Australia’s decision to remove humpback whales from its endangered species list is a testament to the recovery of this majestic marine mammoth, a victory that should be celebrated and open the way for conservationists to shift attention on other, lesser known and heavily depleted ocean mammal populations, according to marine scientists.
Earlier this year, the Australian Ministry of Environment delisted humpback whales, citing evidence that the population there has recovered to preindustrial whaling numbers.
The recovery of humpbacks off Australia’s coasts mirrors most, though not all, of the species’ comeback globally since the International Whaling Commission in 1985 enacted a whaling moratorium to help stave off the near extinction of these animals.
“Once they exceed the statutory criteria that would release them from those listings then they should be delisted,” said David Johnston, associate professor of the practice of marine conservation ecology at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort. “It’s a really important concept to get people to get their heads around. It’s really difficult for people to understand how endangered species lists work and whether or not we should invest in those types of things if you never take species off the lists. Primarily, just by stopping killing them their populations have recovered and we should be excited that we’ve been able to actually reverse these trends that we’ve inflicted on these animals.”
Johnston, a conservation biologist who conducts population assessments and studies animals’ roles in ecosystems, has coauthored papers that examine the importance of celebrating conservation success stories and people’s acceptance of a species’ recovery.
One such example here on the East Coast is the gray seal, a species once found in large colonies as far south as Cape Hatteras.
Hunting and government-sponsored bounty programs in the 19th and 20th centuries nearly wiped out gray seals in this region. Then, in 1972, the U.S. Marine and Mammal Protection Act reversed the course of the species’ existence.
“A lot of people that live in the places where these animals are now recovering have spent most of their lives in a world without those seals there,” Johnston said. “There was this implicant assumption that they would never be part of the ecosystem again, which is really funny because, at the same time we’re enacting laws and spending a lot of money to try and recover these populations. I think it gets down to these baseline issues where we all have an experience that we consider as normal and that’s our baseline, but it’s probably very different to what things were like 100 years ago.”
Australia’s delisting of humpbacks follows that of other countries, including Canada and the United States.
The U.S. in the fall of 2016 removed nine of 14 distinct population segments of humpbacks globally from the Endangered Species Act list. The handful of populations that remain on the list are those off the Cape Verde Islands, western north Pacific, Central America and in the Arabian Sea. Central American humpbacks are threatened.
According to reports, Australia’s humpbacks have jumped in number from about 1,500 in the early 1980s to 40,000 today.
As humpback replenished in population, the whales are assuming their roles in the ecosystem, recycling nutrients as they eat, then poop, a process that evenly distributes nutrients to marine life that live in the upper part of the ocean.
Still, there are skeptics of Australia’s delisting who warn humpbacks remain vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
When asked whether there is a “but” to the success of humpback population recovery off Australia’s coasts, Johnston said, “I don’t really think so.”
“I think we have a lot of things in place to protect these animals even when they come off the endangered species list,” he said. “Even though many marine animals in the U.S. are not endangered it’s illegal for people to go out and kill them or harm them or harass them because they’re vulnerable. In this sense, they don’t really have to be on the endangered species list to trigger protection. It’s very similar in Australia. I think the key is to move past the concern about that and embrace the success story and then hopefully take the resources and effort that was going into a species that’s recovered and aim it at a species that actually needs the help.”
And, there are many species of marine mammals they require such help.
Take the vaquita, a small porpoise discovered in the late 1950s now on the very tip of extinction.
Vaquita live in Mexico’s Gulf of California, where as few as 10 remain, according to 2022 reports.
Marine mammal experts say this species, which gets caught and drowned in gillnets, could become extinct this year if illegal net fishing in Mexico continues.
Snubfin dolphin, natives of Australian waters around the Sahul shelf that extends from Australia’s northern coast to the New Guinea, are another species that may benefit from resources redirected from humpback whales’ recovery.
“I feel like we have the opportunity to be able to turn our attention to the species that are most at risk and hopefully make some headway,” Johnston said. “It’s just nice to think about this as a larger issue where we have to start recognizing conservation success stories and amplifying them. If we don’t do that then it’s going to be really hard for people to support actions to recover endangered species. If we’re never successful we can never show that we can get the job done, then it’s really hard to get people to invest in things like that. We all need to have this injection of optimism and hope that’s really significantly supported when we can demonstrate that we got the job done. That should be this lesson going forward that, even though we’ve done some pretty horrible things, that we can stop doing some of those things and do a few good things then we can have success.”