Agency proposes lifting protections for most humpback whales

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

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.

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 single 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 whether 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."

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.

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