The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) inhabits the waters of Canada, Mexico, and the United States, and is a key species to engage trinational conservation attention and action.
Many of the humpbacks’ feeding and breeding grounds are accessible to whale watching and other forms of ecotourism, making it one of the most well-recognized and charismatic marine species, with the capacity to inspire the public and stir action on behalf of North America’s marine biodiversity. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) of North America can play a valuable role in coordinating and supporting the efforts of many local and national programs already in existence for this species to promote collaborative work at a regional scale, uniting efforts into cohesive North American programs.
Currently, entanglements in fishing gear and ship collisions appear to be the greatest sources of mortality and injury for humpback whales. Noise disturbance, food availability, climate change, and loss of prey habitat may also threaten their recovery. At present, the population of humpback whales appears to be increasing in abundance; however, coordinated conservation effort among the three countries of North America may help accelerate this species’ recovery (NMFS 1991).
Humpback whales are large baleen whales that measure between 12 and 18 meters long, and weigh between 34,000 and 45,000 kg as adults. Humpbacks are distinguished by their long pectoral flippers, which can measure up to a third the length of the whale’s body, and are often white or partly white with knobs on the leading edge of the fins; ventral throat grooves; a small dorsal fin located near the center of the back; tubercles on the rostrum from which at least a single hair follicle grows; and broad flukes with unique black and white patterns on the undersides, which allow researchers to identify individuals. They have approximately 270-400 baleen plates on each side of their jaw, which, in concert with their throat grooves and large tongue, allow them to filter and swallow zooplankton and small fish while expelling large amounts of water (Perry et al. 1999).
Humpbacks are generalist feeders that primarily consume krill, copepods, sand lance, capelin, and herring; however, they are also known to feed upon juvenile salmon, Arctic cod, juvenile walleye pollock, Atlantic mackerel, and some cephalopods. Humpbacks rely on a variety of feeding techniques including lunging though patches of fish and krill and stunning prey with flipper or flukes. Humpbacks also participate in a cooperative feeding technique called “bubble netting,” where a number of whales surround a group of krill or fish and swim in a circle thereby creating a net of bubbles forcing the prey to the center. The whales then swim up through the center with their mouths open to catch prey efficiently (Perry et al. 1999).
Humpback whales are distributed worldwide in all ocean basins, although they are less common in Arctic waters. They typically stay in tropical/subtropical areas during the winter for breeding and calving and migrate to temperate/polar latitudes to feed during the spring, summer, and fall. Although humpback distribution is widespread, the focus of this NACAP is the Baja to Bering Region of the Pacific, identified as a CEC Priority Conservation Area. Thus, for the purposes of this Plan and as represented in the figure, conservation actions for the species are developed in the context of this specific geography, (Perry et al. 1999; NMFS 2002, 2003).
In the North Pacific, these highly migratory whales swim between calving grounds in Hawaii and Mexico, and feeding areas in nutrient rich temperate and subarctic waters. In the tropical winter grounds, males engage in complex, repetitive vocalizations or songs that are believed to serve a function in mating and possibly maintain the social hierarchy of the group. The species’ summer movements are linked to prey availability, occurring at upwelling areas, convergence zones, fjords, channels, continental shelves, offshore banks, and the edges of continental shelves (Perry et al. 1999; NMFS 2002).
The stock structure of North Pacific humpback whales, the principal focus of this NACAP, is complex and not well known. However, three stocks are recognized as management units within the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the North Pacific. These three stocks migrate between their respective summer/fall feeding areas and their winter/spring calving and mating areas but the migratory destinations of all three are not completely known (Perry et al. 1999; NMFS 1991, 2003).
Eastern North Pacific stock: This stock spends its winter/spring off the coastal Central America and the Pacific coast of Mexico, and migrates to an area off the coast of California to southern British Columbia in summer/fall.
Central North Pacific stock: This stock spends its winter and spring mating and calving seasons in the Hawaiian Islands and migrates to northern British Columbia/Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, and west beyond the Shumagin Islands for the summer and fall.
Western North Pacific stock: The third stock is the winter/spring population, which winters in Ogasawara, Okinawa, the Mariana Islands, and the Philippines. Though the current migratory destinations are unknown, this population has been found all along the eastern Pacific Rim (northern Washington/southern British Columbia, northern British Columbia, Kodiak/Shumagin Islands).
