Humpback whale. Via Wikipedia
Humpback whales have had protection under the Endangered Species Act since 1970, after whaling threatened their existence. Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposes to categorize the humpback whale into 14 distinct population segments, or DPSs, and take 10 off the list of endangered or threatened animals.
Kate Wynne is a UAF Marine Mammal Specialist with the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center. She says biologists use feeding and breeding areas as two ways to distinguish between population segments. In the case of this proposal, Wynne says biologists put more emphasis on breeding grounds and genetic makeup when defining the DPSs.
Wynne says it’s a good idea from a biological perspective, but it could get complicated from a management perspective because not all whales from one breeding ground consistently go to one feeding ground.
“You don’t know in the middle of the Southeast Alaska humpbacks, where that humpback came from because they mix on the feeding grounds,” says Wynne.
The 220-page proposal states the “high fidelity” of whales’ winter and summer feeding grounds, but it also acknowledges the possible shifts in those patterns. Bree Witteveen, another Marine Mammal Specialist at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, says there’s a lot more intermixing than biologists originally anticipated.
“Folks assumed that all the whales that fed in Alaska would migrate down to Hawaii to breed and all the whales that fed in California would migrate down to Mexico to breed and the more that we studied the whales, the more we understood that it wasn’t nearly as simple as that,” says Witteveen. “And so, you get animals that are breeding in Mexico for example and you might find some of those animals feeding off of California or off Kodiak or even into the Aleutian islands.”)
Witteveen says the people who will be the most affected are regional fishing groups, some of which petitioned NOAA to reevaluate humpback whales as an endangered species.
“The whole reason that NOOAA went through and reevaluated humpback whales is because they were petitioned by certain groups to reevaluate their status as an endangered species,” Whitteveen says. “And one of these groups was for example a fishing group in Hawaii who felt they shouldn’t be designated as an endangered species anymore. And so it generally could result in more fishing areas being opened up or less restrictions on where they can fish and interact with whale habitat for example.”
NOAA proposes to keep four DPSs on the list, two of which enter US waters: the Central America segment and the Western North Pacific segment, which would both be labeled as threatened. The other two would remain on the endangered list and are in the Arabian Sea and off Cape Verde Island off Northwest Africa.
NOAA has opened a 90 day public comment period on the delisting and welcomes feedback on the proposal, which you can read here.
Electronic Submissions : Submit electronic comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal. Go here, click the “Comment Now!” icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments. (Note: Comment button not currently active.)
Mail: Submit written comments to Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.