The vast majority of the world’s humpback whales, famous for putting on spectacular displays of leaping and splashing that this year have extended into San Francisco Bay, are being taken off the endangered species list in what one federal official called a “true ecological success story.”
But even as the government marks progress that has unfolded over more than four decades, scientists and conservationists said Tuesday that threats remain to humpbacks — including the leviathans that migrate along the California coast every year.
The decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to delist nine of the 14 subspecies of humpbacks under the Endangered Species Act was momentous, highlighting how worldwide protection of the blubbery giants has succeeded since whaling was banned in the United States, fisheries experts said.
However, problems persist with the Central American population, with a federal count of only 411 whales prompting the National Marine Fisheries Service to keep that population on the endangered list. Meanwhile, the Mexico population, with 3,200 animals, was downgraded from endangered to threatened after experts determined that a lot of the animals were still dying from entanglements in commercial fishing gear.
Both the Mexican and Central American populations migrate twice annually along the California coast past San Francisco on their way to and from their breeding grounds. The Central America population feeds off the West Coast, while the Mexico population feeds off the West Coast and Alaska.
“Obviously it’s good news that some humpback populations are rebounding, but we are still very far from the number of whales that existed before the years of commercial exploitation,” said Jackie Dragon, who works to protect whales for Greenpeace. “It’s definitely good to celebrate the successes that we’ve had, but we should remain vigilant.”
The delisting of many humpbacks means, among other things, that federal agencies will no longer have to consult with NOAA when they take action that may affect those whale populations that are no longer on the endangered list. Nevertheless, all humpbacks remain protected in U.S. waters and on the high seas under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, said Angela Somma, chief of the NOAA Fisheries’ endangered species division.
The worldwide humpback population has been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1970 after the whales were nearly wiped out by commercial hunting. Before 1900, an estimated 15,000 humpbacks lived in the North Pacific. In the 20th century, their numbers dwindled to fewer than 1,000.
The International Whaling Commission’s whaling ban, imposed in 1982, played a major role in the comeback. Between 75,000 and 80,000 humpbacks now live in the world’s oceans, and many of those survivors migrate through the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
“Today’s news is a true ecological success story,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries. “Whales, including the humpback, serve an important role in our marine environment.”
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SOURCE: SF Gate, Peter Fimrite