Fifty years ago, fewer than 1,500 humpback whales remained, stirring an international effort to ban commercial whaling operations. The population has steadily grown since then and now more than 60,000 humpbacks exist worldwide, with an estimated 20,000 in the North Pacific alone. Yet they are still listed as an endangered species by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
This may soon change, however, thanks to a petition from the Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition, Inc. The petition seeks to have NOAA Fisheries classify humpback whales in the North Pacific as a distinct population and declare it no longer endangered. The fishermen insist they are not seeking the delisting so that whaling can resume, but to keep the list from getting bloated.
“You cannot add species after species after species without evaluating whether there are species that should come off,” said Philip Fernandez, the coalition’s president. The petition is limited to humpbacks in the North Pacific and would leave the status of whales in other waters unchanged.
Removing a species from the endangered list is uncommon. NOAA last did so in 2008, when it determined the Caribbean monk seal had gone extinct. The last time a species’ recovery prompted delisting was in 1994, when the agency removed the eastern North Pacific population of gray whales from the list. The Hawaii fishermen’s petition is the first seeking to delist humpback whales since the animals were classified as endangered in 1970.
In a note published on Aug. 29 in the government journal, Federal Register, NOAA announced that it is launching a year-long review to determine a possible delisting of humpbacks in the North Pacific. The agency said the fishermen’s petition presents substantial scientific and commercial information indicating the population is distinct.