Featured Image Credit: Flip Nicklen/Minden Pictures
By Jessica Kittel
If you were up in Alaska 20 years ago you would see the ever-magnificent humpback whale throughout the summer season. However, during the winter you were pretty much out of luck. In the last few years, things have been changing for these whales and for all those that watch the whales.
More and more whales are being observed in the region, due to the consistently increasing population size.
It would seem summer is no longer your only chance to see the humpbacks in Alaskan waters. This new age of humpback whales are hanging out long after whale watchers have moved on to warmer waters. The current population size for the North Pacific humpback whale population (the ones that traditionally summer in Alaskan waters and head to Hawaiian, Mexican, and Japanese waters during the winter months) is very high right now compared to historical (post-whaling) levels. According to marine biologist Craig Matkin, “as they get to be higher in number, it’s more beneficial for animals that aren’t going to breed or calf to stay up [in Alaska] and feed.”
The high population numbers of these whales is a testament to the success of the Endangered Species Act (created in 1973). As stated on ktva.com, nine of the 14 distinct humpback whale populations found around the world are considered recovered instead of endangered. That’s huge when you consider the fact that these are large mammals and large mammals tend to be long-lived and give birth to relatively few offspring in their lifetime. Not exactly a combination that theoretically makes them prime candidates for rapid recovery.
One of the population groups that have been removed from the endangered species list is the Hawaii population group. These humpback whales are found in the Alaskan waters during the summer and spend their winters in Hawaii. The others are the populations in the West Indies, Brazil, Gabon/southwest Africa, southeast Africa/Madagascar, west Australia, east Australia, Oceania, and the southeastern Pacific.
However, the whales aren’t completely in the clear just yet. Humpbacks still face threats in the form of ship-strikes, whale watching harassment, entanglement in commercial fishing gear, and habitat impacts (such as pollution or lack of food). The ever-presence of these dangers make some environmentalists believe that removal from the Endangered Species List will do more harm than good. Many believe that, due to the substantial and increasing threats, the protection they’ve held in the past should continue. That being said, due to the Marine Mammal Protection act, the humpbacks will continue to be protected in United States waters regardless of their endangered or non-endangered status.
There’s also some worry that, with their rapid growth, the whale populations will surpass their carrying capacity, i.e. there will be more whales than there are available resources and habitat for the whales. The last time populations were this high was before whaling when fish stocks were higher, habitat was less degraded, and there were fewer boats in the waters of the humpback whale’s habitat.
Only time will tell how these populations will fare in this new world but one thing’s for sure, things are definitely looking bright as these populations continue to rise.