Public comment for whales closes

LIHUE — Federal regulators have collected more than 475 written testimonies about a proposal that would shed Hawaii’s humpback whales of their endangered species status. 

In April, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service announced the multi-faceted proposal, which 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.

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.

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.

Now that the public comment period is closed, NOAA Fisheries staff are reviewing and evaluating the comments so as to address and/or incorporate them into the final determination.

NOAA Fisheries has one year from April 20, the date that it published the proposed rule, to issue a final rule.

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.

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.

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 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.

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