Lessons Learned by Saving the Humpback Whales

Times seem bleak for the future of many species. The ongoing Biodiversity Crisis – sometimes called the Sixth Mass Extinction Event – is ongoing as extinctions occur at a rate of 10 to 100 times higher than the background extinction rate, with some species such as the Western Black Rhino already lost to history. Although it’s important to understand the magnitude of the biodiversity problem we face, it’s equally important to know that humans have the power to reverse seemingly inevitable species decline – and that we in fact have done so in the past. The case of the Humpback Whale illustrates just how dedicated global efforts can bring a species back from the brink, and offers important lessons for how we can stop the Sixth Mass Extinction. 

Threats to the Humpback Whales

Today, Humpback Whales are one of the most common species of whale in the ocean and are a favorite species for whale-watchers in the Caribbean and Pacific Northwest. However, this wasn’t always the case: like the Right Whale and the Blue Whale, Humpback Whales have been hunted for their baleen and oil since at least the 1700s, with killings peaking at the start of the 20th century with the introduction of whaling in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica. By the mid-20th century, Humpback Whales likely were at less than 10 percent of their pre-whaling population. The species stood on the brink of annihilation.


Without immediate action, Humpback Whales likely would have met the fate of the Tasmanian Tiger by the 21st century. But then something unprecedented occurred: a 1966 international moratorium on all Humpback whaling, created in a final effort to save the species. By enforcing a global whaling ban, governments gave the species the time to recover its numbers naturally without the threat of human exploitation. The effort was astonishingly successful: by 2016, the species had recovered nearly 93% of its pre-whaling population in the South Atlantic, with nearly 25,000 individuals out of a pre-moratorium population of less than a thousand. Today, of the 14 populations of Humpback Whales around the world, 10 are recovering and considered non-threatened. 

The Humpback whaling ban served as the predecessor for today’s International Whaling Commission, a moratorium that prevents all commercial whaling globally, with special exceptions for limited hunting by indigenous peoples (such as in Greenland and Alaska). The Whaling ban is remarkable for being a truly international effort that would have failed without the global buy-in of most of the world’s coastal nations. This is because Humpback Whales, like almost all whale species, do not abide by political borders, instead of between national and international waters as they move from calving grounds near the equator during the winter and cool, nutrient-rich feeding grounds closer to the poles during warmer months. Without an agreement that stopped whaling everywhere, Humpbacks could still have been hunted in international waters or along the coasts of non-signatory nations – but instead are now protected in almost every corner of their range. 

Besides the ban, several other factors have helped Humpback numbers recover in recent decades. Regional speed limits in areas with whale populations during certain times of year have greatly reduced collisions between commercial shipping and Humpbacks, while the establishment of marine protected areas where fishing is prohibited helps prevent entanglement in fishing lines, an ongoing problem for all whale species (and especially the Humpback’s more endangered cousin, the Northern Right Whale. Finally, even when at their lowest point Humpbacks still had a large enough population to maintain genetic variation, an important factor for rebounding healthy populations – something not possible for all modern species on the brink. 


Risks still remain for Humpbacks, especially in the four populations where the species remains endangered or threatened, such as the small Red Sea population or the Pacific coast of Mexico. And recent cracks in the whaling ban – including the resumption of Japanese whaling in 2019, or the continued practice of whaling in Norway – threaten a future that could turn back many of the gains made since the 1960s. But as we look at our current biodiversity crisis and search for ways to prevent the worst of the Sixth Mass Extinction, the recovery of the Humpback Whale should serve both as a source of hope, and as a potential blueprint to solving the impending ecological collapse: big, politically bold initiatives that are truly global in scope, applying rules not just to some parts of the world, but to all nations to mutually enforce together. 

Today, it’s easy to take a whale-watching boat and spot a Humpback Whale breaching off the coast of Maine or Northern California, but this wasn’t always the case, and wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t taken action to save the species. The same can be true in the future of other endangered species on the brink today if we put forward the work to do so. 

article by Devin Windelspecht

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