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Alaska requests Endangered Species Act delisting for humpback whales

Yereth Rosen
Humpback whales, once driven nearly to extinction by commercial whalers, are on the rebound -- so much so that the State of Alaska has requested their removal from NOAA's list of endangered marine animals. HIHWNMS NOAA Fisheries Permit #782-1438

Humpback whales, once nearly wiped out in the North Pacific by commercial hunters, are now so plentiful in the Alaska-to-Hawaii migration corridor that they should be removed from the Endangered Species Act list, the state of Alaska argues in a petition to federal officials.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said Wednesday it has submitted a delisting petition to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that manages and protects the nation’s whales.

The North Pacific humpback population was down to about 1,000 in 1966, the year that commercial whaling stopped. Now the population is 21,800, even more than the estimated 15,000 that swam the North Pacific about a century ago, before the peak of the commercial hunt, Fish and Game officials said.

Commercial whaling was the big threat to humpback whales, and now the population has reaped the benefits from the hunt's end, said Doug Vincent-Lang, director of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation.

“Since whaling was restricted or regulated, it has rebounded well,” he said.

Delisting the humpbacks is already under consideration at NOAA. The agency is studying a petition submitted last April by the Hawai‘i Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition.

The Alaska petition makes arguments similar to those made by the Hawaii fishermen’s group. But while the Hawaii organization is seeking delisting for all North Pacific humpbacks, the state is seeking delisting for only the central North Pacific stock -- the population group that numbers about 10,000 and summers in Cook Inlet, the Alaska Peninsula region and Southeast Alaska. Those animals winter in Hawaii.

State officials decided to focus on the segment of the population they know best and where evidence for a delisting argument is the most complete, Vincent-Lang said.

“The data is very clear that that stock has met all of its recovery objectives,” he said. But outside of the Alaska-Hawaii humpback population, the animals might still face some problems in Asia and elsewhere, he said.

If old threats from commercial whaling are gone, some new threats to humpbacks have emerged and should be considered by NOAA in its delisting deliberations, one environmental group has argued.

The Center for Biological Diversity, in comments sent to NOAA in October, said new threats have emerged in the form of ocean acidification -- which could affect the krill and other crustaceans that make up the whales’ diet -- and climate change. There are also new threats from ambient noise in the ocean, which can drown out the calls the whales use to communicate with each other, as well as continuing problems of pollution, ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, the center said.

The rebounded population numbers “hold promise for recovery and highlight the success of the Endangered Species Act,” the center said. Still, it added, NOAA should take steps to designate and protect humpback whale critical habitat, something that has not been accomplished despite the long period of endangered designation for the animals.

If the delisting petition is granted, humpback whales in Alaska and Hawaii will continue to be protected under international whaling conventions and under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Vincent-Lang said.

Julia Speegle, spokeswoman for NOAA in Alaska, said the agency received the state’s petition on Tuesday. NOAA will decide whether the petition presents new information that warrants a review, a decision generally issued within 90 days, she said. If NOAA determines that there is substantial information justifying a delisting review, a 12-month study period would be launched, she said. NOAA in August determined that the Hawaiian group did present enough evidence to warrant a status review, she said.

Humpbacks are famous for their jumps out of the water and their complex songs. They're beloved by whale watchers in Alaska and Hawaii. They feed on krill, small fish, and plankton, which they filter through baleen.

Humpbacks’ endangered designation in the United States dates back to the time before the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth@alaskadispatch.com.