Good news: Conservation efforts helped humpback whales rebound from near-extinction

A humpback whale breaches out of water

Whale, we’ll be darned: it turns out there is some good news coming live from the world’s oceans! OK, sorry for the pun, but we’re so excited to share: despite all the very serious and ongoing challenges marine animals are facing due to climate change, humpback whales are turning the tide. (OK, sorry. Last one. Probably).

Let’s start with the facts. 

Fun Facts: Get to know the humpback whale

The humpback whale is one of the world’s most popular mammals, known for their Simone-Biles-level leaps out of water and distinctive tail fins.

While these creatures are a sight to behold, humpback whales are also admired for their complex singing and vocalizations, which use nets of bubbles to capture their prey.

These big beauties can grow to 52 feet in length and can weigh up to 50 tons. In case you’re wondering: that’s about half of a house

Are humpback whales endangered?

Humpback whales were almost entirely wiped out by commercial whaling in the 19th and early 20th century, according to the Endangered Species Coalition, and were one of the first species to be federally protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1970.

However, due to amazing global conservation efforts, the current global population has rebounded from a low point of 10,000 back to nearly 80,000, as of 2022.

Because of this rare and exciting victory in conservation efforts, most humpbacks were removed from the endangered species list in 2016, according to NPR.

While a number of humpback populations in areas of the world are still listed as threatened, this upward tick shows incredible promise for ongoing conservation efforts.

To understand how this progress has been made, we’ll need to look at various conservation efforts from around the world.

Welcoming more whales to the U.S. (We’re looking at you, western Washington!)

Just a mere 25 years ago, the Salish Sea  (between Northern Washington and British Columbia near Vancouver) saw zero humpback whales migrating through their waters, but 2021 brought a baby boom like no other.

According to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, researchers off the coasts of Washington and British Columbia counted 21 calves, a record number for the region and double the calves spotted in 2020. 

Even newer data suggests these creatures have seen an 8% rise in recovery year over year.

Scientists are unsure exactly why this number is so high, but can attribute the phenomenon to the simple fact that more adult whales protected by law lead to an increase in calves.

Researchers also speculate an abundance of food for the whales in the 2020’s.

Three humpback whales swim together underwater
Three humpback whales swim in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. / Photo courtesy of Ed Lyman (CC BY 2.0)

Federal protections do indeed help in conservation efforts. Studies show that species with protected habitats are twice as likely to be recovering as those without it. And governmental efforts to prevent ocean noise pollution have been successful in the last decade.

In June of 2021, the Biden administration announced it would be protecting 116,098 square nautical miles of the Pacific Ocean, a critical area for three populations of endangered humpbacks. And in 2023, the administration announced plans to take this even further.

This will safeguard migrating whales from dangers like entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, and oil spills — and ultimately get closer to achieving the goal of conserving 30% of U.S. oceans by 2030.

Humpback populations grow in Atlantic regions

Aside from population growth in the Pacific Ocean, the South Atlantic coast is also seeing an increase in humpback populations.

After a tragic decline to just 450 whales, 2019 studies showed that humpback whale numbers rebounded to 25,000 — which is a figure that brings the population close to pre-whaling numbers. Newer 2023 data even suggests more growth in those numbers.

In addition, the most recently available review of marine wildlife in British waters from the Wildlife Trusts shows that the once-rarely seen Humpbacks have continued to bounce back, with more than 75 sightings around Britain between 2019 and 2021. 

Matt Slater, marine conservation officer for Cornwall Wildlife Trusts, said: “Only a few years ago, it would have been extremely rare to see a humpback whale around the UK. But it looks like they are chasing big shoals of sardines that are now present around our shores. It is magnificent to see these creatures up close.”

A humpback whale calf is shown up close underwater
A humpback whale calf swims in the waters of Ha'apai, Tonga. / Photo courtesy of Glenn Edney

Canada’s whale conservation efforts

As mentioned, the Salish Sea has hosted the baby shower for the ages, as a record number of humpback calves have debuted in the waters.

While an increase in the humpback population is a win, it does lead to an increased need to ensure their safety. British Columbia saw an increase in whale entanglements in 2021.

Although this is worrisome, highly skilled professionals work with the International Whaling Commission’s Global Whale Entanglement Response Network to free entangled whales.

Gear modifications, ropeless technologies, and ridding the ocean of abandoned gear are all approaches to reduce these entanglements, but in the meantime, experts are doing the dangerous and necessary work to free the whales and care for any injuries they sustain.

And remember; at up to 50 tons, this sure is a team effort. 

Folks can call the BC Marine Mammal hotline at 1-800-465-4336 to report an entangled whale and do their part to alert experts.

In addition to monitoring entanglements, Canadian officials have implemented stronger whale watching regulations, according to National Geographic.

Along with threats like rising ocean temperatures and food supply shortages, increased water traffic poses a threat to whales. 

Regulations were put into effect after a number of whale watching boats neared too closely to the whales. Experts also understand that whale watching is an important aspect of conservation, as tourists and professionals are often the eyes and ears reporting back on these unique creatures.

Many tourism companies are working to toe the line between experience and regulation by keeping a healthy distance and increasing educational and awareness opportunities in their offerings.

A humpback whale shows its flukes splashing in the water
A humpback whale shows off its famous flukes as it splashes in the water. / Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel (CC BY 2.0)

Marine professionals, researchers, and lawmakers alike are doing the hard and admirable work to support conservation efforts.

If we do our part, abide by federal protections, push for better regulations, and responsibly consider whale watching on our Cape Cod and Canadian vacations, we can create an environment for this population of majestic mammals to thrive, too.

A version of this article was first published in January 2022.

Header image courtesy of U.S. National Archives

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February 1, 2024 5:46 AM
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