Humpback whale may be de-listed

First published in Landings, June, 2015.

The majestic humpback whale has been considered endangered for nearly 45 years. As a result of new research and a comprehensive status review, scientists now understand that there are many distinct populations of humpback whales and a majority of them are actually thriving. As a result, NOAA Fisheries is recommending that many of them be taken off the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list.

NOAA photo.

NOAA photo.

“Because of a lot of science, we have reevaluated and now believe there are 14 distinct population segments (DPS) of humpbacks,” said David Gouveia, chief of the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Conservation Program for NOAA Fisheries. Previously, NOAA had considered the status of the humpback whale globally, so no matter how well some portions of the stock were doing, all were considered endangered.
Of those DPS, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) is proposing to remove ten from the ESA listing altogether, list two as “threatened” and list two as endangered. The North Atlantic humpbacks that travel to the Gulf of Maine are part of the West Indies Distinct Population of approximately 12,000 animals, which would be one of the ten designated “not warranted for listing.”

“The return of the iconic humpback whale is an ESA success story,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries. “As we learn more about the species—and realize the populations are largely independent of each other—managing them separately allows us to focus protection on the animals that need it the most.”

The 90-day comment period following release of the NOAA proposal closes on July 20. The final rule must be published by February 20, 2016, but will undoubtedly be sooner, probably late summer or early fall, said Gouveia. The only public hearing in New England will be held in Plymouth, Mass., on June 3.

“Everyone should be happy,” said Gouveia. “We rarely see animals taken off the endangered species list.”

Images of humpbacks can be seen everywhere—they are the poster icon for “save the whales” efforts and a favorite of whale watchers because of their antics, such as breaching or slapping the water surface with their heads, tails or pectoral fins. Those fins can reach 15 feet in length and have such distinctive markings—white striations on dark grey—they allow researchers to identify individual animals. They can reach up to 60 feet in length, weigh between 25 and 40 tons, and can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food per day, mostly krill, plankton and small fish. Their life span is about 50 years.

The name of these baleen whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, means “big-winged New Englander” since the New England population was the one best known to Europeans. Their seasonal migration is thought to be longer than any other whales’, often around 3,000 miles but a few have been recorded up to 5,000 miles.

The whales will continue to be managed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and those regulations won’t change because they cover all three whales —humpback, right and finback—that migrate through New England and Gulf of Maine waters. A de-listing of humpbacks would mean that the population is healthy enough to sustain larger numbers of whales being seriously injured or killed as a result of human interactions from fishing and ship strikes.

While a delisting would likely mean that current levels of entanglements and ship strikes no longer exceed the limit allowed under the law, it would not impact the whale regulations in place for fishermen. Entanglement in fixed fishing gear is still the biggest cause of death beyond natural mortality, said Gouveia, followed by ship strikes.

“Our concern with the humpback’s delisting is the precedent it is setting for what it takes to remove an animal from the endangered list,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director and senior biologist for Whale and Dolphin Conservation-North America in Plymouth, Mass. who has worked with whales for 25 years.

“I think we’re not sure across the board exactly what it (de-listing) will mean. The entanglement process under the MMPA will remain in effect.” She believes since they are highly migratory that “we might not know all we would like to. The important maternal aspect is not being fully considered. Whales only come to the Gulf of Maine if their mothers brought them there.”

Removing humpbacks from the ESA is based on the species’ recovery since the 1970s. Yet whale conservationists like Asmutis-Silvia are concerned about the Gulf of Maine portion of the North Atlantic stock. Scientists reclassified Gulf of Maine humpback whales as a separate feeding stock in 1999; it has been managed separately since then. Gulf of Maine humpback whales numbers have gone down slightly since 2000 when NOAA counted 900 to an estimated 823 whales today. With declining numbers, sources of mortality such as entanglement in fixed fishing gear continue to be of concern.

“There’s no gross misconduct. No one is hitting or entangling whales on purpose, but the reality for the whales is that they get entangled or struck and they die,” noted Asmutis-Silvia.

Humpback whales face a multitude of threats from human interactions which is compounded by a changing environment. “A study here shows that 15 percent of (living) whales have been hit by vessels. Of the whales that died, 15 percent died from ship strikes. There are a lot of different things that impact humpbacks,” said Asmutis-Silvia. “With climate change, we will see whales in different places than before, which will mean different gear conflicts than before, just as the issue of entanglement changed when lines went from hemp to polypropylene.”

Asmutis-Silvia is also concerned with how offshore energy development affects whales. “We know seismic activity is planned to increase in the mid-Atlantic, we know the whales go through there, we know it affects them. It’s never just one thing. Like entanglement, whales die from infections when their flippers are cut by lines. It’s a significant welfare issue as well.”

Her organization plans to make “substantive comments” on the proposed delisting, but they have not written them yet. “I think we want to say the Gulf of Maine should be considered as a distinct population. We can’t lump them in with all the other whales in the Atlantic. They need extra protection,” said Asmutis-Silvia. Not all conservation groups are expected to see the delisting in the same light, she added. “Some groups will see this as something to celebrate. It’s not the way we see it. We’re not always on the same page.”

To read more about and comment on the proposed humpback listing: