As a result of significant conservation efforts and increasing numbers in the past last 60 years, Australia have removed humpback whales from their threatened species list.
The humpback whale is one of the most iconic species of whale and can be found worldwide with distinct seasonal distribution changes. They typically spend the summer in high latitudes to feed in the cold waters, and winter in the warmer tropics to breed.
Humpback whale numbers were severely depleted between the 17th and 20th centuries by whalers who hunted the species commercially for oil, meat and baleen, leaving them close to extinction.
Since they became a protected species in 1966, their numbers have slowly recovered. There are still subpopulations worldwide that cause concern, including populations in the Arabian Sea, western North Pacific, west coast of Africa and parts of Oceania.
However, humpback whales have now been removed from Australia’s threatened species list after increasing numbers in the last 60 years. The Australian environment minister, Susan Levy, said this was “a recognition of the success of the outstanding conservation efforts that are in place”.
At the height of commercial whaling, the number of humpbacks in Australian waters was just 1,500, but this has now increased to an estimated 40,000. Commercial whaling of humpbacks ceased in Australia in 1963, and due to the species’ dramatic decline in number across the world, in 1965, they received international global protection.
By this time, over 30,000 humpback whales had already been killed by whalers operating in Australian and New Zealand waters as they migrated from the Antarctic to warm tropical waters north of Australia.
Other whale species were also pushed to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling in the Southern Ocean between the 19th and early 20th centuries. Southern right whales became protected in Australian waters in 1935 after more than 26,000 individuals had been killed, and between 1953 and 1978, 16,000 sperm whales were taken by Australian whalers.
In 1978 the last commercial whaling station in Australia ceased operations and closed its doors before the country adopted an anti-whaling policy in 1979. Australia then began to focus on working towards the international protection and conservation of whales.
Levy added: “Australia is a world leader in whale conservation, and we will continue to work through the International Whaling Commission to promote whale conservation and maintain the global moratorium on commercial whaling. Our removal of the humpback from the threatened species list is based on science and sends a clear signal about what can be achieved through coordinated action. It is a message of hope for the welfare of a number of species.”
Despite being removed from the threatened species list, humpback whales are continuing to face serious threats and there are concerns that global warming could cause numbers to decline again as our oceans warm. Antarctica is a popular feeding ground for this species but global warming could affect krill populations in this area, which could subsequently contribute to a decline in humpback numbers.
Some of the other diverse threats to this species include chemical and noise pollution, ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Despite being removed from the threatened species list, humpback whales will still receive some legal protections in Australia. It is vital that these populations are closely monitored and protections remain in place to ensure that they continue to recover and are safeguarded for future generations.