Humpback whales bubblenet feeding. (Photo by Blain and Monique Anderson, NOAA Fisheries permit #14122)

Humpback whales bubblenet feeding. (Photo by Blain and Monique Anderson, NOAA Fisheries permit #14122)

Sometime in the next few weeks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will likely decide whether humpback whales — or some part of the population — should be taken off the endangered species list.

If the agency decides to de-list the species, it will be just the second time that NOAA has taken a marine species off the list because it was no longer at risk.

In the final installment of their series on humpback whales and the Endangered Species Act, KCAW reporter Rachel Waldholz and University of Alaska Fairbanks PhD student Ellen Chenoweth ask: what’s at stake, for humpbacks, and for us?

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A humpback whale shows its fluke. (Photo by Ellen Chenoweth, NOAA Fisheries permit #14122).

A humpback whale shows its fluke. (Photo by Ellen Chenoweth, NOAA Fisheries permit #14122).

During our reporting, there was one phrase we heard over and over and over: success story.

Vincent-Lang: The recovery of humpback whales in the North Pacific is really an ESA success story…

Noblin: So first of all, it is important to say that the central North Pacific humpback whales are a great conservation success story…

Taylor: It’s one of the thrilling things and really a positive thing for a conservation biologist like myself, to have these success stories…

That’s Doug Vincent-Lang, who petitioned on behalf of the State of Alaska to take some humpbacks off the list; Rebecca Noblin, of the Center for Biological Diversity, which wants to keep humpbacks on the list; and Barb Taylor, of NOAA who walked us through how the whole listing/de-listing process works.

Everyone agrees on a few key points. First: that the major threat to humpbacks is gone, and it’s not coming back anytime soon.

“The threat that put them on the endangered species list to begin with was whaling,” Taylor said. “Quite literally the seas were red in 1973 when all the great whales were put on the endangered species list. It was a shocking bloodbath that was going on.”

That bloodbath ended when the International Whaling Commission set a moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986. The IWC actually banned hunting for humpbacks even earlier, in 1966.  And even if the moratorium were lifted, and if humpbacks were taken off the endangered species list, it would still be illegal to hunt them in U.S. waters, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The second point of agreement is that there are many more whales than there used to be. Scientists don’t know exactly how many humpbacks survived commercial whaling, but one study suggests there were about 1500 humpbacks in the North Pacific in the late 1960s. Now, scientists estimate there are more than 21,000 in the North Pacific. Worldwide, researchers put the number at more than 60,000.

And when it comes to the Endangered Species Act, it is interested in just one thing: is this animal at risk of extinction?

In other words, the question is not, have humpbacks recovered to their historic population size?, or have humpbacks reached the maximum number the ecosystem can support? It’s just: is this species at risk of disappearing, if these protections are removed?

And this is where people start to disagree.

“Humpback whales no longer face commercial whaling, but they do face a number of environmental stressors that are increasing,” said Noblin, of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The biggest of which are climate change and ocean acidification.”

In public comment submitted to NOAA, a coalition of environmental groups led by the Center argued that humpbacks also face threats from ship strikes, entanglement in commercial fishing nets and noise pollution.

But the State of Alaska argues that the population is now resilient enough to handle those threats.

“We think it’s time to celebrate the success and move on and de-list this species,” said Doug Vincent-Lang, the former director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, under former Gov. Sean Parnell.

The problem is that both sides can be right. Taylor, of NOAA, said it can be maddening for biologists to assess the “average” risk of a species that spans the globe.

“I often liken it to asking a doctor who has three patients,” Taylor said. “One that’s going to run the marathon the next day, one that has a headache, and one that is on life support. And asking that doctor, ‘Well, give us the average health of your patients.'”

Humpbacks may be in a similar position: the whales that feed around Southeast Alaska appear to be thriving. But across the Pacific, off the coast of Asia, the population is much smaller.

One solution is to break a species into what’s called “distinct population segments” and just de-list one segment.

NOAA was already four years into a review of humpback status worldwide when the agency received a petition, in 2013, from a Hawaiian fishermen’s alliance. The petition asked NOAA to consider just de-listing the North Pacific stock, which includes all humpbacks in the Pacific, north of the Equator.

Then, this year, the State of Alaska suggested a third option: that NOAA de-list just the central North Pacific stock, which includes most of the whales that feed in Alaska and breed in Hawaii.

Noblin said that’s easier said than done.

“It’s hard to imagine how you can remove protections for these whales without also putting other, more at-risk populations in harm’s way,” she said.

That’s because these populations sometimes mix, especially on feeding grounds, including in Alaska. This can make it tricky to manage them separately.

Meanwhile, there’s another dynamic at work: even if they are de-listed, humpbacks, unlike, say, wolves or spotted owls, would still be protected by one of the most powerful wildlife conservation laws in the world: the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Vincent-Lang of the State of Alaska said that double-layer of protection was useful once, but now it’s a burden for industries that operate in humpback territory, including commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration.

“Again: we don’t think that is necessary for a species that isn’t at the risk of extinction,” Vincent-Lang said.

But most activities prohibited under the Endangered Species Act would still be prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

So, we asked Barb Taylor at NOAA: what could change?

Chenoweth: Will there be hunting whales if they come off the list?

Taylor: Oh, certainly not.

Chenoweth: Will we be able to buy humpback whale blubber in our sushi restaurants that have been imported from out of the country?

Taylor: Oh no. No, definitely not…

Chenoweth: We have a lot of whale watching around here, and there’s an approach limit. I’m wondering if that’s likely to change, will we be able to get right up next to humpback whales in whale watching boats?

Taylor: No, and again, those regulations are all under the Marine Mammal Protection Act…

In other words, “I don’t think it will actually affect any human activity,” Taylor said.

So why does it matter?

“Well, it is the right thing to do!” Taylor said — if the science warrants it. She didn’t take a position on humpbacks, because she’s not on the review committee. But she did say that it makes it harder to list species when people think they’ll likely stay listed forever.

Noblin, of the Center for Biological Diversity, doesn’t necessarily disagree. But, she said, the time isn’t yet ripe for humpback whales.

“When you’re looking at a species that was, in fairly recent history, on the brink of extinction, combined with an environment that’s changing really rapidly, I think it’s important to maintain all levels of protection right now,” she said.

Taylor said that when species come off the list, it’s a clear signal that the protections have worked — and that can make it easier to advocate for similar protections elsewhere.

“You know, I just did some interviews both in Mexico and in New Zealand and people are saying it’s hopeless. And I’m saying, it’s not hopeless!” she said. “And I’ve had the great pleasure to actually witness that with both humpback whales and bowheads. It makes me have the perseverance you need to stick through these decades of struggle for these species that really are on the brink.”

And that, she said, is why you need success stories.