The state of Alaska is asking the federal government to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the humpback whales that swim between Alaska and Hawaii, spending months each year off Alaska's Arctic Coast, a prospective oil-rich region.
The state on Wednesday filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service to "delist" whales that feed in Alaska in the summer and breed in Hawaii in winter. The state wants those humpbacks defined as a distinct, central North Pacific population, which could lead to removal of protection for them even if other humpback populations remain officially endangered.
The larger population of whales throughout the North Pacific had dwindled to fewer than 1,400 in 1966, when the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling. The animals have rebounded since being listed as endangered in 1970.
Scientists estimate there are about 20,000 of the whales in the North Pacific today.
State officials say the central North Pacific whale population is thriving and no longer needs the protections of the Endangered Species Act, which requires federal approval for federally funded or authorized activities that could harm whales or destroy the habitat they need to survive.
In Alaska, given the recovery of humpbacks here, the law represents an unnecessary regulatory burden on industries like fishing and oil and gas, state officials say.
"This subpopulation, it's time to delist it," said Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation. "We're just trying to say the threat of extinction for this subpopulation is gone."
Other protections, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, would remain in place, state officials say. Among its provision, that law would protect humpbacks from hunting and harassment.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, within the next 90 days, will determine whether the state's petition justifies an in-depth review, said NMFS spokeswoman Julie Speegle.
If it does, the agency will weigh the state's proposal to declare the central North Pacific whales a separate population and whether that population is healthy enough to drop protection, Speegle said.
Alaska's petition dovetails with one filed in April 2013 by a Hawaiian fishing association to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the entire North Pacific humpback population by declaring it a distinct population too.
Lang said Alaska officials talked with the Hawaii group about their petition.
Recovery of humpbacks across the North Pacific is slower for a population near Japan and South Korea, he said. That's why Alaska is proposing the end of protection for the central population only.
The state's petition comes as reports indicate increased numbers of both humpback whales and ships in the narrow passage of the newly ice-free waters of the summertime Bering Strait.
Critics of diminished federal protection say the North Pacific's whales still face too many threats, including entanglement in fishing gear, fatal boat collisions, changing ocean chemistry due to climate change and noise pollution.
"It is a really a good thing the number of whales appears to be growing. We see that as an Endangered Species Act success story," said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "But we think that NMFS should really take a careful look at the threats to these species before they jump to delisting."