Are humpback whales really not threatened anymore?

Happy World Oceans’ Day, everybody! To celebrate, we are reflecting today on the humpback whales’ recovery and current threats. On this site, we’ve previously discussed both Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and international conservation efforts to protect whale populations after their decimation by the commercial whaling industry. Today, I wanted to bring these two together and talk about the recent news from down under. Earlier this year, after much deliberation, Australia removed humpback whales from the official threatened species list. Let’s look at the reality and potential ramifications of this decision.

humpback whales are no longer threatened in Australia
A humpback whale breaching in Monterey Bay — Credit: Robin Gwen Agarwal

Endangered species lists: how do they work?

To begin, let’s consider why we need endangered species lists in the first place. In conservation science, it is crucial to continuously monitor population sizes and the vital habitat of animals. Whales, especially giants, are essential to the ocean ecosystem and their health.

Therefore, species are listed as threatened, vulnerable, or endangered if species populations get dangerously low. There are many different endangered species lists out there; many governments have their own versions. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN) red list is one of the most popular non-governmental sources that categorizes threatened and endangered species. Setting whales aside, there are over 8,000 critically endangered species of flora and fauna.

Endangered category - Red List of Threatened Species TM
The IUCN red list category guidelines.

Humpbacks in Australia are recovering

Truthfully, it is very encouraging to see whale populations growing around the world. The number of Humpbacks in Australian waters has grown from a mere 1,500 at the height of commercial whaling to an estimated 40,000 individuals!

Because populations have returned to their original size, Sussan Ley, the Australian Minister for the Environment, has followed the Threatened Species Scientific Committee’s suggestion of the removal.

 “Our removal of the Humpback from the threatened species list is based on science and sends a clear signal about what can be achieved through coordinated action. It is a message of hope for the welfare of a number of species.”

Sussan Ley

Just last year though, scientists were encouraging the Australian government not to remove the whales from the list. We’ll get to why in a minute.

Following in other’s footsteps

This move follows the United States’ actions in 2016 to remove 9 of the 14 distinct populations of Humpback Whales from the Endangered Species List. They did, however, retain their protection from harassment and harm under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In Australia, humpback whales will retain protection under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity and Conservation Act. This act makes it an offense to kill, injure, take, trade, keep, move or interfere with cetaceans.

Photo: Map of distinct Humpback populations. Image by NOAA.

Internationally, Humpbacks are protected against commercial whaling thanks to the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Eighty-eight countries have agreed to the 1982 memorandum which ensured a ban on commercial whaling. The commercial whaling ban is mainly what allowed whale populations to rebound in the first place. Today, aboriginal-substance and scientific-research provisions still allow for some whaling.

Credit: Pixabay

Despite international protection, in the US and Australia, there are still concerns that populations may still be at risk. After long-standing bans on hunting and increased conservation efforts, changes in the ocean environment due to climate change may keep whales in danger.

Humpback whales still face multiple threats

We live in the Anthropocene, the era of humans. Our current definitions of threatened, endangered, and critically endangered species may need to change to adapt to the ongoing climate crisis. We also have to consider there are potentially thousands of species that we don’t have enough data on.

Indeed, the initial international effort to ban whaling and the resulting whale population recoveries is a cause for celebration. Yet, despite their population growth, humpback whales still face multiple severe threats worldwide. These threats include but are not limited to ocean warming, changing acidity, and damaging impacts from boat noise. These threats impact not only the whales but their food sources as well. Additionally, entanglements in fishing gear, bycatch and boat strikes (military and civilian) are significant risks to populations.

Will humpback whales be back on the endangered list?

We know that there is a strong connection between the health of whale populations and the marine ecosystem. It took us 60 years to feel comfortable removing these species from the list. Consider, that it may take even less time before we need to put them back on.

There are certainly arguments for keeping certain animals or plants on endangered species lists. For example, humpback whales have made a significant population recovery, but they are still under threat. While they may not appear as “actively” threatened as before, we need strong population numbers to keep oceans healthy. As ocean climate conditions change, the complex combination of threats whales face could require their reintroduction to this government list. How will that look for the government of Australia then? We’ll just have to wait and see…

Sources and further reading

Brianna has a background in marine biology and currently works as a live-aboard deckhand/educator at the Los Angeles Maritime Institute (LAMI). Her research interests include ocean conservation, specifically in the high seas and polar regions, and identifying marine mammal vocalizations in the global soundscape. She is passionate about music and can’t write without coffee.

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