Endangered downgrade

The humpback whales that enter Hawaiian waters each winter to mate and give birth have grown in number at a rate so steady, federal regulators want to shed their status as an endangered species.  

By removing one of the whales’ most powerful layers of protection, authorities say they would be able to focus conservation efforts on local wildlife that more pressingly need it like sharks and coral reef as well as whale populations elsewhere on the planet that haven’t responded so well to attempts at curbing extinction.

“We’re happy to announce a conservation success story,” said Donna Wieting, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Office of Protected Resources. “It’s good news that these animals are doing so much better and it’s also really good that we’re learning so much about them and we can tailor our protections to the animals that need it most.”

NOAA Fisheries announced a multi-faceted proposal Monday that involves dividing the global humpback population into 14 subgroups based on factors like geography and genetic traits and then removing the endangered species designation from those subgroups that are healthy and growing.

Hawaii’s humpbacks are one of 10 subgroups slated for removal from the protections afforded by the federal Endangered Species Act. Humpbacks in the Central American and Western North Pacific regions would be reclassified on the list as “threatened,” while those in the Arabian Sea and Cape Verde Islands and the Northwest African regions would maintain their endangered status, meaning they are in danger of extinction.

The humpback whale was declared a federally endangered species in 1970 after threats like hunting had greatly depleted their numbers. When the global humpback population was last assessed by NOAA Fisheries in 1991, it was determined that the iconic oceanic creature was still in danger of extinction. But since that time, Hawaii’s humpback population appears to have doubled, said Michael Tosatto, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands.

“It is hard to say how many show up each year, but we know it’s increasing by the sense of being able to identify whales that are here and up in Alaska and being able to estimate incomers,” Tosatto said. “We’ve had 20 years of very solid observation.”

There are now about 10,000 humpbacks in the Hawaii population subgroup, with an annual growth rate of 5 to 6 percent, according to data from NOAA Fisheries.

“Nice and healthy population growth,” is how Tosatto describes it.

Not everyone agrees. Local whale conservation advocates are already sounding off about the proposal. Kalasara Setaysha of the nonprofit whale conservation group Kohola Leo — Hawaiian for “whale’s voice” — is one of them.

“To say that the whales are recovered is a lie,” Setaysha said. “Even though their numbers are increasing, they are far from recovered from their original numbers.”

There are other concerns. Removal from the endangered species list would bring about two major and potentially damaging changes for Hawaii’s humpbacks. First, the whales would no longer be protected by approach regulations in waters outside of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, a carefully managed 1,400-square-mile humpback whale habitat within the islands’ waters. These regulations currently prohibit vessels, including helicopters, from coming within 100 feet of a humpback.

The approach regulations for humpbacks could, however, be reinstated under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Tosatto said.

“If this is finalized, approach regulations would still be in place within the sanctuary,” Tosatto said. “We’re asking the public whether approach regulations are needed outside the sanctuary, and if it’s determined that they are, we would need to make new regulations.”

Setaysha said she is particularly alarmed by the possibility that the whales would no longer be protected by the 100-foot approach regulations in waters outside the sanctuary.

“That’s dangerous because you know how humans are, they think the world is Disneyland and they want to get right on top of them,” she said.

Though Tosatto points out that folks who might approach a whale too closely could be cited for harassment in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Setaysha said such violations would be difficult to enforce.

“It’s a bad idea and, after all we’ve done to them, we still have a long way to go to repay our debt to the whales,” she said.

The second major consequence of removing Hawaii’s humpbacks from the list is that federal agencies would no longer need to consult with NOAA Fisheries regarding the effects of their actions as it pertains to the whales. For example, right now the Navy would probably have to consult with NOAA Fisheries about the impact of any new or altered sonar activities on humpbacks. But, if the whales are removed from the list, the Navy wouldn’t.

“If a (federal agency) were to propose a permit for an offshore wind farm, they would have to consult with us for the impact of those species that are endangered,” Tosatto said, offering another example. “If they were to do that now, they would have to consult us about humpback whales. But they wouldn’t have to if this proposal passes.”

That’s not to say that humpbacks in Hawaii would lose all stewardship outside the sanctuary. The whales would still be protected from harassment and other harmful behaviors under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

This act also mandates annual stock assessments of marine mammal populations, which means that NOAA Fisheries would continue to monitor humpbacks in terms of health and numbers.

NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comments on the proposed regulatory changes. Feedback can be submitted through regulations.gov or by mail through July 20. There are also four scheduled public hearings across the nation, including one in Honolulu on May 6, where the public can testify in person.

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