Breeching Humpback Whale, © William Welch

A Wrong Turn for Humpback Whales

Science doesn’t support dividing humpback whale species and removing vital protections.

Humpback whales are famous for their distinctive “song” and animated aerial displays. The males sing varied notes intertwined in an elaborate song that can last as long as twenty minutes, sometimes singing on repeat for hours on end. Humpback whales also steal the show with their varied acrobatic routine of leaping out of the water and slapping their tails and flippers against the surface with a resounding splash. Each year people flock to the water for the chance of seeing one of these gentle giants. But although these whales’ numbers have increased in recent decades, they aren’t out of the woods yet.

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Humpback whales, © NOAA

Initially listed as endangered in 1970, humpback whales have not yet weathered the storm from the decimation wrought by centuries of whaling. Yet this spring, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed stripping the species of many of its protections under the Endangered Species Act. For management purposes, the agency’s proposal would split the whales into 14 “distinct population segments” around the globe, removing all protections for 10 populations, downlisting two from endangered to threatened, and only retaining endangered status for two populations.

Slicing and dicing the global humpback population into a piecemeal patchwork, where some whales get legal protection and some don’t, makes zero sense. Because humpback whales migrate thousands of miles each year, these proposed 14 populations will be meaningless to the whales themselves. Whales from different populations will inevitably intermingle, making it difficult to determine who’s who to enforce protections. NMFS’s proposal also jumps the gun by declaring the humpback whale a recovery success story. Increasing population numbers do not mean the humpback whale is in the clear: although the species is largely protected from hunting, other threats are increasing, and the risk of extinction still looms.

Like most whales, humpbacks face the threats of increasing underwater noise, entanglements with fishing gear, collisions with large vessels, and the effects of climate change. Warming oceans and changing currents affect where, when, and how much food the whales have, as well as the species’ migration routes, reproductive success, and overall survival. Scientists don’t yet know the full extent to which climate change will affect humpback whales, though it is clear that warming temperatures are altering the ocean’s chemistry and interfering with food webs. In the face of that uncertainty, how can officials declare that humpbacks are recovered? The science does not support either removing protections for humpback whales or breaking the species up into smaller populations with different levels of protection.

Defenders, along with our conservation allies, submitted extensive comments to NMFS detailing all the obstacles to recovery that the humpback whales still need to overcome. Our coalition of experts laid out the reasons why the whales should remain listed as endangered throughout their range, backing up each point with thorough research and substantial scientific data. Now we can only hope that the agency will listen, and these iconic whales will keep the legal protections they need as they face a difficult and uncertain future.

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32 Responses to “A Wrong Turn for Humpback Whales”

  1. Gabriele Stuis

    Love them all – it would be a very dark and aweful future if the whales would vanish – we all are God’s creatures <3

  2. carol

    Genesis 1 verse 21 God created great whales and God SAID ” it was good “. SO let good be kept alive and in peace, so that we all may one day see with our own eyes and hearts to cherish and view and wonder at God’s Loving life creations!

    • la marca monique

      All living God’ creatures must be protected. Not killed by evil people whatever the reasons are.

  3. Dorothy

    We must continue to protect these majestic whales.We have so much more to do to clean up mess we created.Please do not split them up and play roulette with the future of what God created …

  4. Susan Hinds

    I agree with Dr. Michelle Lemley. Global protection for all of the whales!

  5. Vista Anne

    We must protect these gorgeous whales. They are a part of God’s plan and so loved by so many. I am a strong believer in prayer.
    These whales and all animals on the planet will be be prayed for every day that I am on the planet. We all need to come together and let our voices be heard in the government. We must not let these whales be taken off of the endangered list.

  6. Dr Ed Marits

    My goodness, when will we ever learn. Nature keeps teaching. We have hard time listening and understanding. There are many creatures in the world that need help. But Humpbacks r among them. Parsing the oceans for a migratory species is plain (insert derogatory word).
    If decision makers could experience the majesty of a Humpback, hopefully they will respond responsibly.

  7. john costanzo

    I cannot believe anybody but an indigenous people would hunt such a majestic creature how could someone be so ignorant in these times. Greed is a terrible sin .

  8. cyril christo

    A world without whales or elephants invites a world without humans. Cyril Christo

    “On an entirely manmade world there is no room for man either.” Romain Gary

  9. Pam lattin

    God watches EVERYTHING and acts accordingly…to the righteous acts of man AND to the unrighteous, murdering acts of man…REMEMBER THAT YOU UNGODLY MURDERERS…YOUR TIME IS COMING!!!

  10. Jim Camenson

    The Humpback story is one of the few that seems to be headed in the right direction. It would be a crime for us to lose ground on all that has been gained. The effort needs to continue and pray the world will see the light.

