LIHUE — More of the Pacific Ocean could be designated as critical habitat for three populations of endangered humpback whales, potentially protecting the migrating mammals from things like gear entanglement and boat strikes.
Proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the rule would designate a total of 302,961 square nautical miles in the Pacific Ocean as critical habitat for the threatened Mexico distinct population segment (DPS), the endangered Central America DPS, and the endangered Western North Pacific DPS of humpback whales.
Specifically, the rule designates 48,459 square miles of critical habitat off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington for the humpback population that winters in Central America. The Mexico population got 175,812 square miles in the North Pacific Ocean, including Bristol Bay, Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska — regions that also made up the 78,690 square miles listed for the Western North Pacific humpback population, according to NMFS.
It wouldn’t apply to the North Pacific humpback whale DPS, which is the population that migrates to and from Hawaii. That’s because critical habitat can only be designated for listed species or DPSs. No critical habitat is being proposed for the non-listed Hawaii population of humpback whales.
But, that doesn’t mean the whales that migrate to Hawaii wouldn’t be affected, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“It is possible that the proposed critical habitat, if finalized, would have some benefit for the non-listed Hawaiian whales,” said NOAA spokeswoman Jennie Lyons. “The Hawaiian population of humpback whales uses feeding habitat that overlaps with some of the feeding habitat proposed for designation off the coast of Alaska.”
Various humpback whale DPSs mix while they’re at their feeding grounds — for example, the Mexico and Central America DPSs both use feeding habitats off the U.S. West Coast. The Western North Pacific DPS whales and Mexico DPS whales also mix in the feeding habitats off the coast of Alaska.
“There have also been some infrequent observations of whales moving among the breeding areas,” Lyons said. “For instance, there have been a few observations of Mexico DPS whales in waters around Hawaii. The biological significance of these movements are not yet understood.”
The NMFS rule proposal follows a court-approved agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and Wishtoyo Foundation to issue new protections.
The groups had sued the Trump administration for failing to protect two Pacific Ocean humpback populations listed as endangered and a third as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“Pacific humpback whales will be safer in their ocean home with these protections,” said Catherine Kilduff, a CBD attorney. “Humpbacks delight whale watchers with their antics, but these playful animals are highly vulnerable to human activities in coastal waters. Identifying their critical habitat is an important way to protect them from speeding ships, oil spills and fishing gear.”
To support their standpoint, the CBD cites a study done by researchers affiliated with organizations including Cascadia Research Collective and Point Blue Conservation Science.
That study found an estimated 22 humpback whales off California, Oregon and Washington die each year after being hit by ships. Supporters of the proposed rule say it would help safeguard ocean areas that are essential for migrating and feeding, and thus protect both listed and unlisted humpback whale populations.
Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or firstname.lastname@example.org.