The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its annual “Ocean Count,” a program that sees volunteers on Oahu, Kauai, and the Big Island make for the shoreline to count the number whales visible during their migration to and stay in Hawaii waters, and to make observations about the whales’ behavior at the surface.
Volunteers counted a total of 160 of the gentle giants, at 57 sites statewide during a period from 9:30am to 9:45am. Those numbers are encouraging not only to the agency and its volunteers, but to everyone around the world interested in ensuring that humpback whales are brought back from the brink of extinction.
In fact, humpback whales are back from the brink of extinction. Federal officials recently proposed removing humpback whales from the endangered species list. After 45 years of protection, populations of humpback whales around the world have replenished to healthy numbers, and officials have proposed dividing the world’s humpback whales into 14 populations, with 10 of those populations to be removed from the endangered species list. In some cases, populations are growing at a rate of 11% per year.
And while this is no doubt thrilling news for humpback whales, their ecosystems, and the people dedicated to their protection, it’s also great news for anyone concerned about conserving marine resources. Or terrestrial resources, for that matter. The return of humpback whale numbers is clear evidence that a carefully constructed conservation plan, sensible regulation, and worldwide agreement can indeed reverse damage caused by human activity. Only three countries allow hunting humpback whales, for research purposes: Japan, Norway, and Iceland. Some small, aboriginal communities around the world are permitted to hunt the whales as a traditional method of subsistence.
The ban on whaling has been the most important factor in the recovery of Pacific humpback whale populations, but they still face threats from environmental conditions, particularly the danger of becoming tangled in fishing gear or other marine debris.
One of the more significant findings of the 20th annual Whale Count was that the highest average number of sightings were made at sites within the boundaries of the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Obviously, the marine sanctuary here in Hawaii has been crucial to the success of efforts to restore humpback whale numbers in the Pacific.
And if humpback whales are removed from the endangered species list, they will remain protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. And the International Whaling Commission continues to ban commercial whaling. Real hope for the recovery of these majestic animals has finally breached the surface.