Key feeding and migratory habitats in the North Pacific include coastal and inland waters of the entire Pacific Rim from Point Conception (United States) north to the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea, and southern Chukchi Sea, south along the Kamchatka Peninsula. These key habitats include: (a) the Santa Rosa-Cortez Ridge; (b) coastal waters of the San Pedro and Santa Barbara Channels—primarily known as a migration corridor; (c) the Gulf of Farallones and nearby offshore banks of central California; (d) Glacier Bay and adjacent portions of Icy Strait, Stephens Passage/ Fredrick Sound, Seymour Canal and Sitka Sound in southeastern Alaska; (e) Prince William Sound; (f) the coast of Kodiak Island, including Shelikof Strait and the Barren Islands in south central Alaska; (g) the Bering Sea; and (h) waters along the Aleutian Islands (NMFS 2003).
Humpback whales reach sexual maturity at six to ten years of age, or when males reach a length of about 11.5 meters and females, a length of 12 meters. Each female typically bears a calf every two to three years and the gestation period is approximately 12 months. A humpback whale calf measures between 3 and 4.5 meters at birth and weighs about 900 kg (1 ton). The calf is weaned when it is about a year old (Perry et al. 1999).
Mating, calving, and nursery grounds in the Pacific include: (a) the Pacific mainland coast of Mexico; (b) the waters off Isabel Island (Mexico); (c) Tres Marías Island (Mexico); (d) Baja California Peninsula (Mexico); (e) Revillagigedo Archipelago, including Socorro, San Benedicto, Roca Partida, and Clarion Islands (Mexico); and (f) the Hawaiian Islands (particularly the leeward, nearshore waters within the 100-fathom isobath, in the “four island” region Moloka’i, Lana’i, Maui and Kaho’olawe), on Penguin Bank, around Kaua‘i and Ni’ihau Islands, and along the leeward coast of the island of Hawaii (Big Island), from Keahole Point north to Upolu Point (United States). The winter distribution of humpback whales in the western North Pacific is centered off the Ogasawara Islands, Ryukyu (Okinawa) Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Mariana Islands (NMFS 2002, 2003).
The historical population of humpback whales may have exceeded 15,000 individuals (Rice 1978) in the North Pacific prior to the onset of commercial exploitation. Commercial whalers are thought to have killed more than 28,000 humpbacks during the 20th century alone, bringing the number of humpback whales in the North Pacific down to 13 percent of carrying capacity. By the mid-1960s, this population may have been reduced to as few as 1,000 individuals before the species was placed under international protection by the International Whaling Commission after the 1965 harvest (Carretta et al. 2002).
Humpback whales are listed as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA) (16 USC 1531 et seq.), and depleted and strategic under the United States Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) (16 USC 1361 et seq.). They are listed as threatened in the North Pacific by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in Schedule 2 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), 2003 (COSEWIC 2003), and subject to special protection in Mexico (Diario Oficial 1992). The species is also classified as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) (Cetacean Specialist Group 1996) and listed in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The exact global population size is unknown, though it has been estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 animals (approximately 15 to 20 percent of the population pre-exploitation). The humpback population in the North Pacific is now estimated to exceed 6,000 animals, with a general upward trend in abundance (NMFS 2003).
The eastern North Pacific population appears to be growing at an estimated rate of 8 percent per year, and the growth of the central North Pacific population appears to be at least 6.5 percent per year. The western North Pacific population growth rate is currently unknown (Calambokidis 1997; Carretta et al. 2002).
Currently, there are no statistically reliable estimates of humpback whale population abundance for the entire North Pacific Ocean. Although estimates of abundance of North Pacific humpback whales were conducted in the 1990s (Calambokidis et al. 1997, 2001), the use today of estimates from the 1990s is limited by several factors: 1) these data are more than 10 years old; 2) they did not provide population trend information; 3) they had potential biases because sampling was not designed for abundance estimation, 4) most of the feeding areas in the North Pacific were not sampled, 5) coverage of the Mexico wintering areas was limited and Central America was not covered at all, 6) genetic data to examine population structure were not part of the study, and 7) no assessment of health effects or incidence of human impacts were conducted as part of the study.
