Alaska seeks removal of humpbacks from endangered list

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The state of Alaska has filed a petition to remove some North Pacific humpback whales from protections granted under the federal Endangered Species Act, saying the whales are thriving and no longer need them.

The petition filed Wednesday with the National Marine Fisheries Service aims to delist humpbacks that feed in Alaska in the summer and breed in Hawaii in winter, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Alaska’s petition seeks removal of the central North Pacific whales from the list by declaring it a distinct population. Such a designation could lead to removal of protection for that population, even if other humpback populations remained officially endangered.

The petition dovetails with one filed last year by a Hawaii fishing association. The Hawaii group wants the entire North Pacific humpback population to be declared as a distinct population.

NMFS has 90 days to determine if Alaska’s petition justifies an in-depth review, agency spokeswoman Julie Speegle said.

The larger population of whales throughout the North Pacific had dwindled to fewer than 1,400 in 1996. The International Whaling Commission that year banned commercial whaling.

Since being listed as endangered in 1970, the whales have rebounded. About 20,000 of the whales are estimated in the North Pacific today.

The Endangered Species Act requires federal approval for federally funded or authorized activities that could harm whales or their habitat.

Alaska officials said the law represents an unnecessary regulatory burden on industries like fishing and oil and gas, given the recovery of humpbacks here.

“This subpopulation, it’s time to delist it,” said Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation. “We’re just trying to say the threat of extinction for this subpopulation is gone.”

According to officials, other protections including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, would remain in place. That law protects humpbacks from harassment and hunting.

Recovery of the whales across the North Pacific is slower for a population near South Korea and Japan, according to Lang.

Opponents of reduced federal protection say the North Pacific’s whales still face too many threats, including fatal boat collisions, fishing gear entanglement and changing ocean chemistry.

Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the numbers of whales appear to be growing, which is a sign of success from the Endangered Species Act.

“But we think that NMFS should really take a careful look at the threats to these species before they jump to delisting,” Noblin said.

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Information from: Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.adn.com

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