August 19, 2015

Science doesn’t support dividing humpback whale species and removing vital protections.

Humpback whales are famous for their distinctive “song” and animated aerial displays. The males sing varied notes intertwined in an elaborate song that can last as long as twenty minutes, sometimes singing on repeat for hours on end. Humpback whales also steal the show with their varied acrobatic routine of leaping out of the water and slapping their tails and flippers against the surface with a resounding splash. Each year people flock to the water for the chance of seeing one of these gentle giants. But although these whales’ numbers have increased in recent decades, they aren’t out of the woods yet.

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Humpback whales, © NOAA

Initially listed as endangered in 1970, humpback whales have not yet weathered the storm from the decimation wrought by centuries of whaling. Yet this spring, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed stripping the species of many of its protections under the Endangered Species Act. For management purposes, the agency’s proposal would split the whales into 14 “distinct population segments” around the globe, removing all protections for 10 populations, downlisting two from endangered to threatened, and only retaining endangered status for two populations.

Slicing and dicing the global humpback population into a piecemeal patchwork, where some whales get legal protection and some don’t, makes zero sense. Because humpback whales migrate thousands of miles each year, these proposed 14 populations will be meaningless to the whales themselves. Whales from different populations will inevitably intermingle, making it difficult to determine who’s who to enforce protections. NMFS’s proposal also jumps the gun by declaring the humpback whale a recovery success story. Increasing population numbers do not mean the humpback whale is in the clear: although the species is largely protected from hunting, other threats are increasing, and the risk of extinction still looms.

Like most whales, humpbacks face the threats of increasing underwater noise, entanglements with fishing gear, collisions with large vessels, and the effects of climate change. Warming oceans and changing currents affect where, when, and how much food the whales have, as well as the species’ migration routes, reproductive success, and overall survival. Scientists don’t yet know the full extent to which climate change will affect humpback whales, though it is clear that warming temperatures are altering the ocean’s chemistry and interfering with food webs. In the face of that uncertainty, how can officials declare that humpbacks are recovered? The science does not support either removing protections for humpback whales or breaking the species up into smaller populations with different levels of protection.

Defenders, along with our conservation allies, submitted extensive comments to NMFS detailing all the obstacles to recovery that the humpback whales still need to overcome. Our coalition of experts laid out the reasons why the whales should remain listed as endangered throughout their range, backing up each point with thorough research and substantial scientific data. Now we can only hope that the agency will listen, and these iconic whales will keep the legal protections they need as they face a difficult and uncertain future.

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