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Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz wants Congress to OK killing rare whale

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Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz wants Congress to OK killing rare whale

Jun 06, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Craig Pittman
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Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz wants Congress to OK killing rare whale
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A Rice's whale, the recently discovered species that lives only in the Gulf of Mexico. They're on the endangered species list. Source: NOAA

Of all the movies ever made in Florida — “Body Heat,” “Cocoon,” and “Spring Breakers,” to name a few — the one with the oddest concept was “The Truman Show.”

Jim Carrey plays a man with a sunny disposition who has no idea that secret cameras are recording every moment of his life for the entertainment of millions.

“Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night,” he’d cheerfully tell his neighbors, not realizing they were actors.

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz wants Congress to OK killing rare whale
Matt Gaetz via his congressional website

This movie was filmed in a seaside Florida town named Seaside. The town is real, not a movie set. I know someone who grew up in the house that Carrey’s character occupied in the movie, and so do you. His name is Matt Gaetz, and he’s the pompadoured U.S. congressman representing a chunk of the Panhandle.

Lately, though, Gaetz, R-Venmo, seems to be copying a much dourer fictional character. He’s been styling himself after Captain Ahab from “Moby Dick.”

He’s set a course to take out a whale. Or several.

Not a white whale, of course. No, he wants to harm the rarest whale on earth.

The Rice’s whale is the only one that lives entirely in the Gulf of Mexico. The species, discovered only recently, is definitely endangered. Scientists estimate that there are fewer than 100 of them — maybe as few as 51.

And Gaetz wants Congress to OK the military bombing the heck out of them.

Even though the military doesn’t want to do that.

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz wants Congress to OK killing rare whale
Martha Collins, via Healthy Gulf

“This is just a congressman who’s grandstanding,” said Martha Collins, executive director of the environmental group Healthy Gulf.

Stupid things

This story started nearly 60 years ago, and in a very Florida way.

In 1965, a 30-foot whale beached itself near the sleepy North Florida town of Panacea. This was a year before the debut of “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” so the average person didn’t know much about marine life. Folks who flocked to the scene started clambering all over the blubbery body as if they were kids on a playground.

Someone told me the boy who first found the whale is still around, so I called him up. Rex Wheeler is in his 70s now, but he’s never forgotten seeing that whale way back then. I asked him why everyone climbed on it.

“People does stupid things,” said the former commercial fisherman.

Initially, the whale was still alive. After people played on it for a while, the sick creature flicked its tail and sent one kid flying 10 feet in the air.  They left it alone after that. Someone towed the whale back out to sea, but it beached itself again and died.

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz wants Congress to OK killing rare whale
People climb on a stranded Rice’s whale near Panacea in 1965, via Florida State Archives

A Coast Guard captain named Bill Schley snapped a photo of the bizarre sight of the crowd crawling all over the ailing whale. The picture ran in the Tallahassee Democrat. The Associated Press picked it up, so it was carried in newspapers around the nation.

That odd AP photo crossed the desk of whale biologist Dale W. Rice, who had graduated from the University of Florida. He’d moved to a marine mammal laboratory in Seattle, where he was working on a book called “The Life History and Ecology of the Gray Whale.”

Intrigued by the photo, Rice wrote a one-page note about it in an obscure Norwegian whaling journal. He said the anatomy visible in the photo suggested that this whale was from a species not seen before in the gulf.

He was right. When another stranding in 2019 led to the finding that this was indeed a new whale species, it wound up being named for Rice, three years after his death,

By then, something far worse than rubberneckers climbing on a beached whale had happened. The 2010 BP oil spill in the gulf did some major damage to the seldom-seen whales.

The Rice’s whales have no teeth for chomping down on prey. Instead, they have a substance called “baleen” that filters their food as it goes into their mouths. Oil can get stuck in the baleen, making it tough for them to eat without swallowing oil and getting sick.

Biologists estimate that oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 17% of the Rice’s whale population. They also estimate that 22 percent of the females that survived were unable to produce healthy, live calves.

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed adding these new whales to the endangered species list, you can probably guess the one group that objected: the offshore oil industry.

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz wants Congress to OK killing rare whale
Christian Wagley via Healthy Gulf

“The oil industry is just digging in and fighting anything that might change the way they do things,” said Christian Wagley, the resident whale expert for Healthy Gulf.

Fortunately, the industry failed on that one.

NOAA has now proposed critical habitat for Rice’s whales. Spokeswoman Allison Garrett told me the agency hopes to complete its final rule on that by this summer. I bet those overfed oil executives scream bloody murder about that too.

The latest scientific research has found that Rice’s whales can occupy a stretch of the gulf from Mexico to the Florida Panhandle. But mostly they prefer to stay in the DeSoto Canyon, a 3,000-foot-deep ditch in the continental shelf that starts about 60 miles off Pensacola and runs down to Fort Myers.

