Feds reviewing humpback whale endangered status

HONOLULU – The federal government is considering taking the humpback whale off the endangered species list in response to data showing the population of the massive marine mammal has been steadily growing in recent decades.

Known for their acrobatic leaps from the sea and complex singing patterns, humpback whales were nearly hunted to extinction for their oil and meat by industrial-sized whaling ships well through the middle of the 20th century. But the species has been bouncing back since an international ban on their commercial whaling in 1966.

“Humpbacks by and large are an example of a species that in most places seems to be doing very well, despite our earlier efforts to exterminate them,” said Phillip Clapham, a senior whale biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The government is required by law to review the endangered species status of an animal or plant if it receives “significant new information.” The National Marine Fisheries Service, a NOAA agency, received results last year from an extensive study showing that the North Pacific humpback population has been growing 4 to 7 percent a year in recent decades.

Public comment is being accepted until Oct. 13 on the upcoming review, which is expected to take less than a year. It’s the first review for humpbacks since 1999.

A panel of scientists will then study the data and produce a scientific report on their analysis in late spring or early summer. It’s unclear what the decision on delisting the humback will be.

“I don’t know where the humpback people are going to come out,” said David Cottingham, who heads the marine mammal and sea turtle conservation division at the Fisheries Service. “It would be premature to talk about it.”