Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 6, 2016

Contact: Kristen Monsell, (914) 806-3467,

Endangered Species Act Puts Humpback Whales on Road to Recovery, But Hurdles Remain

Feds Remove Protection From Several Populations of Humpbacks Despite Ongoing Threats

WASHINGTON— The National Marine Fisheries Service today finalized a decision to change the Endangered Species Act status of humpback whales. Previously protected as endangered globally, today’s finding splits humpback whales into 14 populations. While it continues to protect some populations, it removes endangered species protections for the Hawaii population that migrates to Alaska and the West Indies population that feeds off the U.S. East Coast. It also reclassifies the Mexico population that feeds off the U.S. West Coast as threatened.

"Some humpbacks are on the road to recovery, thanks to the tremendous power of the Endangered Species Act, but the job isn’t finished. These whales face several significant and growing threats, including entanglement in fishing gear, so ending protections now is a step in the wrong direction,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “At the very least, the feds must address the huge increase in whales getting tangled up in fishing gear along the West Coast.”

Nearly 40 reports of whales entangled in fishing gear were recorded off the West Coast in the first half of 2016, putting this year on pace to break the record for the third straight year after more than 60 entanglements were reported in 2015. The Fisheries Service cited increasing entanglements as a reason why the Mexico population off the West Coast was not being stripped of all its Endangered Species Act protections, as originally proposed.

While the government acknowledges that threats remain for humpback whales, it cites some populations’ increases to justify delisting. The whales’ recovery plan set the goal of reaching 60 percent of the historical carrying capacity for the North Atlantic and North Pacific populations, but it is not possible to assess whether this criterion has been met because of information gaps, including a lack of reliable estimates of deaths due to entanglements.  

“The fact that we can see humpback whales breaching and feeding in the ocean after they were nearly wiped out shows the power of the Endangered Species Act. Those protections should stay in place for these amazing animals,” Monsell said.

The decision continues to protect the Arabian Sea, Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa, Western North Pacific and Central America populations (that feed off California, Oregon and Washington) as endangered. The decision downlists the Mexico population (that feeds off California, Oregon and Alaska) to threatened, although the Fisheries Service says current protections will be kept in place because of the increasing number of West Coast whale entanglements. It removes Endangered Species Act protections for the West Indies, Hawaii, Brazil, Gabon/Southwest Africa, Southeast Africa/Madagascar, West Australia, East Australia, Oceania and Southeastern Pacific humpback populations.

The proposed delisting rule indicated that there are more than 2,000 humpback whales each in the West Indies, Hawaii and Mexico groups and the populations are increasing moderately. There are thought to be about 400 Central America humpbacks left, and that population’s trends are unknown.  

Today’s action comes in response to petitions by the Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition to delist the North Pacific humpback whale and the state of Alaska to remove the Central North Pacific (Hawaii) stock of humpback from the list of endangered and threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Learn more about the Center's Oceans program and the most recent whale entanglement data.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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