North Pacific Humpbacks making a comeback

humpback whale 2Have you ever spotted a Humpback whale during one of your surveys? Check out these awesome photos of Humpback whales taken by our very own Hillary Burgess, Marine Debris Program Coordinator! A topic making waves right now is the potential delisting of the Central North Pacific Humpback Whale (CNPHW). Those beautiful, agile creatures that you may have seen on a boat or taking a stroll down the beach are reportedly making a comeback. In the last couple years, two major petitions have been submitted to the respective state governments with the shared goal of declaring the CNPHW a Discrete Population segment (DPS), which would remove them from the endangered species list. The state of Hawaii launched a petition in 2013, through the state’s Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition, and the state of Alaska issued another petition in February of 2014.

While we commonly think of Humpback whales as one species, there are actually sub-populations that vary between regions. Humpback whales’ genetics, behavior, and predation patterns change by region, which has triggered their placement into three distinct “population stocks” of North Pacific Humpback whales: the Central North Pacific stock, the western North Pacific stock, and the Central America stock. This delineation between populations represents the basis behind the recent petitions. In this case, the Central North Pacific stock is the species of interest, predominantly because recent studies have established this population’s behavioral and genetic “fidelity” to particular breeding/feeding regions across generations (State of Alaska Petition). In other words, the health and abundance of the CNPHW is well established, while less is known about the western and Central America stocks.

Humpback whales have been on the endangered species list since December of 1970 – almost half a century! These petitions are attempting to bypass this historical hurdle by declaring the CNPHW a DPS – a claim the groups substantiate by emphasizing the distinct characteristics of these whales (State of Hawaii petition). If the CNPHW is viewed as a DPS and the states’ assertion that the population has recovered enough to the point that extinction is no longer a threat, this species will be delisted! Proving both of these qualities is no easy task. Strides, however, have been made – NOAA Fisheries recently completed a “90-day finding,” in which the whales were surveyed and observed. Based on that finding and the minimum of 5,833 whales found migrating between Alaska and Hawaii, NOAA has declared the petition valid and supported (NOAA News release). NOAA’s initial stamp of approval isn’t quite enough to delist the CNPHW. The next step is for NOAA to develop a status review of the humpback whale on a global scale with the goal of verifying the positive 90-day finding.  With a few more studies and evaluations to go, the Central North Pacific Humpback Whale may officially be delisted and declared stable!

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