Two of the humpback whale populations that migrate off the Pacific Northwest are still struggling despite a positive outlook for humpback whales in other areas of the world.
Humpback whales were put on the endangered species list nearly 50 years ago and up until Sept. 6, were listed as a single species, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
However, after a federal review, humpback whales have been divided up into 14 populations based on their geography and migratory patterns.
The coast of Washington hosts three of these populations during the summer months.
Humpback whales from Hawaii, Mexico and Central America migrate up the California coast and go as far as Alaska.
In the most recent review, the humpbacks from Hawaii were officially listed as a “not at risk” population.
However, the whales from Mexico are listed as threatened and the population that migrates from Central America is still listed as endangered.
“We have mixed populations of different statuses,” said Lynne Barre, a branch chief for protective resources with NOAA.
“It’s an ongoing area of study to try and keep track of these populations and what they’re being affected by or if they’re just a naturally smaller population.”
NOAA, along with other area researchers, have been working to find ways to identify individual whales and figure out where they came from using DNA testing.
Barre said if they are able to do that, they can start to identify if one population is struggling with a particular issue.
According to NOAA, humpbacks continue to be threatened by the fishing industry due to accidental entanglements as well as ship strikes, harassment from whale watching boats and a threatened habitat.
“These are tough questions to answer in any degree because there are a lot of factors,” said Pete Schroeder, a marine mammal veterinarian for the National Marine Mammal Foundation.
“The Puget Sound, despite its beauty, is not that pristine, but it’s a critical habitat for a lot of species.”
However, most of these issues aren’t specific to the Northwest as fishing and destruction of natural habitats are issues across the globe.
“I don’t see an added risk for whales coming to this area,” Schroeder said. “At least not anything that other whales don’t deal with.”
According to Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, there is still a lot of research to be done to understand why specific populations of humpbacks are struggling.
“I think people are still trying to get a handle on all of this,” said Giles. “Their population is growing, just not as fast as in other places.”
Earlier this summer humpbacks were seen in huge numbers off the coast of Victoria and Port Angeles.
John Calambokidis, senior research biologist and co-founder of the Cascadia Research Collective, told the Peninsula Daily News in June that humpbacks were making a comeback in the Salish Sea likely due to the availability of food in the area.
The Salish Sea includes the Puget Sound and the straits of Juan de Fuca and Georgia.
On a global scale, humpback whale populations have grown substantially since they were originally listed as endangered in 1970.
Out of the 14 humpback populations, 10 of them were listed as “not at risk” this month.
Those populations tend to be in the southern Atlantic and Pacific — around the south of Africa, Australia and South America.
The population in the West Indies, which migrate along the East Coast of the United States, was also de-listed.
Along with the Central American population, whales in northwest Africa, the western north Pacific and Arabian Sea are still listed as endangered.
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5550, or at email@example.com.