Humpback whales have been removed from Australia’s threatened species list for the first time in 60 years following an incredible recovery in numbers.
The encouraging announcement follows whale populations in Australian waters skyrocketing to around 40,000 thanks to conservation efforts in the area – though experts are warning a warming ocean could unravel some of these gains.
The Australian government is calling the success “one of the most majestic animal recovery stories ever recorded”.
“This is not about removing safeguards for humpbacks, which are still a protected migratory species, but it is a recognition of the success of the outstanding conservation efforts that are in place,” Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said in a statement.
“At the height of the global whaling industry there were as few as 1500 Humpback whales in Australian waters, today that population is believed to be as many as 40,000 individuals and growing."
Humpback whales are found in waters worldwide, with large populations in the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Southern Hemispheres.
Prior to human whaling activity, it is thought there were around 125,000 humpback whales, but population numbers took a steep nosedive after nations began hunting the large animals for their oil, meat, and baleen (the "teeth" of a whale, used for items that need strength and flexibility).
Only a few nations still hunt them, with Greenland and other small nations hunting a few for subsistence and Japan resuming their controversial whale hunting.
The removal of humpback whales from the threatened list is a hopeful sight for some, while some conservationists believe it may be a premature celebration.
Warming waters due to climate change may drastically impact krill populations, which whales rely on for nutrition. Conservation efforts have done incredible work for the whales, but removing them from the list may expose them to vulnerability as these climate impacts worsen.
“We are so appreciative of the concerted efforts undertaken to recover humpback whale populations, we would hate to see those efforts wasted by jumping the gun and removing the whale’s threatened status,” Alexia Wellbelove, senior campaign manager for animal activist group Humane Society International, said in a statement reported by the Guardian.
The group may have a point, as climate change is already severely impacting whale populations. A review from 2021 suggested that rising sea surface temperatures and reduced sea ice is resulting in a "poleward shift" for many cetaceans, with some species favoring the new conditions and others being driven closer to extinction. The changes are also affecting whale migration and breeding habits, directly reducing population sizes.