A number of potential threats to humpback whales remain in the North Pacific. Climate change and global warming may be having an effect. Long-term declines in plankton have been documented off California from the 1970s to the mid-1990s (Roemmich and McGowan 1995) and this appears to have caused dramatic declines in some krill-feeding marine seabirds off California (Veit et al. 1996). Humpback whales are rarely taken in commercial fishing operations, although estimates are probably much lower than actual incidents, as observer coverage for some fisheries has been low. In recent years, the number of humpback whales reported with trailing fishing gear has increased (Mazzuca et al. 1998). Incidental fishing entanglement remains a major concern since humpback whales in many parts of the North Pacific remain subject to such mortality and the level of incidental take in some areas has exceeded the allowed Potential Biological Removals (PBR) calculated by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Although increases in humpback whale abundance in the North Pacific have been documented in some areas there have also been some indications of decline: 1) the eastern North Pacific population which had been increasing at eight or nine percent per year during the early and mid-1990s, declined sharply by about 30 percent sometime between 1998 and 1999 most likely as a result of El Niño conditions in late 1998 (Calambokidis et al. 2002); and 2) abundance estimates of humpback whales in the western North Pacific were estimated even in the most recent studies at surprisingly low levels (under 1,000) (Calambokidis et al. 1998).
Determination of the structure of humpback whale feeding areas and the abundance of animals in specific feeding and wintering areas is critical for management and for an assessment of how fisheries and other interactions affect the overall population. While humpback whales have been well studied in a few areas of the North Pacific, they have not been studied well in many other areas. While the existence of some discrete feeding areas has been identified (Baker et al. 1990, 1998; Calambokidis et al. 1996, 2001), the number and boundaries of other feeding areas in the North Pacific are unknown. Assessing impacts of incidental take caused by serious injury and mortality from commercial fisheries and other human-caused threats in feeding areas has not been possible due to the lack of information on the boundaries and abundance of animals in these feeding areas.
While the major threat to the great whales—commercial whaling—has long been curbed, several other factors affect the recovery of this species. At present, entanglements in fishing gear and ship collisions appear to be the greatest sources of mortality; noise disturbance, food availability, loss of prey habitat and unknowns affecting prey species also may be factors in some subpopulations (Cetacean Specialist Group 1996). Humpback whales are targets of increasing levels of commercial whale watching activities and many important habitat areas have seen rapid human development (Cetacean Specialist Group 1996).
Primary threats to humpback whales in the North Pacific (Canada, Mexico, and the United States) include entanglement; ship strikes; vessel disturbance (i.e., whale watching); noise/ acoustic injury and disturbance; impacts on habitat and prey; and contaminants/pollution, which are further describe in detail below (Perry et al. 1999).
Humpback whales in the North Pacific are subject to entanglement in fishing gear, particularly gillnets and crab pot gear. The nature of the problem varies in different regions but is a threat in all three countries. There are indications that the entanglement rate is increasing in some areas, particularly Mexico, Alaska, and Hawaii. It appears that crab pot gear is a particular threat in Alaska and humpbacks have also interacted with the groundfish trawl fishery, salmon drift gillnet fishery, and salmon purse seine fishery in Alaska. Drift gillnet fisheries for swordfish and sharks along the entire Pacific coast of Baja California and mainland Mexico may also threaten the species.
In the United States, entanglements are reported generally by one of four methods: (a) fishery observers that monitor incidental take aboard commercial fishing vessels, (b) fisher self-reports, (c) opportunistic observations, and (d) evidence from stranded animals. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service’s stock assessment reports (NMFS, 2000–2003) estimate a minimum of one to four humpbacks die from entanglements each year in the Central North Pacific Stock, which is believed to be more affected than the Eastern North Pacific Stock. However, the reports stress that these estimates are a minimum and likely to be underestimated. A new method for estimating entanglement rates of large whales by assessing wounds and scars on free-swimming animals (Hamilton et al. 1998; Robbins and Mattila 2001) has been used in the western North Atlantic for right and humpback whales, respectively, and has found that entanglements may indeed be under estimated by as much as 90 percent. This type of analysis has just begun in some portions of the Pacific (Mattila and Robbins 2003).
