White House Finalizes Pacific Ocean Protections for Humpback Whale

Following a lengthy court battle, conservationists cheered as the Biden administration agreed to designate more than 100,000 square nautical miles as critical habitat for the endangered humpback whale. 

A humpback whale leaps out of the water in the channel off the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, file)

(CN) — The Biden administration finalized a rule that will conserve approximately 118,000 square nautical miles of the Pacific Ocean as protected habitat for the humpback whale. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finalized the rule that conserves a large swath of ocean off the coast of North America, spanning from Southern California to the Bering Sea in Alaska. 

Conservationists tout the rule as necessary to protect three separate populations of endangered whales from ship strikes, entanglements with fishing nets and oil spills. 

“Pacific humpbacks finally got the habitat protections they’ve needed for so long,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Now we need to better protect humpbacks from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, their leading causes of death.” 

The finalization of the rule comes after a lengthy court battle between conservationists and the U.S. government ended in a 2018 settlement.

The court battle came amid a backdrop of the Trump administration’s attempt to reopen parts of the Pacific Ocean to oil and gas exploration, a move strenuously opposed by environmentalists. 

The groups initially sued the federal government over its failure to designate critical habitat for the endangered humpback whale. The population of humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean dwindled dramatically in the 20th century, as the whaling industry and widespread hunting led to a 90% reduction in the population from historic levels. 

In 1996, the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on the hunting of humpback whales, which remains in place. At the time, there were approximately 5,000 humpback whales left across the globe. 

Their population has rebounded as a result of conservation efforts, with the current number of whales in the waters of the world estimated at 80,000. 

Nevertheless, the animals are still prone to depredation and are often the victims of oil spills, ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.

Fishing gear is by far the number one cause of unnatural deaths for the species. 

“To recover West Coast populations of these playful, majestic whales, we need mandatory ship speed limits and conversion of California’s deadly trap fisheries to ropeless gear,” Kilduff said. 

The center and other groups tout the California Whale Entanglement Prevention Act, which would mandate commercial trap fishing groups, including the state’s Dungeness crab industry, to convert to ropeless gear by the end of 2025. 

Humpback whales were initially listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. But in 2016, the National Marine Fisheries Service, divided the humpback whale into 14 different “breeding stocks,” and chose to list only five of the stocks as endangered. 

One such stock, which occupies waters off of California, has around 800 individuals left, making it vulnerable to disasters like oil spills and ship strikes. 

At the time, the federal agency declined to list critical habitat for the species, despite it being a requirement of the Endangered Species Act. This prompted the lawsuit, the settlement and Tuesday’s announcement that the critical habitat will be published in the Federal Register

The first critical habitat area is comprised of 48,525 square nautical miles off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington state for a distinct breeding population that winters near Central America. Another population, which winters around Mexico, received 116,098 square nautical miles in the North Pacific Ocean near Alaska. Another population, listed as threatened, also received 59,411 square nautical miles in the same region. 

While the total amount of protected area amounts to 224,030 square nautical miles, it is closer to 116,000 square nautical miles due to the overlaps between populations.

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