HONOLULU (AP) — The federal government on Monday proposed removing most of the world’s humpback whales from the endangered species list, saying the massive mammals have rebounded after 45 years of protections.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries officials want to reclassify humpbacks into 14 distinct populations, and remove 10 of those from the list.
The last time the agency delisted a species due to recovery was more than two decades ago.
“As we learn more about the species – and realize the populations are largely independent of each other – managing them separately allows us to focus protection on the animals that need it the most,” Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries, said in a statement.
Humpbacks were listed as endangered in 1970, four years after the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling.
The whales have rebounded in the North Pacific since the listing, which requires federal approval for federally funded or authorized activities that could harm whales or their habitat.
Last year, the state of Alaska filed a petition to remove some North Pacific humpback whales from protection under the Endangered Species Act. That population, estimated at more than 5,800, feeds in Alaska in the summer and breeds in Hawaii in winter.
Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that while it’s a good sign that the whales are being considered for removal from the list, it might be premature.
“On the one hand, it’s good news that the whales are recovering. I think this population of whales is doing really well, and that shows that the Endangered Species Act works,” she said.
However, she said whales continue to be vulnerable to factors including climate change and ocean acidification, which affects the prey stock.
“It would really be beneficial to continue to have the protections of the Endangered Species Act as the oceans change,” she said.
NOAA said in a release announcing its proposal that protection and restoration efforts have led to an increase in humpbacks in many areas.
The last time a species’ recovery prompted delisting was in 1994, when the agency removed the eastern North Pacific population of gray whales from the list.
Under the latest plan, two of the humpback populations would be listed as threatened, in Central America and the Western North Pacific. The agency said these whales at times enter U.S. waters.
The other two populations – in the Arabian Sea and off Cape Verde and northwest Africa – would remain listed as endangered.
Humpbacks are found around the world. They weigh 25 to 40 tons and can grow up to 60 feet long, according to NOAA’s website. The whales are primarily dark gray with some white spots, and their pectoral fins can get as long as 15 feet.
If the proposal passes, the humpback populations that are removed from the endangered list would still be protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The public has 90 days to comment on the recommended changes.