At present, Canada has a limited observer program and, though interactions are thought to be minimal, mortality data related to commercial fisheries are not available off the coast of British Columbia. Whales entangled in southeastern Alaska may, however, travel to British Columbia. At this time, Mexico does not have a standardized program to monitor or report marine mammal fishery entanglements. Nevertheless, in the last six years there were documented at least six entanglements of humpback whales in Mexico, which included mothers, calves and juveniles. In all areas, the number of entanglements is under-reported; thus, estimated mortality incidental to commercial fisheries is underestimated for the North Pacific population.
Entanglements in Alaska within the past 10 years include (Angliss and Lodge 2002):
- A humpback reported entangled in a fishing net with floats attached off southeast Alaska in 1994; mortality attributed to salmon drift gillnet fishery.
- Incidental take of a humpback reported in the southeast Alaska purse seine fishery in 1994.
- Entangled humpback reported trailing drift gillnet gear in southeast Alaska in 1996.
- Humpback released from commercial purse seine net off Kodiak Island in 1996
- Humpback entangled in line in southeast Alaska; attempt to disentangle failed.
- Humpback tail wrapped in crab pot line in southeast Alaska in 1997.
- Two humpback mortalities observed in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands groundfish trawl fishery in 1998–99.
- Seven humpback crustacean pot fishery entanglements reported between 1998 and 2000.
- Mother and calf co-entwined in pot gear/line off Kodiak in 2001.
Some of these entanglements have resulted in humpback mortality and injury; for others, the status of the animal is unknown following release from gear and a lack of re-sighting (Carretta et al. 2002).
Mazzuca et al. (1998) summarized reports of entangled humpback whales received by NMFS in Hawaii from 1972 through 1996. They found no entanglements reported before 1992, but seven after that, through 1996. Between 1997 and 2001, NMFS received reports of five entangled humpback whales. In 2002, NOAA Sanctuaries, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS), partnered with NMFS to conduct more extensive public outreach, advertising response capabilities, and an emergency number. Between 2002 and 2004, HIHWNMS received 18 credible entanglement reports. As in other areas, the ultimate status of the most of the whales reported is unknown; however, it is known that the gear found on whales in Hawaii can come from Alaska and Hawaii. The percentage of whales found in the north central Pacific that had become entangled in each region, or in actively fished gear or debris in between, is not known.
5.2 Ship strikes
Ship strikes are a threat to large whales worldwide. In North America, as levels of commerce and tourism increase to meet the needs of a growing population, the likelihood of vessel strikes to whales also increases. Jensen and Silber (2003) compiled nearly 300 records from 1975 to 2002 of ship strikes worldwide, and found that humpbacks were one of the most commonly hit species (second only to fin whales). Many of the humpback strikes in the database were reported from outside the Baja to Bering NACAP region, but 14 within the region, including seven in Alaska and seven in Hawaii. Ship strikes are presumed responsible for at least two humpback deaths in the North Pacific in 1993, one in 1995, one each in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Additional ship strike deaths likely go unreported as carcasses sink, drift out to sea, or if observed, do not show immediate, obvious signs of trauma.
Lammers et al. (2003) combined NMFS data from Hawaii with a search of local newspaper archives from 1975 through 2003. They found 22 reports of collisions with humpback whales in Hawaii during that time, as well as an increasing trend. Only two incidents were reported between 1975 and 1984, six between 1985 and 1994, and thirteen between 1995 and 2003. There was a minimum of three credible reports of vessel collisions with humpback whales in the winter of 2004. As with entanglements, the severity of the injury to the whale can vary tremendously, and its ultimate outcome is most often unknown.
Ship strike reduction measures for right whales have been adopted in Canada’s Bay of Fundy and a strategy is currently under development in the Atlantic off the coast of the United States. In the Baja to Bering region, the only specific measures at present to reduce the threat of ship strikes for humpbacks are vessel speed and approach regulations in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska; and a 100-yard approach regulation in the waters of southeast Alaska, where strikes of humpbacks by cruise ships appear to be increasing. A high-speed ferry traveling at up to 40 knots, which began operating in summer 2004 off southeast Alaska, may pose a new threat to all marine mammals, in particular, humpbacks in areas of high whale density. In British Columbia and Mexico, there are currently few data available on vessel strikes.
