s negligence. Even of the survivors, 18 percent will live on with potentially lifelong illnesses [21]. We were never able to clean up all of the oil, which still remains on the seafloor or as marine snow and other bioaccumulating derivatives that will continue to affect Rice’s whale health [37].


Road to recovery: disentangling environmental policy and politics


Despite the odds against the Rice’s whales, it’s not too late to bring them back from the brink. As emphasized in a 2022 open letter signed by over a hundred marine and wildlife scientists, Rice’s whales are still reproducing [38]. We can still secure a rebound through efforts to eliminate their threats. With 51 individuals balancing on a knife’s edge, the fate of this unique whale lies within the hands of our immediate collective action–or inaction. This is so delicate that there was even a debate over whether an alternate common name “Gulf of Mexico whale” is more effective in inspiring action [20]. Saving an endangered species is no cakewalk, but the road to recovery for Rice’s whales will be especially challenging. Its habitat lies at the intersection of powerful industries, bringing the financial interests of the energy, shipping, and resource sectors, and even the military’s defense interests to the forefront of conservation decisions. 


Rice’s whales are primarily protected under two major environmental laws. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) bans any killing, capture, or harassment of a marine mammal. The latter refers to direct actions with the potential to injure or disrupt its behavior (i.e. causing stress). The NMFS bears responsibility of translating the MMPA into specific regulations [39] and has interpreted harassment as to include harmful activities within proximity of a whale. For example, one MMPA-justified policy requires oil exploration vessels to cease all airgun activities within 500 meters of a whale sighted by onboard protected species observers in GOMx waters east of Mobile, Alabama or within seafloors deeper than 200 meters [40].


The second law is the Endangered Species Act (ESA), of which the species was listed as “Endangered” as a then-unnamed Bryde’s whale subspecies in 2019. The listing was the fruit of years of fierce efforts, beginning with a petition by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) within two months of Rosel & Wilcox (2014)’s publication. The agency subsequently assembled a research team which published their concurring investigation in 2016. The final decision to list was made after additional years of deliberation despite opposition by industry interests and following a mandatory public notice and comment session that received nearly a thousand comments and letters with over 115,000 combined signatures [29].


The ESA mandates the federal government to (1) establish a “critical habitat” zone for a listed species, (2) form a recovery plan that includes a delisting criteria, and (3) execute the plan until the species is delisted [41]. These duties for Rice’s whales are delegated to the NMFS, which is awaiting public comments for a proposed critical habitat uniting the core and secondary habitats until September 2023 [42] and is working on the recovery plan. As they construct the plan, the agency must navigate through environmental and political webs to finalize something that is both effective and legally sound. In 2021, the NMFS hosted a workshop involving 45 scientists, environmental specialists, NGO leaders, and industry representatives to contextualize the focuses of the recovery plan. A Word Cloud illustrated in order the four greatest challenges to Rice’s whale recovery according to participants: small population, vessel strikes, energy exploitation, and insufficient regulation [43].


While the critical habitat remains in progress, measures are being taken to secure the core habitat as a surrogate. In a 2020 biological opinion regarding an expansion to leasing parts of the GOMx for oil and gas, the NMFS proposed a 10-knot daytime speed limit and entry ban during nighttime or low-visibility conditions within the area for oil and gas exploration vessels. Ships traveling at 10 knots or less were significantly less likely to hit large whales than faster speeds. When collisions do occur, the worst would be minor injuries [31]. These recommendations have since been adopted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the agency managing offshore energy leases, as conditions for authorizing oil and gas activities [44]. However, Rice’s whales are still at risk of lethal high-speed collisions by unaffiliated vessels, such as cargo traffic from Florida’s western ports. Recognizing this, a team of six organizations led by the NRDC submitted a petition the following year to expand the NMFS’ proposal as legal policy for all vessels within the core habitat. They pointed out the successes of universal slow-zones for critically endangered North Atlantic Right whales [30], estimated to have reduced the risk of lethal strikes by up to 90 percent [45]. The proposal is not without stakeholder concerns: local fishing communities that rely on hotspots within the core habitat fear paralysis of their main sources of income [46], while the Florida Ports Council, an organization representing the state’s ports, argues it jeopardizes the western ports [467. Nevertheless, the NMFS is now considering the petition and requested public comments until July 2023 [30].


Another victory came in 2023 when the NMFS denied permission for the Florida-based Eglin Air Force Base to test weapons within the core habitat during an authorization renewal. The base frequently conducts tests in the northeastern GOMx with the potential to inflict considerable harm to nearby cetaceans [48]. The NMFS is mandated to review the military’s plans to ensure minimal damage to marine mammals without seriously hampering national defense capabilities. Sometimes accidental harm can’t be avoided, so the NMFS can invoke exemptions in the MMPA and ESA if necessary [39, 48]. By choosing to safeguard the Rice’s whales, the NMFS set an important precedent on how valuable protecting the endangered species is. But this is vulnerable to shifting political landscapes. Opposing the decision was far-right US congressman Matt Gaetz, who tried to see Rice’s whale protections rolled back. Claiming that 51 poorly-known whales should not stand in the way of conflict readiness [49], he went as far as to personally introduce legislation to exempt the species from the MMPA [50]. While Gaetz’s efforts ultimately failed, this demonstrates the political dangers entangling the Rice’s whales.


