Humpback whales are approximately 15 meters (nearly 50 feet) long and weigh 36,000 kilograms (nearly 80,000 pounds). If you stood a humpback whale on its tail, it’d stand five stories high and be a bit taller than the letters on the famous Hollywood Sign. It weighs half as much as the Space Shuttle. They can be found in every one of Earth’s major ocean basins. For something so big and so heavy and found in so many places, the Megaptera novaeangliae sure can disappear in a hurry.
Hunted To Near Extinction
Humpback whales were popular targets for hunting from the 17th to the mid-20th century. They were hunted for the oil that could be rendered from their blubber for use in lamps, for their meat, and for their baleen — plates that make up the whales’ filter-feeding system. Baleen, often called “whalebone” is a flexible material that, in former centuries, was often used to make things like corsets and umbrella ribs.
An October 2019 report in the journal Royal Society Open Science called “Assessing the recovery of an Antarctic predator from historical exploitation,” estimated that there were approximately 27,000 humpback whales in Earth’s waters in 1830. Hunting and other predatory effects reduced that number to just 450 whales by the mid-1950s. According to a report in Smithsonian Magazine, a total of 2,900,000 whales of all species were killed by hunters between 1900 and 1999, including 50,000 every year by the late 1930s.
Conservationists Fight Back
In 1970, the United States identified humpback whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act and again under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The biggest driver in improving the fate of the humpback whale came in 1985 when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a ban on commercial whaling. The ban started out as an “agreement” among nations in 1963, then a “pause” in 1982, but was converted to a full moratorium beginning with the 1985/1986 whaling season.
There are exceptions to the moratorium against whaling. For some indigenous communities around the world, whaling is a culturally and nutritionally significant component of life. Indigenous communities in member nations of the IWC are permitted to hunt for subsistence purposes, and four do: Denmark (Greenland), Russia (Chukotka), St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Bequia), and the United States (Alaska and Washington State). Even subsistence fishing is subject to catch limits, monitoring, and regulation by the IWC.
“Special permit” whaling for scientific purposes is also permitted, but reported to and tracked by the IWC. Over 18,000 whales have been killed under special permits since 1985. There are countries that, although members of the IWC, refuse to be bound by the moratorium. Norway and Iceland continue to hunt whales commercially. Since the moratorium came into effect 35 years ago, a total of 26,917 whales have been hunted commercially — a far cry from the pre-moratorium hunting figures.
The Current State Of Hunchback Whale Populations
Conservation efforts and the IWC’s moratorium on whaling have worked. The humpback whale has returned from the brink of extinction — just 450 individuals — to nearly pre-hunting levels. The Royal Society Open Science journal’s researchers report that humpback whale populations have returned to an estimated 93% of their pre-hunting numbers; there are roughly 25,000 humpback whales swimming Earth’s waters.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species no longer lists the humpback whale generally as an endangered species. Individual populations — such as in the Arabian Sea — are still considered endangered. In the United States, the humpback whale is still listed as depleted in American waters under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The recovery of Earth’s humpback whale population is a conservation success story, but the story continues to unfold. Hunting was never the only threat faced by humpbacks. Continuing threats include pollution, ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and offshore gas and oil development.
This is a good news story that raises additional questions. Just what the return of significant humpback populations will mean for an ecosystem where they compete with penguins and seals for krill, which may itself be threatened by warming waters due to climate change, remains to be seen.
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