From: R. Greenway, ENN
Published September 29, 2009 07:26 AM

U.S. May Remove Humpbacks From List of Endangered Species

The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service may remove the humpback whale from its list of endangered species, citing evidence that the species has rebounded from near extinction. Since an international ban on their whaling in 1966, populations of the north Pacific humpback have increased about 4.7 percent each year, researchers say. 

Largely because of their tendency to frequent coastal waters, and their habitual return to the same regions each year, humpback whales have been exploited by commercial whalers all around the world. Humpbacks were hunted for their oil, meat and whalebone. Most populations were drastically reduced in the early part of the 19th century, leaving only between 5 and 10 per cent of the original stock remaining. In the North Pacific, it is estimated that as many as 15,000 humpbacks existed prior to 1900.

The population was truly decimated to fewer than 1,000 individuals before an international ban on commercial whaling was instituted in 1964. Today, the North Pacific population which returns to Hawaii in the winter months to breed, now numbers approximately 2,000. In spite of their recent strides towards recovery, humpbacks continue to be designated as an endangered species. Only the right whale, another species of baleen whale, is considered more endangered than the humpback in the North Pacific.

Another human activity that poses a serious threat to the humpbacks as well as other species of whales is driftnet fishing. Driftnets are huge nets made of lightweight nylon which measure between 1.25 to 90 miles in length and 8 and 15 feet in depth. They are left to "drift" in the open ocean for periods of 8 hours or more, hence the name "driftnet".

While driftnets are an effective means of catching their target species, the species they are intended to catch- generally tuna and squid, they are an indiscriminate method of fishing, and tend to entrap anything larger than their mesh size. This includes sea birds, turtles, seals, dolphins, whales and many species of non-target fish which together are known as theby-catch. The majority of the animals that become entangled in driftnets are not able to free themselves and drown. Thousands of whales, dolphins, sea birds and turtles, many of which are endangered, die needlessly in driftnets each year. 

Due in large part to the ban, an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 humpbacks now exist in the north Pacific, a sharp increase from the 1960s, when populations had dropped to about 1,400. About 60,000 humpbacks exist globally, according to the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

"Humpbacks by and large are an example of a species that in most places seems to be doing very well, despite our earlier efforts to exterminate them," said Phillip Clapham, a senior whale biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The U.S. must review the status of endangered species whenever there is "significant" new information, and this is the first time the humpback's status has been reviewed since 1999. Some groups object to lifting the endangered status of the humpback, citing climate change and ocean acidification as emerging threats to the species.

Based on information from Yale Environment 360 and other sources: http://e360.yale.edu/content/digest.msp?id=2070

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