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A humpback whale and calf swim side by side

Humpback whale and calf.

Texaus1/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Most humpback whales no longer endangered, United States says

The U.S. government announced Tuesday that it has removed most humpback whales from the federal endangered species list, saying that they have fully recovered in the last 46 years. The move marks “a true ecological success story,” said Eileen Sobeck, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) assistant administrator for fisheries in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a 6 September statement.

The plan has been in the works for more than a year. Previously, NOAA regarded all humpback whales as a single population. Under the new plan, the whales will be classified into 14 distinct population segments, and the fate of each considered separately.

Nine of these populations, including whales that breed in Hawaii, Australia, and the West Indies, are now regarded as sufficiently recovered and no longer in need of the protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision to remove these populations was “based on the best available scientific information” and “extensive public comments,” said Angela Somma, chief of NOAA Fisheries’ endangered species division in Silver Spring, in a press conference yesterday.

Five of the iconic species’ populations will remain on the list because of their low numbers and continuing threats.

Whereas some conservationists were excited about the proposal last year, the final decision has left others dismayed.

“Some humpbacks are on the road to recovery … but the job isn’t finished,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, California, in a statement. “The plan may be a win for some populations, but for others, it is grossly inept,” adds Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a cetacean biologist with in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She and Monsell argue that the whales face increasing threats, particularly from ship strikes and entanglement in commercial fishing gear.

NOAA, however, says that all humpbacks—even those removed from the list—are safe because of other federal regulations and protections provided by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In addition, they note, an international ban on commercial whaling remains in place. Uncontrolled whaling, which ended in 1966, brought the humpback and other large cetaceans to the edge of extinction.

Under the new decision, humpback populations in the Arabian Sea, Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa, western north Pacific, and Central America remain listed as endangered. The Mexico population, which feeds off California, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska, has been downlisted to threatened. NOAA had hoped it was sufficiently recovered to remove from the list, but discovered that there are only about 3200 animals in this population, about half of what scientists thought.

Humpback whale populations in the West Indies, Hawaii, Brazil, Gabon/Southwest Africa, southeast Africa/Madagascar, west Australia, east Australia, Oceania, and the Southeastern Pacific are considered recovered and are off the list. “They are no longer at risk of extinction,” Somma said. Still, NOAA intends to monitor these populations for the next decade to ensure their continued success.