5.3 Vessel disturbance/whale watching
Whale watching and vessel traffic unrelated to fisheries have been increasing in most of the areas used by humpback whales. These impacts have reached particularly high levels on some of the mainland Mexico wintering grounds such as Banderas Bay, as well as feeding areas in southeast Alaska. Additionally, this is an emerging ecotourism industry along the west coast of Canada and the United States. If standards and regulations for whale watching are not followed and disturbance levels become too high, temporary disruption from vessel disturbance may affect feeding success. Impacts may also separate mothers and calves in breeding and nursery areas, which could affect calf survival and make calves more vulnerable to killer whale predation (NMFS 2001).
5.4 Noise/acoustic injury and disturbance
Impacts from ocean noise are a potential threat to humpback whales and other baleen whales that communicate using low-frequency sounds (Richardson et al. 1995). The variety of low-frequency anthropogenic sound sources in the ocean includes Navy activities (Low Frequency Active sonar, mid-range sonar), oceanographic experiments like the Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC), vessel traffic, and seismic air-gun surveys. Noise can result in direct physiological trauma to the animal through temporary or permanent threshold shifts in hearing, or in avoidance behavior that in turn may force animals away from critical feeding, breeding or migratory areas (Richardson, et al. 1995). Noise may also cause humpbacks to suspend important social activities, including feeding, mating, and nursing, or mask communication necessary for survival. Although it is not clear where sound sources are concentrated in the Baja to Bering Region, a substantial amount of noise exists throughout the northern Pacific Ocean that may threaten humpback whale populations. These sound sources include ongoing or proposed oil exploration and associated seismic surveys throughout the Baja to Bering region.
5.5 Impacts on habitat and prey
Although changes in habitat and prey are of potential catastrophic impact to humpback whales, good data do not exist to evaluate this issue fully. Direct competition for food resources may occur in Alaska and British Columbia, particularly for herring, both a humpback whale prey item and a targeted commercial fishery (Trites et al. 1997). Little is known about krill and other forage fish in the feeding areas in Alaska and British Columbia. Logging and other activities in humpback whale habitat throughout their range may also affect their prey base by altering watershed dynamics (stream flow, siltation, marine debris) (Gregory et al. 1987; Sullivan et al. 1987). Potential impacts on humpback whale habitats on the winter breeding grounds come primarily from vessel traffic and noise related impacts (Baker and Herman 1989; Bauer et al. 1993; Jensen and Silber 2003). Climate change has the potential to affect the survival of whale populations by altering food chain interactions and ecosystem dynamics (Mullin 1998; Springer 1998; Tynan and DeMaster 1997).
Contaminant impacts are a significant concern for many species of marine mammals that concentrate toxins in their blubber, particularly as more and more chemical compounds end up in the world’s oceans (Reeves et al. 2000). Persistent contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides are generally far lower in baleen whales like humpbacks because they feed lower on the food chain (Reeves et al. 2000). Along the west coast of North America in the Baja to Bering region, southern California is an area of most concern for contaminant exposure. A number of bays and southern coastlines in California are listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act for one or more priority pollutants
The Clean Water Act requires that these jurisdictions establish priority rankings for water on the pollution control lists and develop action plans to improve water quality so as not to exceed allowable Total Maximum Daily Loads.
The United States published the National Coastal Condition Report II (NCCR II), which describes conditions of the Nation’s water along its coasts (US EPA 2004). The NCCR II provides information on an assessment of the west coast estuaries, showing that some form of pollution or habitat degradation impairs 87 percent of these embayment waters. However, the NCCR II reports that 78 percent of the assessed shoreline miles on the west coast of the United States fully support their designated uses, no shoreline miles are reported as being threatened, and 22 percent of the assessed shoreline is impaired by some form of pollution or habitat degradation (US EPA 2004). The effect of pollution and contamination of coastal and estuarine waters described in NCCR II on humpback whale populations off the west coast of the United States is uncertain and research regarding the potential effects of pollutants on whales is necessary to fully assess any potential risk.
Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the humpback whale is listed as threatened on Schedule 2, and is pending public consultation for addition to Schedule 1. Species that were designated at risk by COSEWIC prior to October 1999 must be reassessed using revised criteria before they can be considered for addition to Schedule 1 of SARA. Although there is currently no recovery plan for the humpback whale in Canada, if the population is added to Schedule 1, it will be afforded SARA protections that include the development of a recovery strategy and associated action plans. In addition, although SARA encourages species protection through voluntary actions and supported stewardship activities, the law also sets up an enforcement regime for offenses. These penalties range from less serious summary conviction offenses to more serious indictable ones.
In addition to protection afforded the species through the statutes of COSEWIC and SARA, other Canadian organizations engage in management, research and educational activities on behalf of humpback whales and their habitats. One of these is the British Columbia Cetacean Sightings Network, established in 1999 through the Cetacean Research Lab at the Vancouver Aquarium and the Marine Mammal Research Program at the Pacific Biological Station to collect and compile sightings reports submitted by the public. The Network operates along the coast of British Columbia to raise public awareness about cetacean conservation concerns and encourage the public to report whale sightings. The information is then entered into a database where it can be used to better understand what habitats are most important for these species, while also helping researchers target their conservation efforts more effectively. Another Canadian organization dedicated to marine mammal research, education, and conservation with a focus on humpback whales is the Alaska-British Columbia Whale Foundation, affiliated with Simon Fraser University. Much of the current research conducted by the Alaska-British Columbia Whale Foundation addresses specific concerns outlined in the US Humpback Whale Recovery Plan, including minimize conflicts between commercial fishing operations and whales, information on prey species, studies on toxicology, genetics and the impacts of noise.
In Mexico, no single body of legislation exists for the sole benefit of humpback whales. Instead, several different laws relevant to their conservation and management exist, and they apply to all of Mexico. The General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection (Ley General del Equilibrio Ecológico y la Protección al Ambiente—LGEEPA), enacted in 1988, is currently the responsibility of the recently restructured Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat). This law provides Semarnat with a broad mandate to formulate policy and planning initiatives, and to implement management actions for the protection of the nation’s natural resources. The Fishing Law (Ley de Pesca), 1992 artículo 3, fracción V (Diario Oficial 1992), authorizes government agencies dealing with fisheries to “establish measures aimed at the protection of... marine mammals.” Another piece of legislation, a 1991 addition to the Mexican Penal Code, Article 254 Bis (Diario Oficial 1931), prohibits unauthorized capture of or injury to marine mammals and sea turtles. A prison term of three to six years is prescribed as the penalty.
In 2000, the General Law of Wildlife (Ley General de Vida Silvestre) (Diario Oficial 2000) was approved under the responsibility of Semarnat. This is the first pertinent Mexican law related to wildlife that confronts the challenges of balancing protection of the country’s biodiversity with the need for socio-economic development. In 2002, Article 60 Bis was added, stating that no specimen of any marine mammal can be the subject of subsistence or commercial use, with the exception of captures for scientific research and educational purposes, which still require prior approval of the authorities. The Mexican Government’s Official Standard NOM-059-ECOL-lists all the marine mammal species considered, endangered or under special protection.
The Mexican Government’s Official Standard NOM-131-ECOL-1998 provides specific guidelines for whale watching activities compatible with the conservation of whales and their habitat (Diario Oficial 2000). In particular, the guidelines are species-specific and define which areas and what period of the year whale watching is permitted, the number and type of boats allowed, and the distance to the whales and duration of observation. Additionally, in May 2002, Mexico established the Mexican Whale Sanctuary (Santuario Ballenero Mexicano), comprising its entire Exclusive Economic Zone (about three million square kilometers) (Diario Oficial 2002).
6.3 United States
In the United States, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) primarily govern management of humpback whales; NMFS implements these federal statutes. Under the ESA, conservation actions for humpback whales have been largely guided by the objectives of the 1991 Humpback Whale Recovery Plan: maintain and enhance habitat; identify and reduce human-related mortality, injury and disturbance; measure and monitor key population parameters to determine if recommended actions are successful; and, improve administration and coordination of the overall recovery effort for this species (NMFS 1991).
In the Baja to Bering Region of the United States, an important conservation action has been to institute whale-watching guidelines and regulations. Also in this region, conservation actions have included developing and maintaining a national stranding and disentanglement network, and supporting collaborative studies among researchers in the North Pacific. In May 2001, a final rule 66FR29502 was issued by NMFS under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which established a 100-yard vessel approach limit throughout southeastern Alaskan waters. In August 2003, Glacier Bay National Park implemented a 13-knot speed limit and other operational requirements for vessels specifically to prevent the threat of ship strikes to humpback whales.
