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NOAA could move humpback whales off endangered list

A humpback whale leaped out of the water off the Hawaiian coast.
A humpback whale leaped out of the water off the Hawaiian coast.Reed Saxon/AP/File

A federal agency has recommended that the rebounding population of humpback whales in the North Atlantic — often visible off Massachusetts’ shores — and in other regions should be removed from the endangered species list.

At a meeting in Plymouth this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration presented its reasoning for upgrading 10 of the 14 populations from endangered species to “fully recovered,” which means less special protections from fisheries and other oceanic activities.

“We’re confident the recovery will be sustained,” Angela Somma, NOAA’s chief endangered species expert, said by phone Thursday. “We view this as a success story.”

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But the recommendation raised concerns among some environmental groups, which believe an endangered designation is necessary for the long-term stability of the humpback whale.

Sharon Young, the marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States, acknowledged that several populations of humpback whales have made significant gains in recent years. But she fears that the eased restrictions could be too much, too soon.

“If these animals are taken off, we lose a substantial amount of international footing,” she said. “People aren’t killing them on their shores because they’re an iconic species that is protected in the United States.”

Young is concerned on two fronts. First, she believes that removing humpback whales from the endangered list could increase the maximum number allowed to be removed or killed before a penalty — called the potential biological removal — which is something Somma acknowledged as “possible.”

Young also believes other domestic laws lack the bite of the federal Endangered Species Act, which takes a long-term view that was better suited to analyzing the impact on whales from commercial fishing and other corporate effects.

Even if the whales are removed from the endangered species list, they will continue to be protected against intentional, human-caused harm in US-patrolled waters under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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Regina Asmutis-Silvia, of Whale and Dolphin Conservation-North America, referred to an upcoming study from her organization that detailed the challenges that humpback whales still face. The study, which uses data from 2008-2013, says 15 percent of all autopsied humpback whales had been killed by boating strikes and 15 percent of all humpback whales show wounds from small boats.

“This is proof that this population is still facing a lot of threats and it’s very premature to be removing these protections,” Asmutis-Silvia said.

NOAA will formally decide whether to lift the restrictions following the end of a 90-day comment period.

NOAA officials say they’ve gone to painstaking lengths to ensure that any declassification from endangered species to “fully recovered” species will not impact the humpback whale’s survival.

Somma contended that these objections were all logical responses to the NOAA’s proposal, but stressed that the humpback whale would still retain significant legal protections, including federal limits on whaling activities.

“We think everyone will come to recognize the resurgence under the wealth of protections that [humpback whales] have enjoyed,” she said.


Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon
@globe.com
.