Humpback Whales Are No Longer on the Brink of Extinction
Mon, April 19, 2021

Humpback Whales Are No Longer on the Brink of Extinction

Over the years, scientists have discovered at least 1.9 million animal species around the world. There's a possibility that millions more have yet to be identified / Photo by: Kurzon via Wikimedia Commons

 

Over the years, scientists have discovered at least 1.9 million animal species around the world. There's a possibility that millions more have yet to be identified. Unfortunately, we are losing these species even before we have discovered them due to climate change and global warming. Previous studies revealed that the rate of species extinction every year is 100 to 1,000 species per million. Experts estimated that this rapid loss is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.

Extinction is not only measured by the remaining numbers of a particular species but also by judging when they have finally lost their battle to survive. Knowing if an animal is already extinct is a complex and lengthy process, which involves complicated mathematical models, reams of data, and finely balanced calls. Inger Andersen, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) director-general, stated that humans are the driving factor in the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. 

“Species can be brought back from near the brink of extinction through good conservation and protection investments, through sound policies and smart interventions. But once a species is extinct, it is forever, and there is no coming back,” Andersen said. 

According to the World Economic Forum, an international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, the IUCN estimated that out of more than 96,500 species across the world, more than 26,500 are threatened with extinction. This includes 40% of amphibians and 25% of mammals.

One of these endangered species is the humpback whales. They are known for using nets of bubbles to capture schools of fish and engaging in complex vocalizations. They have existed for thousands of years, as far back as prehistoric times. However, their population has been once on the brink of extinction. 

Why Humpback Whales Became Endangered

Humpback whales, considered one of the most popular mammals living underwater, are mainly black or grey with white undersides to their flukes, flippers, and bellies. They live off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the US and are known for their distinctive tail fins (flukes), spectacular leaps out water, and their melodic singing in the ocean’s depths. Their population started to massively decline between the 19th and 20th centuries due to commercial whaling. 

During that time, their commercial value increased, which made them a preferred target for hunters. Many countries across the world started hunting them heavily. The increasing sophistication of weapons contributed to their decline. Smithsonian, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., reported that there were around 27,200 humpbacks in 1830. In 1904, there were approximately 24,700. By 1926, the population had plummeted to 700.

This prompted the Whaling Commission to issue a desperate ban on hunting humpback whales to prevent their extinction. According to WhaleFacts.org, an ultimate resource on whales, dolphins, and porpoises, there are several factors contributing to the current endangered status of whales, including the humpbacks, such as commercial whaling, private/commercial boating, dam/bridge construction, pollution, and overfishing. 

Humpback whales, considered one of the most popular mammals living underwater, are mainly black or grey with white undersides to their flukes, flippers, and bellies / Photo by: Christopher Michel via Flickr

 

Recovering From Near-Extinction

Reports showed that for more than 12 years, there have been about 25,000 whales killed. While there have been several protections established by governments and organizations, the animal’s population kept on declining. Fortunately, we are seeing some good news now.

A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Washington shared that the population of humpback whales, which were once hunted almost to extinction, has bounced back. Current estimates said that there are about 25,000 humpback whales now swimming the seas between South America and Antarctica. Author John Best, a doctoral student from the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, stated that they were surprised to learn that the whales’ population was recovering more quickly than past studies had suggested.

According to Science Daily, an American website that aggregates press releases and publishes lightly edited press releases about science, the researchers incorporated detailed records from the whaling industry at the outset of commercial exploitation. They also created a model that showed not only a more comprehensive look at the recovery of the humpback whales but also the current status of their population. "We believe that transparency in science is important. The software we wrote for this project is available to the public and anyone can reproduce our findings,” co-author Grant Adams said. 

During that time, their commercial value increased, which made them a preferred target for hunters. Many countries across the world started hunting them heavily. The increasing sophistication of weapons contributed to their decline / Photo by: Barni1 via Pixabay

 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed that out of 14 known populations of humpbacks—seven in the Southern Hemisphere and seven in the Northern Hemisphere—10 have shown signs of recovery. The assessments conducted by the International Whaling Commission between 2006 and 2015 have also suggested that their population had recovered to about 30% of their number in abundance before exploitation. 

The findings of the study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science showed that endangered species can come back from near extinction. Thus, lead author Alex Zerbini of the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center's Marine Mammal Laboratory emphasized the importance of incorporating complete and accurate information when conducting these assessments, at the same time providing population assessments without biases. "Wildlife populations can recover from exploitation if proper management is applied," he said. 

This study is a reminder that species that are now on the brink of extinction still have hopes to recover with the cooperation of all stakeholders.