The 1994 amendment to section 118 of the MMPA required NMFS to develop and implement a Take Reduction Plan (TRP) to address fisheries in the North Pacific. A multi-stakeholder working group known as a Take Reduction Team was involved in developing the TRP to meet the long-term goal of reducing mortality and serious injury of marine mammals incidentally taken in the course of commercial fishing operation to insignificant levels approaching a zero mortality and serious injury rate. The final TRP was developed in 1997. In the Atlantic, substantial effort has been focused on developing gear modifications to reduce the risk of large whale entanglement. With further modification, some of these techniques may be applicable for Pacific fisheries as well in regions where entanglement rates are high.
In Hawaii, the National Ocean Service’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary encompasses the calving and nursing range of a significant portion of the North Pacific humpback population. The sanctuary is jointly managed with the state of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and works to complement existing federal and state regulatory mechanisms that protect humpback whales and their habitat. One of the sanctuary’s primary roles is to promote public awareness on behalf of the species; much effort is directed toward educating the public about existing protective regulations and enhancing the enforcement of these laws in the sanctuary. The sanctuary also conducts regular consultations with the State of Hawaii and other federal agencies to review all permit requests for activities that may affect humpback whale habitats.
Other organizations and institutions along the US Pacific coast are also engaged in outreach and research activities related to humpback whales. These include the American Cetacean Society, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, Cascadia Research, University of Alaska Southeast, Hawaii Wildlife Fund, WhaleTrust, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
6.4 International collaboration
Anthropogenic threats to humpbacks have been addressed in a variety of ways in each of the three countries, but never has a unified, trinational approach been developed prior to CEC efforts. Within each country, limited resources have often resulted in research efforts and management actions that are localized, or ad hoc, rather than national and comprehensive in scope.
One ongoing association involves collaboration and exchange between humpback whale researchers at the National Marine Mammal Lab (NMML) and researchers from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur (UABCS) in Mexico. Starting in 1985, NMML has been developing and curating a collection of humpback whale fluke photographs taken in North Pacific waters using a computer-assisted matching system. The collection of North Pacific humpback whale fluke photographs grew from about 750 photographs in 1986 to more than 24,000 photographs in 2002, representing contributions from more than 20 research groups, and taken from all regions in the North Pacific (Sally Mizroch, National Marine Mammal Laboratory, pers. comm. 2004).
Researchers working in Canada submitted more than 200 photos taken from 1991 to 2002, and researchers working in Mexican waters submitted more than 1,900 photos taken from 1982 to 2003. Field exchanges have been underway since 1997 between researchers from NMML and UABCS working in the Revillagigedo Archipelago, Mexico; Gulf of California, Mexico; Kodiak, Alaska; and the NMML lab to provide and share expertise in biopsy sampling, traditional and digital photography, data management, darkroom techniques, and high-resolution film scanning. Students in both the United States and Mexico have been hosted, trained, and supported by NMML to learn these research methodologies (Sally Mizroch, National Marine Mammal Laboratory, pers. comm. 2004).
A new collaborative international research effort, SPLASH (The Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks), was initiated in 2004 to examine the status, trends, population structure and human impacts on humpback whales in the North Pacific. SPLASH is a partnership of nongovernmental (Cascadia Research Collective) and academic research groups, NMFS and NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, National Park Service (Glacier Bay, Alaska), the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (Canada), and the Department of the Environment (Mexico). The collaborative effort is unprecedented in its international cooperation and geographic scope. The project involves researchers from the United States, Mexico, Canada, Russia, and Japan. Efforts are focused in the North Pacific wintering areas of the Hawaiian Islands, Japan, Mexico, Central America and the feeding areas of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, the western Gulf of Alaska, southeastern Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, the Bering Sea, and the western North Pacific waters off Russia. Among other goals, the project’s primary objectives are to: (a) estimate the overall abundance and determine population structure of humpback whales in the North Pacific using genetic markers and photo-identification; (b) better understand humpback whale wintering and feeding areas; (c) provide information on trends in abundance; (d) identify habitat and characterize use; and (e) identify human impacts (i.e., entanglement, toxicology, etc.).