  11. Sheila L. Richardson

    Somebody once said and I believe that the extinction of a species is like a rivet in an airplane. When one rivet falls out nothing much happens. If rivets keep popping out sooner or later an important rivet pops out and the plane crashes. Which species should we protect? We don’t know which species is really important so we should protect them all.

  12. markgil

    “So many people insist they are against animal abuse, cruelty, suffering and the inhumane treatment of animals, yet they don’t understand they are actively engaging in and supporting egregious suffering, abuse, cruelty and inhumane treatment when they eat animals and their ‘by-products.’ If you are against cruelty, suffering and inhumane treatment, then you go vegan. It’s just that simple.” – Sarah Kiser

  13. Dee Anne Hayes

    I agree with all of the comment above. This really comes down to doing what is right, period! As humans we have made a terrible mess of the world, it must STOP! We do have the power when we come together with RIGHT thinking and acting. The Ocean must be protected, we must stop doing so so many things that went on with WRONG thinking and acting! God please save us all from the wrongs we have done and lead us to your glory of Love, Peace and Understanding! This is not a religious statement because I am not religious. I am a woman of God and will stand up for what is right. I pray it is not too late! Namaste!

  14. Bill

    No way they’re recovered and with new threats with from oil drilling/ seismic testing from Alaska to trying to drilling on all coasts they’re protections need to stay no questions asked. And to say they just stay in one area is just stupid. In order to breed males will move and start groups just like any other species.

  15. trish Sayers

    Oh Dear God, whose pockets are being lined on THIS nonsence? I cant think of a more logical reason for this innane idea. The Oceans are made with Whales in mind. Of this i am positive. Whom, other than Humpbacks, singing for miles, has a need for the Ocean depths and vastness? Certainly other Whale species, and Dolphins, Sea Turtles, Fish, Swordfish, Tuna etc ALL HAVE A NEED for these Oceans. It is their enviornment, their Home, but the expression, “It’s Not NICE To Play with Mother Nature”, isnt just a cliche. It is fact.

  16. Sandy Danielson

    My sentiments are in the extreme category for preserving the natural rights of
    God’s creatures…in this case the HUMPBACK WHALES and all other species of
    Whales…Their salvation to be on earth is equal to our being on earth!!!

  17. Sandy Danielson

    Wake up People!!! All wildlife is just as entitled as to stay alive and perpetuate their
    species as we are….so HELP ALL CREATURES on EARTH!!

  18. zeke

    Man hunted them for many yrs, for their oil and meat…….

    Now it is time for man to protect these great creatures and allow them to live in peace from man and his $$$ driven cruelty……………….

  19. Sylvia Zade-Routier

    Whales are mammals, same species as us, with the difference that they respect their environment. We must rlearn from them and respect them.

  20. Sylvia Zade-Routier

    I’d like somebody to explain me why my message is constantly banned because of “moderation”, whilst I try to communicate my love ans respect to Nature, in this case for the protection of whales.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Hi Sylvia,
      Don’t worry, your message isn’t being banned. All comments on the blog go through a brief review process (called “moderation”) before being posted publicly so that we can keep spam and offensive comments that violate our community guidelines from appearing. You’ll see that all the comments you made have been published. Thank you for your comments in support of wildlife!

  21. Judy Vernon

    They need to be left alone. They are not hurting anyone. I’ve been out fishing twice this month in Queensland Australia and we were lucky to have them come up and under my son in laws boat where they put on a wonderful display for us for 40 minutes before going on there way. Please protect these beautiful Whales.

  22. Alan Solomon

    Hello Ms. Gregory, thank you for all the work you and your staff do for Humpback Whales and other important Wildlife in our lives. Without you and your staff’s productive effort so far we may or Wildlife may have no gotten as far as we or it has.
    Money is tight for me as usual so, a donation is not in the cards. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance or help in other ways.
    Thank you again for all you do for Humpbacks and Wildlife today and into the future.

  23. Ling Yai

    As a professional sea kayaker I’ve had many encounters with whales, especially humpbacks when I lived in Hawai’i. One of my special moments was a mother humpback bringing her baby to my kayak to show it off – same as a mother with a baby stroller in a shopping center. That particular encounter lasted over 30 minutes and gave me the opportunity to make friends, look through her eye right into her brain and hold a long conversation – mostly about her calf.

    There is ZERO justification for removing their Endangered status. The same for all marine animals. As far as I am concerned Japanese Whaling and the Faroe Islands pilot whale kills are genocide and those who participate are no better than war criminals.

    By the way, their breath stinks a lot but looking into that huge eye is well worth the smell.

    • Jayne

      You must have done something wonderful in your life. Talk about karma! What better than to interact in such a basic way with the huge mother and child. The universe definitely smiled on you that day! Namaste

  24. Peter Schneider,

    I read this message as a German veteriarian with great interest. I was not aware of that problem in the USA and have learned a lot,
    I translated this article into German and i am going to translate the complete the whole eNews too

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