Many were surprised to hear that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had decided to remove the humpback whale from the endangered species list. By dividing the world’s population of humpbacks into fourteen segments, NOAA recommended that the New England population lose this protection. Their argument was that the numbers of whales has increased to a healthy size that is sustainable. The endangered status was granted in 1970 at a time when many species of whales were hunted by Japan, Russia and Norway. Since then, international protective measures and education have allowed the species to recover in many parts of the world, though not all.
Whale watching in places like Cape Cod, Hawaii and California has become an important addition to the economy. One observer noted that today we shoot whales with cameras rather than harpoons. The humpback whale has been a particular favorite with its majestic breaching behavior and its haunting songs. The species will still have protection in the United States under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Though I rejoice at the population rebound and I believe that we should use good scientific data to develop marine policies, I am a bit uneasy about this change in status for the humpback whales. There are new threats to whales that are not clearly understood. We are all too familiar with the harmful effects of ship strikes and marine debris. But what are the long term effects of climate change, such as ocean acidification, on the marine food web? These animals consume thousands of pounds of food a day. If organisms at the lower end of the food web are being impacted by climate change, what could happen to whales?
And what about the effect of sound in the ocean? There have been many studies which demonstrated that noise pollution is a factor in the marine environment. Whale communication, essential for reproductive success, can be interrupted by sonar and other acoustic disturbances. Whales are still vulnerable in areas where there is offshore oil and gas development, sand mining, and coastal runoff.
Finally, what message are we sending to those nations who have had a recent history of killing whales for various uses? Will they view this as a license to resume their “harvests?” It has taken decades to educate the public on the importance of conserving whales. Hopefully our species has learned to admire these magnificent animals and to protect them at all times.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.