Hawaiian humpback whales among nine moving off endangered species list

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Endangered humpback whales in nine of 14 newly identified distinct population segments have recovered enough that they don’t warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries said Tuesday.

That includes the Hawaii Distinct Population Segment. They are gentle giants that visit our waters each year, usually from November to May.

NOAA tells us there are now 11,000 of them just in our waters with the population increasing by 5 to 6 percent each year. Those numbers are the main reason why they’re being removed from the list.

“We believe that we’ve conducted a very thorough, scientific assessment. There has been a lot of work done to understand humpback whale population,” said Angela Somma, NOAA Fisheries Endangered Species Division.

Officials say international conservation efforts over the past 40 years proved successful for most populations. Four of the distinct population segments are still protected as endangered, and one is now listed as threatened.

The United States listed all humpback whales as endangered in 1970, after commercial whaling severely reduced humpback whale numbers. NOAA Fisheries says the International Whaling Commission’s whaling moratorium, imposed in 1982, played a major role in the comeback of humpback whales, and remains in effect.

“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. Separately managing humpback whale populations that are largely independent of each other allows us to tailor conservation approaches for each population.”

What does this mean for whale regulation? “Federal agencies will not be required anymore to consult with us when they undertake an activity that might affect those populations,” Somma said, which includes the U.S. Navy, which has conducted controversial sonar testing in the past.

NOAA says the decision shouldn’t affect spending on efforts to protect the whales and encourages groups to continue activities like the annual whale counts.

Two separate, complementary regulations filed Tuesday also maintain protections for whales in waters off Hawaii and Alaska by specifying distance limits for approaching vessels. All humpback whales remain protected in U.S. waters and on the high seas under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, regardless of their ESA status.

Two of the four populations that remain endangered are found in U.S. waters at certain times of the year. The Central America population feeds off the West Coast, while the Western North Pacific population does so in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. The Mexico population – listed as threatened – also feeds off the West Coast of the United States and Alaska.

The final rule will take effect 30 days after publication in the federal register on Sept. 8.

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