Good news for the majority of the world’s humpback whales, as they are off the endangered species list. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has announced that nine of the 14 distinct populations of humpback whales have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the list.
This status change doesn’t mean that some humpback whales are not still protected, though. Four of these populations are still listed as endangered, with one listed as threatened.
Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which the NMFS is a part of, divided humpback whales into 14 distinct populations, allowing for some to be potentially taken off the list, where they have been considered “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1970. Before this, the agency had classified all humpback whales as one population.
According to NOAA, a distinct population is “a term coined in the 1978 amendments to the Endangered Species Act [ESA] that allows species to be divided into distinct subgroups or populations and listed under the ESA, based on a number of characteristics.”
“Whales, including the humpback, serve an important role in our marine environment," explained Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries, in a statement. "Separately managing humpback whale populations that are largely independent of each other allows us to tailor conservation approaches for each population."
The recovery of the nine populations is being credited to the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on commercial whaling that was implemented in 1982. The NOAA says the populations that have been taken off the list “appear to no longer be in danger of extinction or likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.”
These include whales found along the eastern coast of the US and Canada, the popular breeding ground of Hawaii, and some in Alaska. The West Indies population is growing 3.1 percent a year, while the East Australia group is positively thriving with an average 11 percent increase per year.
However, whales found in the Pacific Northwest, California, northwest Africa, Mexico, and Central America are all still considered under the protection of ESA. As reported by NPR, according to Marta Nammack, the fisheries service ESA listing coordinator, the Mexico population numbered just 3,200, half of what the researchers had previously thought. The Central American population is estimated at only about 400.
All humpback whales will remain protected under the whaling moratorium and the Marine Mammal Protection Act regardless of their ESA status.
The NOAA concluded in its statement: “The changes are significant because we recognize that the species as a whole is doing well and most populations increased in abundance. Moving forward, having identified these distinct population segments, we now have the flexibility to focus our efforts where they are needed the most.”