A group of Hawaii fishermen is asking the US federal government to remove northern Pacific humpback whales from the endangered species list, saying the population has steadily grown since the international community banned commercial whaling nearly 50 years ago.
Hawaii Fishermen's Alliance for Conservation and Tradition Inc., a coalition of fishing clubs and groups from across the islands, filed a petition to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month.
There are more than 21,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific today, compared with about 1,400 in the mid-1960s.
More than half spend the winter breeding and calving in Hawaii's warm waters. The animals, known for acrobatic leaps and complex singing patterns, have become a major draw for tourists and support a thriving whale-watching industry in Hawaii. Other North Pacific humpbacks winter off Mexico, Central America, Japan and the Philippines.
In the summer, they migrate to feed on krill and fish in waters off Alaska, Canada and Russia.
The fishermen say they don't want whaling to resume and aren't asking to be allowed to hunt the whales. They're also not trying to make it easier for them to catch fish, as they say the law's protections for the whales don't interfere with fishing.
Instead, the fishermen are acting after watching environmental conservation groups petition to add many more species to the endangered list in recent years, like dozens of corals, seven different damselfish and a rare dolphin called a false killer whale, said Philip Fernandez, the coalition's president. The government should consider humpback whales for removal to maintain a balance, Fernandez said.
"You cannot add species after species after species without evaluating whether there are species that should come off," the West Hawaii fisherman told The Associated Press by telephone from Kailua-Kona on Hawaii's Big Island.
Fishermen are concerned the Endangered Species Act is being used as a tool to manage the oceans and this will ultimately affect how fishermen are allowed to fish, Fernandez said.
"The key thing is the ESA has turned into somewhat of a battleground," he said.
The commercial whaling ban and other regulations would continue to protect the whales even if they were to lose their endangered status, the petition said. Though some whales die each year after being hit by ships and getting accidentally caught in fishing gear, the petition argues these accidents haven't interfered with the overall population's growth.
The fishermen are asking NOAA to first declare the North Pacific whales a distinct population. If the agency does so, the coalition wants NOAA to then remove this population from the endangered list. Humpbacks are found around the world - globally they number about 60,000 - but the petition is seeking delisting for whales only in the North Pacific.
Angela Somma, NOAA Fisheries endangered species division chief, said the petition is the first seeking to delist humpback whales since the animals were classified as endangered in 1970.
The law gives the agency until mid-July to determine whether the petition merits consideration. If NOAA finds the petition has merit, the agency must come to a conclusion by mid-April.
NOAA last removed a species from the endangered list in 2008, when it determined the Caribbean monk seal had gone extinct. The last time a species' recovery prompted delisting was in 1994, when the agency removed the eastern North Pacific population of gray whales from the list.
NOAA also is considering delisting both the Hawaii population of green sea turtles and a population of Stellar sea lions that lives off the coast of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.
Miyoko Sakashita, a San Francisco-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements still threaten humpbacks. Climate change and growing levels of carbon dioxide the ocean - which is causing the oceans to become more acidic - could harm the plankton that humpback whales depend on for food, she said.
"It could be an important success story for humpback whales, but NOAA should really proceed with caution because of the overarching threats to make sure the gains aren't unravelled," Sakashita said.
NOAA Fisheries independently launched a review of humpback whales in 2009 in response to data showing steady population growth. Somma said the agency is still working on this review.