NOAA reviewing ESA protections for humpback whales

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale (Photo courtesy NOAA)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will initiate an in-depth review into whether the North Pacific humpback still needs protection under the Endangered Species Act.

A group of Hawaiian fishermen submitted a petition to de-list the whale in April and NOAA released its first finding Thursday.

NOAA has determined the petition submitted by the Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition has enough substantial information to justify taking a deeper look.

Humpback whales have been designated endangered since 1970.

“Our initial review of a petition, frankly, is rather cursory. We look at the information that is in the petition itself and other information that is available in our files just to determine whether the petition presents enough information to suggest that a full analysis is appropriate. So we did that initial review and that’s the stage we’re at,” says Jon Kurland, assistant regional administrator for protected resources in Juneau.

What comes next is a two-step process.

First, NOAA must determine if the North Pacific humpback should be considered its own distinct population.

“Right now, humpbacks are listed globally. There’s just one listing for all humpback whales and so we’re going to need to consider whether the humpbacks in the North Pacific meet the relevant criteria to be considered a listable entity under the Endangered Species Act,” Kurland explains. “In other words, should they be treated as essentially their own species?”

NOAA then decides if changing the whale’s endangered status is justified. Kurland says several factors are considered.

“That includes things like whether there are any threats to the habitat or the extent of severity of threats, whether there’s over-utilization of a species, so if a species is harvested commercially or hunted. We have to look the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms, whether there are enough rules in place to protect the species if it no longer had the protection of the Endangered Species Act.”

NOAA’s review will also look at the possibility of changing the whale’s status from endangered to threatened.

The agency has until next April to make another finding. If it’s determined a change is warranted, NOAA will issue a proposed regulation which would be open for public comment.

Kurland says he’s sure people will be very interested.

“Whales tend to engender strong opinions from people. Some people have strong beliefs that they should be protected. Some people have different philosophies on the amount of government involvement that’s needed to protect wildlife, so I’m sure there will be a lot of different opinions.”

NOAA is currently requesting scientific and commercial information on humpback whales that will help the agency decide. Submit information at www.regulations.gov by October 28th.

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