The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is moving forward with a petition filed in April to remove the North Pacific humpback whale from the endangered species list, reporting that "a delisting may be warranted."
A team of biologists will conduct a yearlong status review of the species that will evaluate extinction risk, population abundance and productivity, habitat threats and ongoing conservation efforts, according to a NOAA spokeswoman.
Hawaii Fisherman's Alliance for Conservation and Tradition Inc. President Phil Fernandez filed the 44-page petition on April 17, asking that the species be removed to "maintain the integrity of the Endangered Species Act."
Even if the whales were delisted, or taken off the endangered species list, "nothing would change" because other protective regulations are already in place, said Fernandez, a Big Island resident.
"With respect to whales, federal law protects them very well, and the state DLNR (Department of Land and Natural Resources) also protects them from harm, as well as the international whaling commission," said Fernandez. "The fact is that the Endangered Species Act here is quite redundant and should be reserved for other species that are threatened with extinction."
Fernandez sits on NOAA's Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary advisory council, and he said, the humpback whale population in the North Pacific has "fully recovered."
But it is hard to define "fully recovered" when there are no accurate estimates of how many whales there were historically, before commercial whaling drove the species to near extinction at the start of the 20th century, according to National Endangered Species Act Listing Coordinator Marta Nammack.
Fewer than 50 years ago, there were less than 1,200 humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean, with only an estimated 600 visiting the main Hawaiian Islands, experts said. Since commercial whaling was internationally banned, and the whales were put on the endangered species list in 1970, the population has made a steady recovery. The sanctuary estimates there are a little more than 18,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific, Nammack said.
Greg Kaufman, the founder and president of the Pacific Whale Foundation, said that the current estimate is closer to 22,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific, with around 12,000 visiting Hawaii through the winter months that have become recognized as "whale season," from November through May.
"I never thought that 40 years ago, we'd have the number of whales we have today," said Kaufman, who was among the early activists on Maui to seek federal protection for the species in the 1970s. "We're well on our way to full recovery . . . but in sum of what we know, it's premature" to delist the whales.
He said more information needs to be gathered about major threats like ship strikes, marine debris, human-caused underwater noise and habitat degradation, as well as unforeseen effects of things like radiation from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant leak.
He did add that at the current population growth rate of 7 percent per year, "we're probably seven to 10 years from full recovery."
Kaufman agreed that certain protections enforced by the Endangered Species Act would likely remain unchanged. As is, federal regulation prohibits approaching whales by any means within 100 yards when in the water, and 1,000 feet when operating an aircraft. Violations could result in a $120,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
Kaufman asked why fishermen were calling for the delisting, and added that competition for fish and netting regulations may be motivations for those in the fishing industry.
"There is not a limit to the number of species that can be listed, and once you bump one off, that doesn't mean you can have another one," Kaufman said. "It's important to consider who's pushing for this and what's their agenda?"
But Fernandez said fishermen had nothing to gain by filing the petition, other than to "maintain the integrity of the law."
"NOAA has said they have limited funds, so other species that tend to be much lower profile like bacteria or little fish, don't get as much attention," Fernandez said. "There are so many organizations that petition to get species on the list, we just happen to be an organization that wants to remove species from the list when appropriate. Someone has to balance it out."
"Fishermen have no interest in killing whales," he added.
The NOAA review team, made up of scientists from around the world, has until April 17 to publish its findings on the status review, although it would likely be at least three to five years before any action is taken, Kaufman said.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.