By Alicia Graef
The state of Alaska has taken action to have federal protection removed from North Pacific humpback whales, who it believes are no longer in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) this week seeking to have a population of North Pacific humpback whales who travel between Alaska and Hawaii every year declared as a distinct population that should be delisted.
There were believed to be as few as 1,000 humpbacks left when whaling was stopped in 1966. A few years later they were protected under the Endangered Species and Conservation Act of 1969 and then by the Endangered Species Act. Now scientists believe that there are more than 21,000 humpbacks in the North Pacific.
The population the state wants removed is known as the Central North Pacific subpopulation, which is the largest of three subpopulations in the North Pacific. Officials in Alaska believe that recovery goals have been met and that the Central North Pacific population is thriving and no longer needs to be considered in danger of extinction, either now or in the forseeable future. As far as other motives go, state officials also said that the law represents an unnecessary regulatory burden on industries that include fishing, oil and gas, reports the AP.
The petition follows on the heels of a similar one that was filed last year by a fishing association in Hawaii that sought to remove protection from the entire North Pacific population. Last August, the NMFS announced that the delisting may be warranted and started a status review for the North Pacific humpbacks.
Even though they’ve rebounded from the brink and would still be protected from hunting and harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, conservationists are worried that the move to delist them could jeopardize their future survival. Humpbacks continue to face threats from climate change and collisions with ships that can be fatal. Scientists now fear that even more of these collisions will happen as more ships and species of whales, including humpbacks, head farther north into newly-ice free arctic waters.
In addition to ship strike, humpbacks also still face threats from noise pollution, ocean acidification that could affect their food sources and entanglement with fishing gear. Just this week another humpback was successfully rescued from a life threatening situation after being entangled in hundreds of feet of line off the coast of Maui.
“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.
The NMFS now has 90 days to decide whether Alaska’s petition warrants a review and if it does, then a 12-month study will be initiated. More news about what will happen with Hawaii’s petition is expected in April.