The delisting of humpback whales that visit Hawaii from November to May and the removal of Endangered Species Act protections are currently under review, and one whale expert called the actions justified.
John Calambokidis, senior research biologist and co-founder of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Wash., said that delisting should occur because humpback whale populations have outgrown the need for protection, with stocks much higher than other mammals currently on the Endangered Species Act list.
About 50 years ago, the Hawaiian humpback whale population hovered around 600; it has grown to more than 10,000 today.
This humpback whale was photographed breeching off South Maui during a recent whale season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently reviewing Hawaiian humpback whales and their possible delisting under the Endangered Species Act.
ROBERT and ELLEN RAIMO photo
"It certainly won't open up hunting or anything like that," he said of delisting.
But there will be other impacts, including reductions in regulations and oversight and possibly a decrease in funding for humpback whale conservation efforts, Calambokidis said.
Greg Kaufman, founder and longtime president of the Maui-based Pacific Whale Foundation, said that the time is not yet right to delist the humpback whale. While acknowledging that whale numbers are up for Hawaiian humpbacks, they remain far short of populations in modern whaling times in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the mammals were hunted for their oil and meat.
"We're less than halfway there and that on face value alone is not enough to delist them," he said Wednesday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service announced the review process late last month in response to the state of Alaska's petition that "substantial scientific or commercial information" warranted possible action, according to a recent journal published by the U.S. Office of the Federal Register.
The humpback whales feed in Alaskan waters from June to October and migrate to Hawaii waters from November to May to breed.
Submitted on Feb. 26, the petition considers Hawaiian humpback whales as a distinct population segment that has recovered to stocks greater than modern whaling times, pre-1905, and is no longer threatened with extinction.
"The threats leading to the population's endangered status have been either completely eliminated or sufficiently reduced or controlled so that the long-term survival of the species is ensured, and the protections provided by the ESA are no longer necessary," the journal explained.
In a 2011 study funded by NOAA, Calambokidis found that there were about 21,000 hump-back whales in the North Pacific, which comprises Hawaii, Asia, Mexico and Central America. Calambokidis said that more than half of that population "is loyal to Hawaii."
"It made a strong case for how they have recovered," Calambokidis said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Calambokidis feels that delisting may be appropriate for the Hawaii area, but he is strongly against delisting for the humpbacks in the entire North Pacific.
He discovered separate groups among humpback whales that do not mate with outsiders. He has broken down the groups into their respective breeding grounds - Hawaii, Central America, Mexico and Asia - and noted that the groups are distinctly different, like countries on the same continent using different languages. He published these findings earlier this year.
Calambokidis said that delisting does not eliminate all the protections for the Hawaiian humpback whales. In addition to state laws and the Endangered Species Act, humpback whales currently are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the International Whaling Commission, which banned commercial whaling of the species in 1966.
"The reality is, I don't think the consequences would be as large," he said. "It might lessen the paperwork."
The delisting could put the spotlight on other species more in need of protection and growth, such as the vaquita and North Pacific right whales, with numbers no higher than a few hundred.
"I consider it (delisting) essential to the credibility of the ESA," he said.
Kaufman countered that humpback whale stocks have not reached modern whale hunting era numbers. He said that modern whaling era humpback stocks noted in the Alaska petition were severely underreported.
Old whaling data uncovered indicate an original population size of humpbacks of between 50,000 to 100,000 in the North Pacific region. He added that recovery of a species is typically described as 65 to 70 percent of its original population; 65 percent of 50,000 is 32,500 - a total much higher than the 21,000 humpbacks found in recent surveys.
"I'm not necessarily dragging my feet when it comes to delisting," Kaufman said. "In eight to 10 years, I'll be the biggest cheerleader. But from a scientific point of view, I think it's a little premature."
Kaufman worried that some of the "critically endangered" subgroups of humpbacks could be lost with delisting. He said that increased numbers of ship strikes, marine debris and global warming may "ultimately be enough to suppress the recovery."
"We know little about them (the subgroups) except that they appear to be isolated from other mammals," he said. "Will it be devastating for the mammals? Who knows?"
He rejected that resources would be wasted on the humpback whales while under the protection of the act.
"The ESA adds more regulatory clout in terms of issuing penalties or fines, and management clout in terms of funding," he said. "As long as humpback whales are listed, (fisherman) have to get permits for both state and federal. It becomes less invasive and onerous to these guys if the ESA is not attached to it."
Among the groups calling for the delisting of the North Pacific humpback whales is the Hawaii Fishermen's Alliance for Conservation and Tradition.
Public comments may be submitted to NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov/#!docketdetail;d=noaa-nmfs-2014-0051 and clicking the ''Comment Now!'' icon. Those submitting comments must complete the required fields and enter or attach their comments.
Comments also may be mailed to Jon Kurland, Assistant Regional Administrator for Protected Resources, Alaska Region NMFS, Attn: Ellen Sebastian, P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 998021668.
For more information, call Aleria Jensen, NMFS Alaska Region, at (907) 5867248 or Kurland at (907) 5867638.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.