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Air Force base could threaten Florida's endangered Rice's whale

Rice's whale, Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries
Rice's whale, Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

In 2021, scientists confirmed a new species of whale in Florida after one washed up in the Everglades in 2019. The Rice’s whale, also known as the Gulf of Mexico whale, was previously considered a Bryde’s (pronounced broodus) whale. The Rice’s whale has an estimated population of less than 50, making it an endangered animal.

Also in the Gulf of Mexico, the Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range (EGTTR) of the Eglin Air Force Base covers about 120,000 square miles of the Gulf and about 724 square miles of Florida’s panhandle. This area is used for testing machines, aircraft and weapons, as well as training for different operations. It is the largest Air Force base in the world.

On Sept. 7, 15 members of Congress wrote a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) urging them to issue a waiver for the Air Force Base after NOAA proposed a rule designating 28,271 square miles as a critical habitat for the Rice’s whales, according to NOAA. The rule was proposed July 24 and comments will close Oct. 6.

The letter was signed by Florida Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, as well as Reps. Matt Gaetz, Anna Paulina Luna, Gus M. Bilirakis, Carlos A. Giménez, Daniel Webster, Bill Posey, Scott Franklin, John H. Rutherford, Michael Waltz, Laurel Lee, Aaron Bean, Cory Mills and Kat Cammack.

The letter also said the testing “includes hypersonic weapons testing, a critical capability which the U.S. trails both Russia and China in development.”

The EGTTR is “the only qualified air-to-ground supersonic range east of the Mississippi River,” according to the letter.

“The range is vital for naval pilots to become proficient in the capabilities of their platforms, and for our armed services to research, develop, and safely test their latest aircraft, munitions and other capabilities vital to our national security,” Waltz (FL-6) said.

The letter also stated that “any continued impact to the EGTTR due to this proposed rule would be completely avoidable and unnecessary considering there are no known instances of DoD activities that has killed or injured Rice’s Whales, and the DoD secured an incidental take permit for the species following its listing under the Endangered Species Act.”

Additionally, Gaetz (FL-1), proposed an amendment to exempt the EGTTR from the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

This exemption was not asked for by the Eglin Air Force Base directly, he said.

“A serious nation would not sacrifice national security for the sake of accommodating 51 whales,” Gaetz said.

He added that the Eglin Range Complex is operated by the 96th Test Wing, which “has invested countless resources to ensure that no known populations of the species are impacted during their vital testing.”

“NOAA’s proposed rules risk grave and lasting consequences to our national defense,” he said. “They are targeting military operations by impacting areas available for use in munitions testing, surface vessel traffic, and a swath of other areas. This impacts the availability of airspace and surface lanes, limiting crucial sorties for manned, unmanned, and weapons systems testing and training.”

The Rice’s whale’s protections

Although Rice’s whales were only confirmed as their own species in 2021, they have been around for much longer. They were named after Dale W. Rice, who first published that Bryde’s whales lived in the Gulf of Mexico in 1965, according to NOAA.

Right now, Rice’s whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Jane Davenport, a senior conservation law attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, said.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the Rice’s whale is protected by take prohibitions. Take is a term used to mean you can not intentionally or accidentally harm, capture or kill an endangered animal, she said.

“If you're engaging in an otherwise lawful activity that might harm or injure or kill the whale, then you have to get authorization to undertake that activity,” Davenport said. “So you have to get a permit through the statute.”

This includes direct action, such as harpooning whales or vessel strikes, but also indirect action, such as habitat degradation.

“You have to consider what's the likelihood that that action is going to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat,” Davenport said.

Another important thing to consider is not only the possibility of modifying the critical habitat needed for a species to survive but also for it to recover so that the species no longer needs the protections, she said.

“It's still not too late, but we have to really double down and commit to making sure that these statutes are implemented and enforced so that we have a chance of turning that tide,” Davenport said.

While in the past some species protected by the Endangered Species Act have been lost, if the Rice’s whale were lost, this would be the first large whale protected under the act, and one of the biggest, not only in terms of the size of the animal but in terms of its ecological importance to a healthy ocean ecosystem, to be lost, she said.

“It's the only large whale that's found only in the United States,” she said.” So, it is like an American whale and no one knows about it.”

The whale pump

Part of that vital role in the ocean’s ecosystem is a process called the whale pump.

“What happens with the Rice's whale is that it's living far offshore and in areas that really are almost like a desert,” Christian Wagley, the Florida-Alabama coastal organizer at Healthy Gulf, said. They live in water that is very blue, which is an indication of low productivity and nutrient cycles, he said.

When the whales, who breathe air at the surface, need to feed, they dive deep into the ocean and filter through a school of fish with their mouths open, he said.

“They've got to come back to the surface again to breathe and what happens is when they come back to the surface again and they defecate, they're literally moving nutrients from the deep sea bottom of the Gulf of Mexico up to the surface,” Wagley said.

From there, those nutrients feed phytoplankton, which feed larger organisms, he said.

“So the whales are literally recycling and bringing nutrients up from the bottom to be used by the ecosystem close to the surface,” he said.

When people ask why they should care about the whales or what good they are, aside from the moral question of value, the whale pump provides a direct benefit, he said.

“With the whales, the Gulf ecosystem is a richer place,” Wagley said.

We’ve done this before 

“The Endangered Species Act is the law of the land. It's 50 years old this year, and it reflects Americans’ broad support for conserving the plants and animals that share this nation with us and that law says that not only will we protect an endangered species, but we will recover to a healthy level again,” Wagley said. “So there's no question about whether we will do that with the Rice’s whale.”

Some of the issues regarding the protection of the Rice’s whale have already been worked out with the North Atlantic Right whale, which is native to the East Coast, Wagley said.

The process of protecting the North Atlantic Right whale is probably 15-20 years ahead of the process for the Rice’s whale, he said.

“So we don't have to completely start from scratch,” he said. “We've learned a lot on the Atlantic side about how to protect whales from vessel strikes by slowing vessels down in certain places and the shipping industry has adapted over there.”

Eglin Air Force Base conservation 

The Eglin Air Force Base has been operating since 1935, according to their website. In 2021, it received the Natural Resources Conservation, Large Installation award from the Department of Defense.

“Eglin Air Force Base has a long history of conservation, award-winning conservation,” Wagley said. “They have a long history of excellent stewardship of a number of endangered species that occur on the base and they can do the same thing and working to protect marine mammals like the Rice's whale.”

Wagley noted that there is an exemption to the Endangered Species Act for national security purposes. This could be claimed if it was necessary. However, Eglin Air Force Base got a new permit for marine mammals last spring, and it did not ask for an exemption, Wagley said.

“So that says that they can,” he said. “They can find a way to continue to do the testing and training that they do that's so important, and protect national security. And also protect the whales and other animals.”

Lauren is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.