Towards a future for the whales and us


While successes occur in core habitat, none of these measures cover the western secondary habitats. The secondary isn’t as formally defined as the core yet, but another reason why the NMFS can act swiftly in the core habitat may be because the area sees comparatively little economic pursuits. This is in part due to a congressional moratorium on offshore drilling in the eastern GOMx recently extended by President Trump until 2032 [51]. On the other hand, the majority of oil rigs and vessel activity operate in the western and central GOMx (Figure 2). The Deepwater Horizon spill must remind us of the ease of spillovers into the core habitat. Additionally, whales that venture westward (as confirmed by an acoustic survey [52]) face the brunt of marine industrialization. Any resulting deaths are detrimental to the 51 remaining whales. Protecting these corridors are therefore as important as protecting the core habitat.


The unfortunate reality is that Americans still rely heavily on GOMx oil [53], so an immediate prohibition isn’t feasible. Instead, we must take steps to reduce the impact of existing oil activities while progressively phasing out the industry. In the short term, we ought to demand better government oversight on oil regulations to hold the accountability necessary to prevent negligent spills. In the meantime, the 2021 NMFS workshop also recommended a clean-up: decommissioning the over 14,000 defunct oil wells at risk of spills [43, 54]. While President Biden has since signed into law the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that funds such efforts, the $4.7 billion set aside [55] is a small fry to the estimated $30 billion needed to neutralize all disused GOMx wells [54]. Raising this requires joint political action and/or grassroots fundraising. In the long term, we must collectively discourage oil expansion by supporting renewable energy. This isn’t just innovation; it also means bottom-up environmental justice that opens accessibility to marginalized groups least likely to afford clean technologies. But as we develop renewables, the NMFS workshop emphasized mindfulness to prevent potential harms to the Rice’s whales: poorly-placed marine infrastructure can introduce debris hazards and exacerbate shipping traffic and underwater noise, avoidable through robust spatial planning [43].


Long-term change towards a green future also addresses another fundamental challenge to the Rice’s whales’ future: climate change. With their reliance on a single prey, Rice’s whales are especially vulnerable to the unraveling crisis. The core habitat’s location is no coincidence: it’s within one of the most silver-rag-abundant regions in the northern GOMx [56]. This is thanks to the area’s unique position between the fresh nutrient-rich Mississippi River Delta, the warm Loop Current, and upwelling from the De Soto Canyon, mixing the three waters to produce a highly productive environment [11, 57]. The Loop Current is part of the thermohaline circulation (THC), earth’s global ocean conveyor belt, powered by optimal water temperature and salinity. But as the planet warms, the THC weakens. This diminishes the Loop Current [58], threatening the water-mixing that enriches the core habitat and therefore the abundance of silver-rags that sustain the Rice’s whales. This isn’t an isolated relationship: countless animals globally rely on few resources that may be lost due to climate-induced habitat disruption [59]. By acting to protect and recover the Rice’s whales with a climate mindset addressing big oil and other industrializers of the Gulf, we are not just “saving the whales”: we are also setting a precedent for tackling the looming global catastrophe faced by everyone everywhere.


We have power in the word


A most important component to recovering the Rice’s whale–but one that lags behind–is public awareness. Many Americans remain unaware of the Rice’s whale’s existence. While much can be done through policymaking by the NMFS and other government agencies, their top-down authority alone can only go so far when fundamental long-term and climate-allied change is ultimately necessary to truly pull back the critically endangered species. Rice’s whales are under direct protection by some of the most powerful environmental laws in the world, but the effectiveness of this advantage depends on the willingness of the nation’s citizens to push for lasting change in the GOMx.


Public awareness positively shapes the collective perspective. It combats disinformation [60], such as the false narrative that the new species’ recognition was arbitrarily crafted by “some scientist” [47, 49] to push an agenda, and empowers stakeholders like local boaters to participate in policy-making. This removes barriers to the synthesis of valuable community experience with scientific knowledge into policies that both protects the Rice’s whale and respects community needs. When people learn about species on the brink, it builds sympathy and determination to do what can be done to save them, inspiring political willpower to influence both citizen and government decisions from the bottom-up [61].


Rice’s whales hold strength through their potential to be a charismatic species: their enormous size to man’s eyes captures the icon of a majestic gentle giant. Through its direct relationship with oil, the Rice’s whale can be a flagship for what is preserved–or destroyed–by our choice on climate. Finally, the Rice’s whale is all-American: no other nation can be responsible for its extinction; its fate is the reflection of how we as Americans treat the environment. It’s why senior marine mammalogist Peter Corkeron of the New England Aquarium, one of the leading figures in the species’ conservation effort, suggested Balaenoptera ricei is better called the “American whale” [62].


Informing the people about the Rice’s whale, what our industrial actions are doing to them, and piquing a vision of a brighter future that could be–a healthy Gulf of Mexico echoing with year-round songs of America’s baleen whale, teeming with fish, dolphins, birds, and sea turtles fated not to an oily death but flourishing at a diversity imperceivable today alongside the whale that helped engineer its possibility–is enough to inspire support for the cause.


The road ahead is hard, but there is power for wonderful change in you, the reader, through a simple action. Tell another around you. Let them know: a great American whale is on the brink of extinction. Spread the word.


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