A humpback whale breaches off shore in late March.

A humpback whale breaches off shore in late March.

NOAA

Some humpback whales may lose endangered status

The U.S. government proposed removing most of the world’s humpback whale populations from the federal endangered species list today, saying that many of the marine mammals have recovered in the 45 years since they were first listed. “We’re happy to announce a conservation success story,” said Donna Wieting, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, in a telephone press conference today. She explained that efforts to bring the species back from the brink of extinction worked.

“This is good news for whales and whale conservation and should be cause for celebration, not a reason to run screaming from the room,” says Patrick Ramage, whale program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It shows that when we take appropriate steps to protect whales, they can recover.”

The proposal will reclassify the world’s humpback populations—the most iconic of whale species—into 14 distinct segments based on scientists’ recommendations. If the proposal is approved (which is expected to happen next year), only two of these populations will remain on the endangered list; another two will be considered threatened. The threatened populations—the Central American and the Western North Pacific humpbacks—enter U.S. waters during their migrations. But the two that will keep their endangered status—Arabian Sea and Cape Verde Islands—do not.

Humpbacks no longer protected by the federal Endangered Species Act will continue to be guarded by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which offers many of the same protections, Wieting says.

Humpback whales were placed on the endangered species list in 1970 after the whaling industry severely depleted their numbers around the world. Indeed, the humpback numbers were so low the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned hunting them in 1966. Only in 1982 did the IWC enact a ban on the commercial whaling of all whale species.

The new proposal stems from a 2010 NOAA Fisheries review of humpback whales, which number about 100,000 today. Using morphological, genetic, and biogeographical data, the agency determined that humpback whales are not a single global population, but are instead 14 distinct segments that rarely intermingle. For instance, the Arabian Sea population migrates laterally between the shores of Yemen and India; the 13 other humpback populations make similar seasonal migrations, but do so longitudinally. Some travel about 6400 kilometers between their breeding and feeding grounds. “As we learn more about the species—and realize the populations are largely independent of each other—managing them separately allows us to focus protection on the animals that need it most,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries, in a press release.

The new population classification should be seen as a “sign of progress in our understanding and recognition of biological populations,” says Scott Baker, a conservation geneticist at Oregon State University, Corvallis, whose lab provided some of the data for the reclassification. Each population, he explains, “has an independent history of whaling and recovery. Some have done very well, and others have lagged behind.”

Scientists say that some humpback whale populations were hunted more than others, and for longer periods of time, which explains why certain populations remain low. There are perhaps 500 in the Arabian Sea, whereas 10,000 come to Hawaiian waters to breed, and another 21,800 travel between Western Australia and Antarctica. A previous study suggests that prior to whaling, humpbacks numbered about 125,000.

Conservationists generally agree with NOAA Fisheries’ recommendations, while warning that humpbacks—and all whale species—continue to face threats from such things as fishing gear entanglement, ship strikes, energy development, pollution, climate change, and ocean acidification. “While the proposal is positive news on some fronts, it’s important to understand that some populations are still recovering and under risk of extinction,” says Howard Rosenbaum, a marine biologist and director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s oceans giants program. “And the U.S. is not removing [those population segments] from the endangered list.”

NOAA Fisheries’ proposal will be available for public comment for the next 90 days.