NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has claimed the endangered species act (ESA) a success for humpback whales worldwide; I too agree that the ESA has provided humpbacks the protection they needed after nearly being decimated by commercial whaling, but the story isn’t all that simple. A delisting at this time would be premature and humpback whales are now facing a whole new set of threats that need to be evaluated. NOAA has recognized that it is extremely difficult to estimate and we do not have specific population numbers of humpback whales pre-commercial whaling. So how is it that we are able to claim such a “success” and potentially de-list the humpback whale if recovery goals were initially to increase populations to 60% of that population number?
Humpback whales may not have an overwhelming threat of commercial whaling as they did when first listed under the ESA, but these whales are now being pressured by threats such as entanglements in fishing gear, climate change, ocean acidification (which could eventually wipe out all of their prey), ocean noise pollution, and vessel strikes.
Starting in 2012, Whale and Dolphin Conservation developed a study to specifically look at risk associated with vessel strikes in the Gulf of Maine humpback whale population. In this study we analyzed over 210,000 images of humpback whales that were collected between 2004 and 2013. This study found that out of the total 623 humpback individuals that were photographed, 15% of the whales had injuries consistent with a vessel strike. Even more alarming for the future of this population, the study showed with fresh/recent injuries, calves were most likely (57%) to be impacted by vessel strikes. In addition to the 15% of humpback individuals we are photographing injured with vessel strike wounds, another study on Gulf of Maine humpback whales found that vessel strike mortality rates are also 15%. With over 400 commercial fishing vessels and countless recreational boaters operating in the same waters these humpback whales are coming to feed, vessel strikes are causing injury, mortality, and affecting the recovery for Gulf of Maine humpback whales.
Management measures have been implemented to reduce mortality and serious injury resulting from vessel strikes and entanglements for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale; these are potentially the same fishing gear and vessels that are affecting the recovery of the North Atlantic humpback whales. Scientists and law makers are now racing against the clock and we are all hoping it is not too late to save the North Atlantic right whale. Let’s not make the same mistake with humpback whales.
The science and research is available showing the threats these humpback whales are facing and how they are affecting their population; as the ESA requires, determinations for listing should be based on the best scientific information available. Side with science, let your voice be heard and please sign our petition to keep North Atlantic humpback whales protected.