“The whales have been hanging out off of Florida because it’s quieter over here,” Wagley explained. “It’s like a refuge over here compared to the western gulf, where the oil wells are.”

But that’s what put them in Gaetz’s crosshairs.

Fully involved

Eglin Air Force Base, located near the Panhandle town of Valparaiso, is known for three things:

It’s the largest air base in the world.

It’s where Hunter S. Thompson launched his gonzo journalism career.

As John Candy and Joe Flaherty used to say on “SCTV”, they take stuff and “blow it up reeeeeal good.”

Eglin is in the weapons testing business. If the Pentagon ever built a Death Star like the one in “Star Wars,” they’d test it at Eglin. (Who knows? Maybe they already have.)

One place where they test these weapons is the 120,000-square-mile Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range, which is out over the water. Here’s how Gaetz described it last year in front of the House Armed Services Committee: “The eastern Gulf of Mexico is one of the most exquisite places in the world for weapons testing.”

For some reason, the Florida Chamber of Commerce has NOT put that on a bumper sticker or a postcard yet.

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz wants Congress to OK killing rare whale
Jets from Eglin AFB fly in formation over Northwest Florida, via Eglin AFB

Because this is the area where Rice’s whales can be found, Eglin has to be cautious about hurting them. They’re protected under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Gaetz was horrified by the idea that rare whales might be getting in the way of blowing stuff up. In case you couldn’t tell from his ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last year, he just looooves to blow stuff up.

That’s why he took this up with the House Armed Services Committee in 2023.

“The Department of Commerce literally shut down live fire testing in a place where this is the only place where we do live fire testing,” he told the members of the committee last year

He urged the committee to adopt a measure he’d drafted that would allow the Secretary of Defense to invoke a national security exception to federal endangered species rules. They voted for it but, fortunately, that language was later stripped from the bill.

Now he’s brought it up a second time, telling the same committee the same sad story, and once again convincing them to put his exemption into the defense bill.

“The concern over these … whales has led to a real negative impact on that testing,” he said last month.

There’s just one teensy little problem with what Gaetz told the committee. Calling the man a liar seems rude, especially since there’s talk he might run for governor soon. Instead, let’s just say that his pants were what firefighters like to call “fully involved.”

Eglin’s environmental leadership

When he tweeted about this situation last year, Gaetz wrote, “A serious nation would not sacrifice national security for the sake of accommodating whales.”

Here’s the thing, though. Protecting endangered species is the law — and it turns out that’s a law that the folks in charge of Eglin take seriously.

Just last year, for instance, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials declared that Eglin had done such a great job restoring the habitat of a tiny fish called the Okaloosa darter that they were removing them from the endangered species list. That doesn’t happen often.

Environmental advocates rave about what dedicated stewards of Florida’s natural bounty the folks at Eglin have been.

“Real environmental leadership has been realized by Eglin,” an official from the Natural Resources Defense Council told the Pensacola News Journal recently.

Air Force officials didn’t ask for Eglin to be exempted from this law.

“Live fire has not been curtailed due to concerns with the Rice’s whale,” a base spokesman told the Pensacola newspaper last year

Eglin officials worked with NOAA to make sure the whales — and dolphins too — are protected, Wagley told me. They obtained an “incidental take” permit that sets certain requirements for how they proceed with the tests.

That permit just happened to expire right before Gaetz got his dander up last year. Now it’s been renewed until 2030, Garrett says.

I don’t know why some Republicans like Gaetz like to make endangered species a target of their political scorn.

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz wants Congress to OK killing rare whale
Nathaniel Reed in 1969, via Florida State Archives

The Endangered Species Act was co-written by a Florida Republican named Nathaniel Reed. When it passed Congress, it was signed into law by a Republican president who frequently wintered in Florida (although if he ever went to the beach, he wore wingtips, not flip flops).

It’s especially baffling in the case of Gaetz because his mother, Vicky, is well known for her work on behalf of animal welfare.

“A child raised in our household would be naturally inclined to love animals,” she once told the Miami Herald.

Perhaps her son just needs to be better educated about this imperiled animal. Initially, I was inclined to suggest that the best way for Gaetz to learn more about Rice’s whales would be for him to emulate another famous whale watcher, Jonah. You know, get the inside story.

Instead, I think the folks at Eglin should invite Gaetz to help them patrol the testing range for whales. Promise him lots of photos and video — he’ll definitely want that.

Then they can provide him with an inflatable raft that he can use to cruise the waters while keeping an eye out. If the raft leaks, he can re-inflate it with his nearly limitless supply of hot air.

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