WASHINGTON (CN) – Crediting successful conservation efforts, the National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed splitting endangered humpback whales into 14 populations and delist ten of them. The proposal would provide a more “tailored” conservation approach for U.S. fisheries managers, according to the agency’s announcement on Tuesday.
Conservationists disagree, citing continuing and increasing threats such as global warming and ocean noise, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) said in its response to the proposal.
Humpback whales are currently listed as an endangered species throughout its range under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The proposal to split the worldwide population of humpbacks into distinct population segments and to delist most of them would leave only four populations with any ESA protections, two as endangered species and two as threatened species. No critical habitat designation is proposed for the two proposed populations that would be under U.S. jurisdiction, “because it is not currently determinable,” the agency said.
“The return of the iconic humpback whale is an ESA success story,” Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for the NMFS was quoted as saying in the agency’s announcement. “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 NMFS had already initiated a status review of the humpbacks in Aug. 2009, but the reclassification and delisting proposal was further spurred by a 2013 petition from the Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition Inc. to reclassify and delist the North Pacific humpback population, and a 2014 petition from the state of Alaska, asking to reclassify the Central North Pacific population and remove it from ESA protection.
Though the proposal acknowledges that there are still threats for the whales, the agency cites population increases as the justification for delisting most of the populations. The agency also notes that the delisted whales would still be protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on whaling, but added that the level of those protections could change if the whales are no longer listed under the ESA.
In addition, the NMFS plans to work with governments in conjunction with the ten delisted populations to continue to monitor their status to ensure that recovery actions continue and to safeguard against any substantial new threats to the populations’ continued existence, according to the action.
However, the recovery goal for humpbacks was set at 60 percent of the historical capacity for the North Atlantic and North Pacific populations, “but it is not possible to assess whether this criterion has been met because of information gaps,” the CBD said.
“The fact that we can spot humpback whales breaching and playing in the ocean after they were nearly extinct shows the tremendous power of the Endangered Species Act. Those safeguards should stay in place for these extraordinary animals,” Miyoko Sakashita, the CBD’s oceans director was quoted as saying in the group’s response. “Since commercial whaling ended, humpbacks have enjoyed protection, but they’re still drowning in fishing gear and getting hit by ships,” she said.
Comments on the proposal are due by July 20. Four public hearings are scheduled, but written requests for additional hearing must be received by June 5.
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