A petition filed by the state of Alaska to remove some North Pacific humpback whales from protection under the Endangered Species Act merits a closer look, federal officials said Wednesday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the petition to delist the central North Pacific whales presents substantial scientific backing that such action may be warranted. That population, estimated at more than 5,800, feeds in Alaska in the summer and breeds in Hawaii in winter.
As a result of a 90-day finding, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service will consider the petition as it reviews the status of the humpback population globally, a process that began in 2009. NOAA also is considering a petition filed last year by a Hawaii fishing association to delist the entire North Pacific humpback population, estimated at about 20,000.
That petition also received a positive finding. But neither petition is a done deal, NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle said.
"This is just a first step in a process," she said. "It doesn't prejudge the outcome of the status review."
Humpbacks were listed as endangered in 1970, four years after the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling. The whales have rebounded in the North Pacific since the listing, which requires federal approval for federally funded or authorized activities that could harm whales or their habitat.
Alaska officials said that given the recovery of the humpbacks, the law represents an unnecessary regulatory burden on industries including oil and fishing. Doug Vincent-Lang said adequate protections, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, remain in place to ensure conservation of the whales.
"Simply put, the threat of extinction for this stock of humpback whales is gone, and it should be removed from the Endangered Species Act," Vincent-Lang said.
Environmental groups have said North Pacific whales continue to be vulnerable to factors including increased shipping, climate change and ocean acidification, which affects the prey stock. Those kinds of hazards threats should also be considered, said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
"I think that the increase in the number of humpback whales that we've seen shows that the Endangered Species Act is working," she said. "But NOAA should be cautious in its review because the whales do continue to face threats."
A public comment period on the Alaska petition ends July 28.
The fisheries service generally has 12 months to respond to the petition from the time of the finding "to the extent practicable," Speegle said. She said the intent is to announce the conclusions of the global status review and the two petitions at once. No deadline has been set for the review.
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