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NOAA wants to lift humpback protections

Most whale groups showing recovery

An adult humpback whale breaches in Lynn Canal near Juneau, Alaska, last July. (Associated Press)
An adult humpback whale breaches in Lynn Canal near Juneau, Alaska, last July. (Associated Press)
Caleb Jones Associated Press

HONOLULU – The federal government on Monday proposed removing most of the world’s humpback whales from the endangered species list, saying the massive mammals have rebounded after 45 years of protection and restoration efforts.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries officials want to reclassify humpbacks into 14 distinct populations and remove 10 of those from the list. The last time the agency delisted a species due to recovery was more than two decades ago.

Approval of the proposal would not mean there will be an open hunting season on humpbacks.

All the whales remain protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act, and the United States is still an active member of the International Whaling Commission, which banned commercial whaling in 1966, said Angela Somma, chief of NOAA Fisheries endangered species division.

Humpbacks are found around the world, and officials say protection and restoration efforts have increased their numbers in many areas. Among those recommended for delisting is the population that migrates each year from Hawaii to Alaska.

NOAA officials said decisions on which whale groups to recommend were based on many factors, including the risks they face. The largest threat to humpbacks is fishing activities that result in the whales becoming tangled in fishing gear and drowning.

Donna Weiting, NOAA’s director for the Office of Protected Resources, said the most important considerations in determining if populations will remain on the list are their size and growth rates.

“Ten of these populations are no longer in danger of extinction, which is our criteria for an endangered listing, nor are they likely to become so in the foreseeable future, our criteria for a threatened status,” she said.

Under the latest plan, two of the humpback populations would be listed as threatened, in Central America and the Western North Pacific. The agency said these whales at times enter U.S. waters.

The other two populations – in the Arabian Sea and off Cape Verde and northwest Africa – would remain listed as endangered.

Marta Nammack, NOAA Fisheries’ national Endangered Species Act listing coordinator, estimates the global population of humpback whales at around 90,000.

Humpbacks were placed on the endangered list in 1970. No data exists on their population then, but Nammack said their numbers were “severely depleted.”

Some populations are growing at a rate of up to 11 percent annually since the listing, which requires federal approval for federally funded or authorized activities that could harm whales or their habitat.

Last year, the state of Alaska filed a petition to remove some North Pacific humpback whales from protection under the Endangered Species Act. That population, estimated at more than 5,800, feeds in Alaska in the summer and breeds in Hawaii in winter.

Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said it’s a good sign the whales are being considered for removal from the list, but it might be premature.

Whales continue to be vulnerable to factors including climate change and ocean acidification, which affects their prey stock, she said.

The last time NOAA removed a species from the endangered list due its recovery was in 1994, when it delisted the eastern North Pacific population of gray whales.

The public has 90 days to comment on the recommended changes.

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