UBC professor explains why the humpback whale lost its ‘threatened species’ status
Andrew Trites, a professor and director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit in the UBC Fisheries Centre, is a member of COSEWIC’s (Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada) Marine Mammal Specialist Subcommittee. COSEWIC recently recommended the humpback whale be downgraded from a threatened species to a species with special concern.
Why was the humpback whale taken off the threatened species list?
The status of wildlife in Canada is assessed by COSEWIC. This group of experts is independent of government and assesses the status of a species using internationally accepted criteria that consider numbers, population trends, distributions, and probabilities of extinction. Data collected since humpback whales were last assessed in 2003 indicate there are over 2,100 humpbacks in British Columbia and their numbers have been increasing at about four per cent per year. Based on this new information, COSEWIC concluded that the humpback whales that feed in B.C. no longer meet the criteria for being listed as a threatened species. However, COSEWIC also recognized that their future is not yet secure and recommended that the listing be changed to special concern rather than not at risk. Special concern is the recommendation that the Canadian government accepted.
How did we get the population of humpbacks to bounce back?
We estimate there were about 4,000 humpback whales in B.C. in 1905—almost twice the size of the current population. The population was severely depleted by commercial whaling, which ended in British Columbia in 1968. The recovery of humpback whales is due to the cessation of whaling, protection of winter breeding areas in Mexico and Hawaii, and protection under the Canadian Fisheries Act. Changing the status of humpback whales in Canada from threatened to special concern will not lessen any of the protections they have been receiving.
What do you think the future holds for this species? What are the potential risks?
The future looks very promising for humpback whales. They numbered only about 1,200 at the end of whaling, but have increased throughout the eastern North Pacific Ocean since then and now number about 21,000 individuals. COSEWIC recognizes that humpback whales may be sensitive to noise disturbance and habitat degradation–especially on the breeding grounds–and can die from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Humpback whales will continue to be monitored closely by biologists, and a new recommendation for listing status can be made at any time by COSEWIC should their numbers decline or their habitat be reduced.
Was this decision motivated by proposed pipeline projects?
COSEWIC recommends listings of species based on scientific and traditional knowledge. Politics and economics never influence its decisions. It recommended reclassifying humpback whales as special concern because they have recovered and no longer meet the criteria of what constitutes a threatened species in Canada. Whether or not the government’s decision to accept COSEWIC’s recommendation was motivated by the proposed pipeline projects is a question best left for a politician.