The humpback whale has made a significant recovery since being listed as endangered nearly 50 years ago. But a federal review issued Tuesday indicates Northwest humpbacks are still showing signs of trouble.
The review evaluated the Endangered Species Status of the whale worldwide. This time around, U.S. fisheries managers did something very different.
“Up until this review, humpback whales were listed under the Endangered Species of Act as a single species,” Angela Somma of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
But now the whales will be divided worldwide into 14 distinct geographic populations. Nine of those groups are in good shape and will no longer be listed as endangered.
But five are still struggling — including two populations that migrate off the Pacific Northwest coast.
The "Mexico" and "Central America" populations both travel northward along the West Coast to feed during the warmer months. Members can be found off the coasts of Oregon and Washington.
The review says these West Coast humpbacks continue to be threatened by collisions with ships and becoming entangled in fishing gear.
"We really considered those threats. They may moderately decrease the growth rate of that population," said NOAA's Marta Nammack about the Central American humpbacks.
That population will continue to be listed as "endangered." The Mexico group's listing has been downgraded to "threatened," although officials say both groups will continue to be protected at the same level.
And that holds true of all populations — even those de-listed.
"Very little will practically change in terms of protections," Somma said.
She said the Marine Mammal Protection Act will continue to regulate how all humpbacks are managed in the United States, regardless of their status under the Endangered Species Act.