Are humpbacks still endangered?

A humpback whale breaches off the B.C. coast. Photo by SparkyLeigh on flickr.

A humpback whale breaches off the B.C. coast. Photo by SparkyLeigh on flickr.

When I worked on B.C.’s Central Coast in the summer of 2000, seeing a humpback whale was a rare treat. They’re huge, but far more acrobatic than their grey whale cousins we were studying.

The good news is: seeing a humpback whale in the North Pacific isn’t as rare anymore.

They’re considered threatened in Canada, and for as long as the U.S. has had an endangered species list (since 1973) the humpback has been on it.

But that could soon change, in the U.S. at least.

This week, NOAA announced it’s reviewing the humpback’s status. A recent international study puts the North Pacific population estimate at almost 20,000, up from a low of less than 2,000 animals.

While humpback numbers are now growing steadily, the population is still just one-fifth of the pre-whaling size, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

good, but good enough?

“It’s been such a gift to watch them come back,” Jackie Hildering told me this week. She’s a naturalist with Stubbs Island Whale Watching in Telegraph Cove, and remembers in 2002 when humpback sightings were uncommon in the Broughton Archipelago.

This year, she identified 47 individuals. She laughs in wonder as she recalled to me juvenile humpbacks energetically slapping their tails on the water.

But Hildering worries what a loss of protection could mean for the whales, given that status can help drive research funding. “There’s just so much we don’t understand about these animals,” she said.

Dr. Jay Barlow, one of NOAA’s own lead scientists studying humpbacks, told me he agrees are still many unknowns — especially when it comes to climate change.

For example, will the whales be able to change their migration routes to find food? “The same places where whales have been going to in the past that have been good for feeding in the past may not be good places for the future,” he told me in a phone interview from La Jolla, CA.

“If their habitat changes, will they be flexible enough to deal with that? We don’t really know at this point,” said Barlow.

When do you think it’s time to take a species off the endangered list? Is it time for Canada to review the humpback’s status too?

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