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Threatened and Endangered Species of the Southeastern United States

June 09, 2023

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act by getting to know some of the threatened and endangered species found in the waters of the southeastern United States.

A Rice’s whale swimming near the surface. A Rice's whale swimming near the surface. Photo: NOAA Fisheries (ESA/MMPA Permit No. 779-1633).
ESA 50th Anniversary Identifier featuring illustrated salmon, sawfish, and coral

In 1973, with wide bipartisan support, Congress passed and the president signed the Endangered Species Act, one of the most powerful conservation laws in history. This landmark legislation is an effective tool for conserving species and their habitats.

Join us in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Act by learning about some of the listed species in the Southeast region.

Rice’s Whale

The Rice’s whale, originally listed as the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale Distinct Population Segment, is listed as endangered. Although researchers have known about these whales for years, they were recognized as a unique species just 2 years ago. The Rice’s whale is one of the most endangered whales in the world. Its population size is estimated to be fewer than 100 animals. The Rice’s whale is the only baleen whale known to reside in the Gulf of Mexico year-round. 

With partners, we began a multi-year study in 2018 and 2019. We collected data on the physical, oceanographic, and biological features that may influence Rice’s whale distribution. There is still a lot to learn. Recovery of the species depends on the protection of each remaining whale from threats such as vessel strikes, ocean debris, and entanglement in fishing gear. We developed a recovery outline to provide a preliminary strategy for conservation of the Rice’s whale.

Learn more about the Rice’s whale

A leatherback sea turtle swimming at the ocean surface. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Leatherback Sea Turtle

The leatherback sea turtle is listed as endangered. It is the largest sea turtle in the world and can grow to a length of about 6 feet and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Leatherbacks are named for their tough rubbery skin and are the only species of sea turtle that lacks a hard shell. They are also skilled divers with the deepest recorded dive reaching nearly 4,000 feet—deeper than most marine mammals. Once widespread in every ocean except the Arctic and Antarctic, leatherback populations are rapidly declining in many parts of the world. The greatest threats to leatherbacks worldwide are incidental capture in fishing gear (bycatch), climate change, ocean pollution/marine debris, vessel strikes, and the harvest of turtles and their eggs.

Learn more about the leatherback sea turtle

manta ray flower garden banks
Giant manta ray in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: George Schmahl/Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

Giant Manta Ray

The giant manta ray was listed as threatened in 2018. It is the world’s largest ray with a wingspan of up to 29 feet. Giant manta rays are slow-growing migratory fish that are sparsely distributed across the world. They are filter feeders who eat large quantities of zooplankton. The main threat to the giant manta ray is capture in fishing gear. The species is both targeted and caught as bycatch in a number of global fisheries throughout its range. Manta rays are particularly valued for their gill rakers—comb-like bony projections used to filter food from the water. We have developed a recovery outline to provide a preliminary strategy for recovery of the species and recommend high priority actions to stabilize and recover the species.

Help us learn more by reporting any giant manta ray you see. If possible, please take photos or video of the ray and note your location. Share your information by calling us at (727) 824-5312 or emailing manta.ray@noaa.gov.

Learn more about the giant manta ray

Photo looking down at a brownish smalltooth sawfish as it lies on a sandy floor.
Smalltooth sawfish. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Smalltooth Sawfish

The smalltooth sawfish is one of five species of sawfish and was listed as endangered in 2003. Sawfish get their name from their distinct rostrum—a long, flat snout edged with teeth—that looks like a saw. All sawfish belong to a group of fish called elasmobranchs that includes rays, skates, and sharks. Elasmobranchs have no bones. Instead, their skeletons are made of cartilage, a firm tissue more flexible than bone. Smalltooth sawfish live in tropical seas and estuaries of the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States, they can be found in Florida’s coastal waters. Smalltooth sawfish populations declined dramatically during the second half of the 20th century due to habitat loss associated with coastal development and accidental capture in fisheries.

If you catch or see a sawfish, take a quick photograph of the sawfish, estimate its size, note your location, and please share the details with scientists. The details of sightings or catches of sawfish help experts monitor the population and track the recovery progress. You can share your information by calling (844) 4-SAWFISH (844-472-9347) or submit your encounter online.

Learn more about the smalltooth sawfish

Naeem is about to release an adult Gulf sturgeon after an acoustic transmitter was implanted.
Naeem Willett is about to release an adult Gulf sturgeon after an acoustic transmitter was implanted. Credit: Delaware State University/Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Gulf Sturgeon

The Gulf sturgeon is a subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon. In 1991, Gulf Sturgeon were listed as threatened after their population was greatly reduced or eliminated throughout much of their range due to overfishing, dams, dredging, and habitat degradation. They can be found from Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana and the Pearl River system in Mississippi, east to the Suwannee River in Florida. Portions of their range have been designated as critical habitat. Gulf sturgeon spawn in rivers in the spring and fall and spend the summer months in the riverine habitat between the upstream spawning areas and the estuary. Adults move into marine waters in the winter, but younger fish remain in the estuarine and freshwater habitats until about 2 or 3 years old. NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jointly manage and protect Gulf sturgeon.

Like shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon, you can help us learn more by reporting any sturgeon you come across. This helps scientists better understand sturgeon populations, track recovery efforts, and identify threats to the species. If you see a stranded, injured or dead sturgeon, immediately contact the NOAA Fisheries, Southeast Region at (844) STURG 911 (844-788-7491) or via email at noaa.sturg911@noaa.gov.

Learn more about the Gulf sturgeon

Tan elkhorn coral with white around the edges.
Elkhorn coral. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Elkhorn Coral

Elkhorn coral, one of seven listed coral species in the Southeast region, was listed as threatened in 2006. Elkhorn coral can form dense groups called “thickets” in very shallow water. These provide important habitat for many other reef animals, especially fish. Elkhorn coral was once a dominant coral on Caribbean reefs. In the 1980s, the elkhorn coral population declined by 97 percent from white band disease. This disease and others kill the coral’s tissues. The greatest current threat to elkhorn coral is ocean warming, which can cause the corals to release the algae that live in their tissue and provide them food, and can result in death. NOAA Fisheries has designated four critical habitat areas in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to protect substrate of suitable quality and availability to support successful larval settlement and recruitment, and reattachment and recruitment of fragments.

Learn more about elkhorn coral

Last updated by Southeast Fisheries Science Center on June 20, 2023