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Should the humpback whale stay on the endangered species list?

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Ben Goldfarb | May 09, 2014 04:00 AM

In the early 1960s, the situation seemed dire for humpback whales. A century of industrial hunting had reduced the North Pacific population to around 1,000, a minuscule fraction of historic levels. Extinction, once unthinkable, appeared not only possible, but likely.

Five decades after the International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on hunting in 1966, however, humpbacks have made a remarkable recovery. Over 60,000 of the bus-sized beasts now swim the world’s oceans, and the North Pacific population is up to 22,000. In U.S. waters, federal law has also helped rejuvenate humpbacks: The whale was among the first species protected by the Endangered Species Conservation Act – the Endangered Species Act’s predecessor – when it was passed in 1970, and it’s remained on the endangered species list since. Humpbacks are a genuine ESA success story, and a considerably more visible one than the Oregon chub.

The creature’s comeback also raises a tough question: Now that we’re not plunging harpoons into their backs, are humpbacks still endangered?

North Pacific humpback whales have rebounded from just 1,400 in the 1960s to 22,000 today. Should they still be considered an endangered species? Photo courtesy of NOAA.


Last month, Canada answered that question in the negative, downlisting North Pacific humpbacks from “threatened” to “special concern.” The reclassification means that the government no longer has to protect critical whale habitat off the coast of British Columbia. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration has been no friend to conservation, many scientists agree that the health of the humpback population — now increasing by around 4 percent annually — indeed warrants delisting. “There are lots of times the government chooses to ignore science,” Canadian marine biologist Jane Watson told The Toronto Star, “but in the case of the humpback whale, the process worked extremely well.”

Environmental groups, however, suspect a more nefarious motive for the delisting: to ease approval for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline, a massive straw that would run bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands to an export terminal in Kitimat, B.C. If approved, the pipeline and its associated traffic would amplify the dangers to humpbacks, increasing the risk of oil spills and ship collisions. Delisting the whale, and avoiding the mandatory protection of its habitat from such threats, “is simply a political move to clear the way to approve the [Enbridge] pipeline," said Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society.

In the U.S., itself no stranger to politicized endangered species rulings, the humpback’s designation is equally contentious. Last year, fishermen in Hawaii, winter home to many whales, asked NOAA to remove North Pacific humpbacks from the endangered species list. And in February, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game petitioned to delist the whale’s central North Pacific population, a group of about 10,000 that summers in rich southern Alaskan waters. (DNA analysis suggests that the North Pacific humpback population is actually comprised of five separate populations that sometimes share habitat but don’t interbreed.) “These whales have shown consistent gains in numbers and occupy their entire historical range, which demonstrates that they are not in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future,” said Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation.

If you’re looking for an ulterior rationale for Alaska’s petition, however, you needn’t look further than the Washington Post, which pointed out that delisting would expedite approval for oil companies seeking to drill in Arctic waters. Sure, the primary obstacle to Arctic oil exploration is the incompetence of would-be drillers, but if Shell ever gets that containment dome figured out, it may not have to worry about pesky whales. NOAA is currently considering whether to delist all North Pacific humpbacks, as per the Hawaiian fishermen’s petition.

Of course, environmental groups are equally inclined to wield the ESA as a political weapon. Just as the spotted owl was a proxy for the preservation of northwestern forests, it’s not hard to see the whale as a tool in the employ of conservationists whose real targets are fossil fuel projects, like Northern Gateway and Arctic drilling, that could degrade precious habitat. With hunting long out of the picture, though, it’s more difficult for advocates to raise the “save the whales” alarm today than it was 50 years ago. As with the climate change-endangered polar bear, argue groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, the threats to humpbacks are long-term ones — namely the ocean acidification that’s begun turning the base of the Pacific food chain into Jell-O.

Another immediate hazard: military sonar, seismic testing for oil and gas deposits, and the undersea cacophony that can destroy sensitive cetacean eardrums and lead to mass beachings. While marine clamor is thought to have a greater impact on toothed whales, which use their own form of sonar, recent research indicates that constant naval noise can drive baleen whales crazy, too.

Could loosened ESA protections expose humpbacks to potentially fatal ruckus? Hard to say — but if that does happen, expect more stranded, putrid carcasses that are immensely inconvenient at best and possibly explosive at worst. At least we’ll know what not to do.

Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.

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