Humpback whales still need protection
Humpbacks, familiar in Hawaii waters, have made impressive gains in population.
Forty years after being hunted to near extinction and their slaughter banned worldwide, humpback whales in the North Pacific have strengthened in numbers.
The encouraging data collected in the most comprehensive survey of large whale populations, however, could lead to removal of strict protections for humpbacks, which does not seem justified at this point. Even dropping the whales' status from endangered to threatened could reverse the gains the marine mammals have achieved.
From just 1,500 in 1966 when international hunting was banned, the number of humpbacks grew to an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 in 2004-2006. Half of them, the healthiest population, migrate between Hawaii and Alaska, according to a study sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
However, groups in the West Pacific and elsewhere haven't fared as well, perhaps because they were so depleted by whalers who found humpbacks easy prey because they feed and breed close to shorelines. Moreover, whales do not reach sexual maturity until age 6 to 10, and females only give birth to single calves every two to three years.
The continuing survey involves more than 400 researchers from 10 countries studying regions stretching from North Pacific to Hawaii to Mexico, Central America, the U.S. West Coast and Alaska. In part, its intent is to review the humpback's status as an endangered species and to see if it should be "downlisted" to threatened.
With more whales, there have been more frequent boat collisions. Competition for ocean space will grow with commercial ventures, such as near-shore and deep-water fish farms, multiplying as demand for seafood increases.
Whether the current population is stable enough to resume hunting would be a difficult calculation, but in comparison to estimates of the whale's original numbers of hundreds of thousands, 20,000 humpbacks seem too few to take a gamble.
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