The humpback whale is one of the most publicly recognized marine species. In the Pacific, whale-watching industries that target this species are well established in humpback feeding grounds in southeast Alaska and breeding/calving grounds in Hawaii. Humpback whale watching activity also occurs near the Farallon Islands and in Monterey Bay off the California coast. In Mexico, whale watching occurs in Banderas Bay, the Gulf of California, and the Pacific coast of the Baja peninsula. In British Columbia, Canada, commercial wildlife viewing is a rapidly growing industry, and whale-watching expeditions are carried out along the British Columbian coastline in Blackfish Sound and Queen Charlotte Strait off Port McNeill.
Whale watching and other tourist activities will be important platforms to carry out CEC outreach and education goals, and to emphasize in particular the migratory nature of this North American species whose threats are trinational and require coordinated response. As a marine species already known to the public, the humpback can serve an important role to galvanize public concern and action.
An Overview of the North American Conservation Action Plans
As mandated by the 1994 North American Agreement for Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC), the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) encourages Canada, Mexico and the United States to adopt a continental approach to the conservation of wild flora and fauna. In 2003, this mandate was strengthened as the three North American countries launched the Strategic Plan for North American Cooperation in the Conservation of Biodiversity.
The North American Conservation Action Plan (NACAP) initiative began as an effort promoted by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, through the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), to facilitate the conservation of marine and terrestrial species of common concern.
The main assumption supporting this initiative is the need and opportunity to enhance—through coordination—the effectiveness of conservation measures undertaken by diverse countries sharing migratory or transboundary species.
Building Partnerships to Conserve Species of Common Concern
The implementation of the Strategic Plan for North American Cooperation in the Conservation of Biodiversity calls for identifying an initial set of North American regions and species for which the benefits of cooperation could be more effective and best illustrated. Two regions, one marine and one terrestrial, stood out that spanned the three countries: the Baja California to Bering Sea region and the central grasslands. Current activities developed in these regions include the identification of priority conservation areas within them as a basis for establishing an institutional conservation network.
Similarly, the countries, through the CEC, agreed upon an initial set of marine and terrestrial species of common conservation concern for which North American Conservation Action Plans would be developed. The initial six species (three marine and three terrestrial) were selected for these conservation action plans because of their ecological significance, their level of threat and the opportunities they present for joint action.
The goal of a NACAP is to facilitate a long-term cooperative agenda for the conservation of these species of common concern throughout their ranges of distribution in North America. Through each NACAP, the CEC provides a valuable planning tool to help focus limited resources and ensure that cooperative actions taken for the conservation of species of common concern are based upon sound science, and are targeted at priority actions. The implementation of these actions, however, is incumbent on the diverse players of each country.
The expected users of a NACAP are principally those organizations and individuals engaged in the conservation of shared North American species, including governments at the various federal, state/provincial, local and indigenous, tribal/first nations levels, and civil society.
The Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) North American Conservation Action Plan
This NACAP, developed for the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), resulted from a trinational workshop hosted by the CEC in San Francisco, California in March 2004 and benefited from the in-depth review of an extensive list of wildlife experts from diverse backgrounds from Canada, Mexico and the United States. Furthermore, the content of this NACAP has been shared with diverse government agencies within each country that are related to the well-being of the species.
The humpback whale Action Plan is divided in eight sections, providing a trinational outlook related to the species. The initial four sections provide an updated account of the species and its current situation. The fifth section identifies the main causes of loss or decline and puts in perspective the ensuing sections related to current management and actions taken in each country, as well as public and commercial perception of the species and the threats it faces. Against this background, the last section offers a list of key trinational collaborative conservation actions. The identified actions address the following main objectives:
- Support for the SPLASH initiative (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks)
- Reduce entanglement
- Prevent ship strikes
- Address impacts of ecotourism
- Address acoustic impacts
We hope that over time efforts such as the NACAPs will indeed provide an effective basis for cooperation and networking among diverse sectors of society working on the well-being of these species and their habitats across North America.
Hans Herrmann and Jürgen Hoth
Biodiversity Conservation Program
Commission for Environmental Cooperation