How Did the Endangered Humpback Whales Escape Extinction?

Sep 11, 2016 09:09 AM EDT

Most of the humpback whales are endangered no more. NOAA Fisheries has already announced that nine out of 14 well-known humpback whales have been delisted from the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, as they are no longer eligible to be considered "endangered." There are five humpback populations that will keep their present statuses, with four of these endangered while another one threatened.

"The data behind the humpback delisting is solid," Robert Pitman, a NOAA marine ecologist, told National Geographic. "Those of us that have been on the water working with whales for the past thirty to forty years have been amazed at the recovery that we have seen."

This is good news to the dwindling humpack whales population. But how did these endangered whales escape extinction?

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'Dividing' the Species

Each of the 14 species have different needs and are "genetically distinct". They are each of their own; they even go on their separate ways during breeding season. There are a lot of humpback whales and each population has their own distinct traits; that is why "dividing" them bioligically makes sense.

"We may not be able to delist the entire species," says Marta Nammack, National Endangered Species Act listing coordinator from NOAA Fisheries. "But by dividing them up the way we did, we can see substantial progress for their recovery across a good portion of the species."

For example, in the Arabian Sea, there are only 82 humpback whales in the area whereas in Hawaii, there are more than 10,000 whales. It is believed that death by entanglement in fishing nets is not a threat in Hawaii compared to other places.

Still Under Protection

Majority of the humpback whales are delisted, but despite that, they are still under protection under the laws that will make sure that their population will not plunge down again.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, harassing, feeding, hunting, capturing or killing any marine mammals within the U.S. is strictly prohibited. Meanwhile, the International Whaling Commission already issued a humpack whale ban since 1982, and according to Nammack, that would probably not change anytime soon. There will also be new rules that will command the tourism operators from Alaska and Hawaii to implement strict distance limits.

Also, NOAA Fisheries has filed two regulations stating that whale watching boats and other vessels have to keep a 100-yard distance from the humpbacks. These regulations were filed at the time of the delisting.

An article on The Australian states that all the humpback whale populations in the southern hemisphere are endangered no more, while in Mexico, they are still threatened. Areas where humpback whale populations are still considered treathened include the Arabian Sea, Cape Verde/Northwest Africa, Central American waters and the western north Pacific.

More Perils to Face

Kristen Monsell, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that despite the delisting, "the job isn't done" yet. She believes that humpback whales still need protection from threats such as climate change, ocean noise and ship strikes.

Meanwhile, WWF Australia also agrees that there are still threats for the humpbacks. "Climate change impacts on prey and habitat, harmful marine debris, potential overfishing of target prey species, increased shipping traffic causing fatal strikes, and offshore oil and gas development are issues that will affect humpbacks and other whale species into the future," said WWF Australia whale researcher Chris Johnson.

"We must keep their habitats and ocean highways safe in the years ahead to maintain this recovery," he added.

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