NOAA Proposes to Revise ESA Humpback Whale Listings

Federal fisheries officials, hailing the success of the Endangered Species Act in increasing humpback whale populations, is proposing a listing change that would remove ESA protections for most of the humpbacks worldwide.

The humpbacks are currently listed as endangered throughout their range, but the proposed rule, announced April 20, finds that ten of those 14 distinct population segments do not warrant ESA listing.

While commercial whaling severely depleted humpback whale numbers, population rebounds in many areas result in today’s larger numbers, with steady rates of population growth since the United States first listed the humpbacks as endangered in 1970, NOAA Fisheries officials said.

Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Washington D.C. cautioned that while she is heartened by some humpback whales recovering, “it’s premature to remove protections when so many threats, like climate change and ocean noise, are increasing.

“Since commercial whaling ended, humpbacks have enjoyed protection, but they’re still drowning in fishing gear and getting hit by ships,” she said.

Humpback whales, known for their long “pectoral” fins, which give them increased maneuverability to slow down or even go backwards, can measure up to 15 feet in length. They delight whale watchers, with their breaching, and by slapping the surface with their pectoral fins, tails or heads, in summer in the Gulf of Alaska, and in winter in their calving grounds in the Hawaiian Islands and other tropical waters.

Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, hailed the increased numbers of humpbacks as a success of the ESA.

Under the proposed rule the Central America and Western North Pacific distinct population segments would retain threatened status, while the Arabian Sea and off Cape Verde Islands/Northwest African distinct population segments would stay on the endangered species list.

If the proposal is finalized, the humpback whale populations that would no longer be listed under the ESA would remain protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. A 90-day public comment period, which began April 21, will play a role in NOAA’s final decision.

The proposal’s Federal Register notice is also online, at

The public may comment via electronic submissions or the post service.

Send electronic comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal by going to!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2015-0035, and clicking on the “comment now!” icon, then completing required fields and entering or attaching your comments.

Comments may be mailed to the Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, 1215 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.