By Jason Hoppin, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Monterey >> Forty-five years after humpback whales were placed on a list of endangered species, the U.S. has moved to lift federal protections for the popular cetaceans.
With humpbacks routinely turning the Monterey Bay into a spectacular show and their numbers now in the tens of thousands worldwide, federal scientists hailed the proposal as a victory won by decades of conservation efforts, including a nearly 50-year-old global whaling ban.
“We’re seeing today these efforts to protect and preserve pay off,” said Donna Wieting, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s office of protected resources.
The proposal, which is entering a 90-day comment period and would likely take a year to finalize, comes after a group of Hawaii fishermen and the state of Alaska asked for the protections to be removed.
Found in oceans throughout the world, humpbacks are known for their remarkable playfulness and spectacular leaps. They were hunted to near-extinction before the International Whaling Commission banned humpback hunts in 1966.
That agency estimates there are now 135,000 humpbacks worldwide.
But some are objecting to the move. The San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity said it’s not clear if the whales have met the criteria for being delisted under the Endangered Species Act, and said humpbacks still face threats from fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes.
“It’s great that humpback whales are doing better, but it seems premature to take them off the endangered species list,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the group’s oceans director.
The listing can trigger special biological reviews when it comes to everything from setting fisheries to Navy exercises to establishing shipping lanes. In filing the petition to have the protections removed, Alaska cited unspecified “regulatory burdens.”
NOAA is proposing to break the global humpback population into 14 distinct subpopulations. Ten would be removed from protection altogether, two would be listed as threatened and two would continue to be listed as endangered.
The primary humpback visitors to Monterey Bay are based in Mexico, where they give birth before migrating north for the summer. That population would be removed from the list.
NOAA officials stressed that humpbacks would still enjoy the protections of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, certain regulations, such as those requiring whale-watching boats to keep their distance from humpbacks, were issued under the Endangered Species Act.
“We are looking at and would likely propose in the near future to take those regulations and issue them under the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” said Angela Somma, chief of NOAA Fisheries’ endangered species division.