The double-decker sized humpback whales famed for their songs are a conservation success story – but some experts are wary of a numbers game, while others fear the new President will reverse work done to save them.
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In the sci-fi films I used to watch as a child, the human race was regularly put on trial by aliens for the crimes it had committed. High on our rap sheet, I always imagined, would be the extinction of all manner of animals, and especially that gentle giant of the sea, the humpback whale.
Today, these whales the size of a double-decker bus are famous for their sounds – or songs – and for their breaching behaviour, which involves them jumping out of the sea. They are also known for migrating vast distances each year from the tropics, where they breed, to feed in the polar waters and back again.
In the past, though, they were better known for the quantity of whale meat and blubber that could be harvested from their huge carcasses, which helpfully floated. By the 1960s, the humpback whale looked set to join the hundreds of other species humankind had driven to extinction.
It was then that campaigners such as Americans G Carleton Ray and Lee Talbot decided to do something about it. It is usually hard to get excited about legislation, but the legislation that their work brought about was legislation worth getting excited about.
How whales came to be protected by law
In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act made it illegal to harass, feed, hunt, capture, collect or kill any marine mammal within US waters.
Then the influential 1973 Endangered Species Act gave legal protection to more than 2,200 species threatened with extinction, including the humpback whale.
Passed with widespread support, opposition to the act has grown since then – centred on its cost, effectiveness and the extent of the powers it gave to the government. US citizens have to honour the act’s terms, even on the high seas.
International agreements over the period included the 1966 International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on hunting humpback whales, which was followed in 1982 by a further IWC decision to ban whale hunting. At the same time, there was a scientific revolution in our understanding of life under the sea and this helped to change the attitude of the public.
“The most important part of the 40-year strategy was ending the direct killing of humpbacks,” says conservation biologist Dr Joe Roman, of the University of Vermont, and the author of Whale.
“The Endangered Species Act was particularly important because it was influential across the whole world. It sent a message that these species needed protection and put pressure on other countries economically to protect the species on the list,” he adds.
The humpbacks were also able to help themselves: “Humpbacks are generalists and are very good at it. They can learn different ways to hunt from each other and swim to different parts of the ocean if there isn’t food where they expect it. This is not true of all whales.”
The good news
Then, this autumn, came the news that the 40-year campaign to save the humpback from extinction had been successful.
As many as 90,000 humpbacks may now be swimming in the seas from Hawaii to the West Indies and Australia after falling to numbers as low as 5,000, possibly even 1,000, by the 1960s. Estimates place the population of humpbacks before hunting somewhere in the region of 100,000 to 125,000
However, in what some conservationists see as a scientific sleight of hand, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has, for the first time, identified 14 distinct populations of humpback whales – and claims that nine out of these 14 are now safe from extinction and can be taken off the list of endangered species (“delisted”).
This leaves around 5,000 whales in five population segments listed as endangered or threatened, their birth rates struggling to keep up with the everyday problems of sharing the oceans with us that all whales face, such as getting entangled in fishing lines, collisions with ships, human activities such as oil exploration, and even disease.
The Arabian Sea and Cape Verde Island populations, the NOAA says, are down to about 80 whales each.
“We should celebrate,” says Roman. “The 40-year strategy we put in place to save the humpback has done a great job. Now many of the populations are bouncing back. However, it doesn’t mean that whales are living in some kind of ocean paradise.”
The return of the humpback does offer humanity a glimmer of hope that the mass extinction of species that is predicted for the next 100 years can be halted – although that was of course before the election of Donald Trump.
“Given that Mr Trump has dismissed the threat posed by climate change, made statements that he intends to only leave ‘a little bit’ of the Environmental Protection Agency in place, and has sons who embrace trophy hunting,” says Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America, “there is little hope that this administration will seriously consider environmental conservation.”
In addition, whale research is notoriously expensive and difficult and some conservationists are worried about the accuracy of the data the NOAA is using. There are still too many gaps in our knowledge about humpbacks.
Others are concerned that the low rate of growth in some humpback populations are close to the numbers killed in entanglements and collisions.
Whales also move between different populations, which can confuse the issue. In some parts of the world, listed and delisted whales actually swim together making enforcement problematic.
Some see darker motives behind the various humpback populations’ delisting.
“Who is behind this?” asks Asmutis-Silvia. “Perhaps I am being cynical, but there were two proposals to remove humpbacks from the endangered list in the North Pacific – one came from a Hawaii fishing group and the other from the State of Alaska which is in interested in commercial fishing and oil exploration.
Have the humpbacks been saved? It’s more of a mixed bag.”
“We believe we have conducted a very carefully thought-out and scientific survey and that the decision we have announced is warranted,” argues Angela Somma, chief of the endangered species division at NOAA Fisheries. “There are significant protections still in place even if they’re not listed under the Endangered Species Act.”
Interestingly, the NOAA has introduced new regulations to ensure that boats have to keep the same distance from humpback whale populations as they did when they were listed.
The next challenge
Roman is more sanguine about the lessons that can be learned from saving the humpbacks.
“We know how to protect whales; we don’t know how to manage human expectations,” he says. “We haven’t worked out how to make the extinction of the snail or freshwater mussel as awful as that of a whale. I think all species are of equal value, but that is not the consensus.”
Furthermore, the resilience of the humpback will, he fears, be severely tested in the coming years.
“We are going to start to see climate change having an effect, as well as pollution and disease, and a whole host of other problems that haven’t been studied yet.
“Are we going to get back to historic numbers? We don’t know how much their prey has been depleted and how that has affected the carrying capacity of the ocean.”
In the end, the fate of the humpback whale and humanity may be determined by the idiosyncrasies of the US electoral system.