Monday, April 20, 2015

Delisting Hawai`i's humpbacks--when are there enough of them?

The federal government has proposed delisting the Hawaiian humpback whale from endangered status, and the move has much of the marine environmental community in an uproar of opposition.

But this has been a long time coming. 

(Image: Humpbacks in Hawaiian waters. Credit: Lou Herman/NOAA.)

NOAA started reviewing the listing status of humpbacks in 2009. In 2013, the Hawaii Fishermen's Alliance for Conservation and Tradition called for delisting, and last year, the State of Alaska called for delisting of the central North Pacific whale population.
“After reviewing the petitions, the literature cited in the petitions, and other literature and information available in our files, we found that both petitioned actions may be warranted,” the agency said.

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service announced: “We … have completed a comprehensive status review of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) under the Endangered Species … and announce a proposal to revise the listing status of the species.”

NOAA will publish in tomorrow’s (4/21/15) Congressional Register its proposal to consider 14 populations for humpbacks and to delist 10 of them, including the population that comes to Hawai`i. (Two populations would remain endangered and two would be recategorized threatened.)

The four populations still in trouble are the Arabian Sea and Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa populations, as well as the Western North Pacific and Central America populations. 

But the agency concluded that: “the West Indies, Hawaii, Mexico, Brazil, Gabon/Southwest Africa, Southeast Africa/Madagascar, West Australia, East Australia, Oceania, and Southeastern Pacific DPSs are not in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges or likely to become so in the foreseeable future.” (DPS is the acronym for distinct population segment.)

The reasons for proposed delisting: Humpack whales have recovered strongly since whaling for them was largely stopped half a century ago, and since they were granted Endangered Species Act protection. 

NOAA found that the Hawaiian population, which winters in the Islands and summers in cooler waters near Alaska, is genetically distinct from other Pacific populations and seldom moves between populations.

Their population has jumped many times its pre-protection level. The population is estimated at 12,000 individual whales, and is believed increasing at 5.5 to 6 percent each year. They are so common today that boaters sometimes have difficulty avoiding running into them in Hawai`i. 

“Reports of vessel collisions in Hawaii have increased since 2003 … Numerous collisions have also been reported from Alaska and British Columbia,” the NOAA report says.

The facts seem clear, but any time the government proposes delisting species, there’s an uproar. The Mainland U.S. has seen angry debates over the proposed delisting of the wolf. And Hawai’i residents are currently debating suggestions that the green sea turtle be delisted.

The Pacific Whale Foundation lists three reasons for its opposition to delisting:

“Lack of sufficient pre-exploitation population estimates for North Pacific populations of humpback whale; Poor understanding of the relationship between humpback whale stocks within the North Pacific; An inadequate evaluation of threats to humpback whales in the North Pacific, including entanglement in fishing gear, underwater noise pollution, ocean acidification, habitat loss and destruction, ship strikes, loss of prey, ecosystem changes and climate change.”

The Center for Biological Diversity also cited climate change and ocean acidification for its opposition. 

Of course, every creature in the sea is at risk from climate change and ocean acidification, and many species are impacted by marine debris and other human activities in the oceans. A reasonable question seems to be, given large and increasing populations, what justification would keep an animal on the endangered species list.

A Honolulu public hearing on the issue will be held, and electronic comments on the proposed delisting will be received for 90 days. NOAA’s webpage on the whales is here.

It is notable that the report assumes the continuation of the protection for whales in Hawai`i under the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, either in that form, or as an ecosystem-based sanctuary, as proposed under a new draft management plan

The sanctuary is accepting comments through June 19 on that plan.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

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