NEW ORLEANS - About 1,300 sperm whales in the northern Gulf of Mexico may be different enough from others in their endangered species to be considered for specific protections, the federal government said Thursday.
Many of the sperm whales, most of which are female or young, live in deep water near the mouth of the Mississippi River, said Randall Davis, a Texas A&M marine biology professor who was among those who reported on them in 2001.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries' finding Thursday came in response to a petition filed in December by WildEarth Guardians, a conservation group based in Santa Fe, N.M. The finding will be published Friday in the Federal Register and triggers a study that must be completed by Dec. 14, NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Fionna Matheson said.
The group is happy but not surprised, because their petition is based largely on information in NOAA Fisheries' recovery plan for sperm whales, said WildEarth Guardians' endangered species advocate Taylor Jones.
"It was pretty clear from their own recovery plan that the Gulf of Mexico sperm whales were a pretty unique population and facing heightened threats," she said in an interview.
According to a NOAA webpage, the worldwide sperm whale population may be anywhere from 200,000 to 1.5 million.
She said these whales average 5 to 6 1/2 feet shorter than the worldwide population and travel in "pods" of about 10 animals, and have been seen foraging in shallower water than other sperm whales. They generally don't leave the Gulf and their songs are different from those of other sperm whales, she said.
"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," the group said in a news release.
Davis, who was not involved in the petition, said 18th century whalers harpooned sperm whales - the species featured in Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick - in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal and Texas A&M biologists "sort of rediscovered" them in the 1990s, he said.
"They're found throughout the northern Gulf, but are specially concentrated in and around the mouth of the Mississippi River going east toward Alabama in two large canyons," Davis said. "That's also an area of very active oil and gas exploration and development, and shipping traffic."
Males tend to be solitary, feeding in the polar regions and coming into the Gulf to breed, Davis said.
After the first reports, he said, seismic survey vessels looking for oil and gas had to keep a marine mammal observer on board and stop any explosions if a marine mammal - especially a sperm whale - could be seen from the deck.
If they're classified as a distinct population, they probably would get additional protection, he said. The effect on fisheries and commerce in the northern Gulf will be interesting, he said.
"The Port of New Orleans is one of the busiest in the world and that's only going to increase," he said.
He didn't know what NOAA Fisheries might suggest.
Marta Nammack of NOAA's Office of Protected Resources didn't, either.
She said that if NOAA finds the Gulf sperm whales are a "distinct population segment," proposing rules and getting public comment on them would take another year.
"It's early in the process, so it would be difficult to predict what kind of protections we might do," she said.