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Burgeoning humpback whale population leads to call for easing protections

  • Author: Global Post
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published May 5, 2013

Hawaiian fisherman are calling on the U.S. government to remove some humpback whales from the endangered species list. The Hawaii Fishermen's Alliance for Conservation and Tradition Inc., a coalition of fishing clubs and groups from across the islands, says that the whale's population has rebounded with conservation efforts since 1970, when the humpbacks were designated as endangered.

One population of the North Pacific whales migrate between Hawaii and Alaska, arriving in the northern waters beginning in May. Food is abundant there, and they tend to congregate in Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, Kodiak, the Barren Islands at the mouth of Cook Inlet, and along the Aleutian Islands. In 2007, however, humpbacks were seen in the Beaufort Sea east of Barrow, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, suggesting a northward expansion of their feeding grounds. Humpbacks are particularly popular in Glacier Bay and Southeast Alaska, where numerous sightseeing boats await them.

The Hawaiian group is petitioning the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to recognize North Pacific whales as a subgroup of the humpback, a whale that can weigh up to 35 tons and exceed 40 feet in length. They want that subgroup removed from the endangered species list. The move would not affect the endangered status of other humpback whales.

"You cannot add species after species after species without evaluating whether there are species that should come off," Alliance President Philip Fernandez told the Associated Press by telephone from Kailua-Kona on Hawaii's Big Island.

North Pacific whales account for about a third of humpbacks in the world. There are about 20,000 of the species left in the oceans, a jump from about 1,400 in the 1960s. Worldwide, humpback numbers were severely reduced by commercial whaling before protections were put in place, with some estimates suggestion that up to 95 percent of the population was removed by whalers.

There are three separate populations of humpbacks -- those living in the North Pacific, those in the North Atlantic, and those roving the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. In the North Pacific, more than 23,000 animals were taken the before the species gained protection. Current population estimates for the North Pacific stock range between 6,000 and 8,000 animals, and an increase in numbers on the Hawaiian wintering grounds suggests that at least this portion of the North Pacific stock may be growing by approximately 7 percent a year, according to Fish and Game. Some scientists believe they're even more numerous.

"Results confirm that the overall humpback whale population in the North Pacific has continued to increase and is now greater than some prior estimates of pre-whaling abundance," wrote the 19 co-authors from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Mexico and Japan in a paper published two years ago in the journal of Marine Mammal Science.

This updated population figure is about 15 times greater than the 1,400 whales thought to remain alive in the region after the species was decimated by mid-century industrial whaling, and at least 1,000 more animals than the biologists estimated in 2008.

"We feel the numbers may even be larger since there have been across-the-board increases in known population areas and unknown areas have probably seen the same increase," said Jay Barlow, the lead author and a marine mammal biologist with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif.

The International Whaling Commission allows only two humpbacks a year to be taken from the North Pacific stock for subsistence purposes – far fewer, for instance, than the number of bowhead whales Alaska Natives can take from a much healthier population that swims off Alaska's North Slope.

Alaska Dispatch reporter Doug O'Harra contributed to this report.

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