Back From the Brink of Extinction, Humpback Whales May Lose Endangered Species Protections

The move would be a rare victory for the Endangered Species Act.

Humpback whale and its calf. (Photo: Kerstin Meyer/Getty Images)

Apr 21, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The federal government is proposing to end endangered species protections for most humpback whales.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Monday that after 45 years of conservation efforts, such as the International Whaling Commission’s commercial whaling ban of 1966, 10 of the 14 distinct humpback whale populations around the world may no longer be endangered. These include the Mexico and West Indies populations that frequent the coasts of the United States.

Since hunting of humpbacks was banned, the global population has rebounded from a low of 5,800 to more than 80,000 estimated in the ocean today.

“The return of the iconic humpback whale is an [Endangered Species Act] success story,” Eileen Sobeck, NOAA’s assistant administrator for fisheries, said in a press release.

NOAA said four humpback populations still at risk of extinction would retain endangered species status. Those include the Central American and Western North Pacific populations, which traverse U.S. waters, and the Arabian Sea and Northwest Africa populations, which do not enter U.S. waters.

“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 the most,” Sobeck said.

But some conservation groups are concerned that shifting the humpback’s conservation status from globally protected to individually monitored may harm the entire species.

Humpback Whale Not Endangered

Approximate locations of proposed humpback whale distinct population segments:

1. West Indies
2. Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa
3. Western North Pacific

4. Hawaii
5. Mexico
6. Central America
7. Brazil
8. Gabon/Southwest Africa
9. Southeast Africa/Madagascar
10. West Australia
11. East Australia
12. Oceania
13. Southeastern Pacific
14. Arabian Sea.


(Infographic: Courtesy NOAA)

“It’s heartening to see that some humpback whales are recovering, but it’s premature to remove protections when so many threats, like climate change and ocean noise, are increasing,” Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement.

If the 10 populations of humpback whales lose endangered species status, U.S. ships and commercial fishermen in international waters will no longer be required to check whether their operations are creating underwater noise loud enough to harass the whales. In U.S. waters, however, humpbacks would still be protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Since the commercial whaling ban, most non-natural humpback deaths have resulted from strikes from large ocean vessels, entanglement in fishing gear, and habitat destruction, according to NOAA.

Since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, few species put under its protection have recovered well enough to be removed, and some have gone extinct. Among marine mammals, the most recent delisting occurred in 1994, when the gray whale was deemed recovered to its pre–whale hunting population.

Check out the map below to see the humpback whale populations around the world.