Whales In Peril: Are Humpback Whales Endangered?

are humpback whales endangered

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The humpback whale is one of the most well-known whale species currently swimming in our oceans; due to their extreme curiosity and acrobatic displays, they tend to be the main event at most whale-watching tours and marine expeditions. 

This species is one of the most widely distributed whale species found across all major oceans, both polar and tropical waters, as well as in coastal and deep oceanic areas.

But are humpback whales endangered?

If we look at the population as a whole the short answer is no. Humpback whales are not endangered. The IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list of threatened species has this animal currently listed as “least concern” with its population trend “increasing”.

However, it’s not so black and white as there are several distinct populations and some of them are still vulnerable and recovering from near extinction. 

In this article, you will learn the current conservation status of different humpback whale populations, what made them become endangered in the first place, how many are believed to be left, and the current threats these gentle giants face. 

Are Humpback Whales Currently Endangered?

As mentioned above, as a whole, humpback whales are not endangered. However, there are at least 13 different populations distributed like this:

  • 4 populations in the North Pacific (Mexico, Central America, Hawaii, and Western North Pacific).
  • 2 populations in the North Atlantic.
  • 7 populations in the Southern hemisphere. 

Besides being globally listed as a species of “least concern” by the IUCN, if you check their red list of threatened species you will find both, the “Oceania” and “Arabian sea” subpopulations are currently listed as “endangered” with their population trends as “increasing” and “unknown” respectively. 

You can check out the list for yourself here.

The good news is that even with some populations still being severely fragmented this beloved marine mammal is slowly but surely making a comeback with its population increasing at a steady rate of around 10% per year for at least the last decade. 

Humpback whales reproduce at a somewhat slower rate due to the high amount of energy and time that goes into gestation and calving.

This fact has undoubtedly played a big part in its rather unhurried comeback but I will tell you all about other threats faced by them in a bit. 

Why Did Humpback Whales Become Endangered?

Commercial whaling dates as far back as the 11th century and humpback whales were one of the most valuable species since the beginning.

Their fat was used for oil candles and as a lubricant for machinery, and their meat was used for human and animal consumption.

Since these whales can be found throughout all oceans and travel great distances they were easily over-exploited by pretty much every nation engaged in whaling activity.

In the late 19th century commercial whaling took a turn for the worse with the birth of steam-powered ships. 

The new ships came with state-of-the-art technology that meant increased reach and accuracy when whale hunting, and more advanced weapons, bringing forth a new dark age for the humpback whale and other large cetaceans.

To make things worse, when world war 1 began in 1914 there was an increased demand for baleen whale oil, such as the humpback’s, as its glycerine was used to make explosives.

The British and Norwegians took advantage of this new market by whaling heavily in the Antarctic. 

During more than half of the 20th-century commercial whaling carried on business as usual depleting whale populations at alarming rates (except no one was alarmed). 

Finally, in 1970 the humpback whale was listed as “endangered” under the “Endangered Species Conservation Act” (now known as the “Endangered Species Act”) after being decimated during the 19th and 20th centuries.

How Many Humpback Whales Are Left?

Thanks to global conservation efforts it is estimated there are around 80,000 humpback whales today and the population is increasing.

It is estimated that there were as few as 10,000 humpback whales by the time drastic action was taken and the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium temporarily banning commercial whaling went into full effect (1985 – 1986 whaling season). 

Humpback Whale Threats

There are 5 main threats humpback whales still face today:

Vessel strikes

Highly common, especially around coastal areas with heavier traffic (eg. cruise ships).

Climate change

The continuous and rapid changes in sea ice can cause dramatic alterations in prey distribution which can then place a lot of nutritional stress on the humpback whale as well as alter its reproductive cycle. 

Entanglement in fishing gear

It is believed that every single humpback whale finds itself entangled in some type of man-made gear at some point in its life.

Some are able to shed it off at some point, some may be severely hurt by it, and some may die from it. 

Vessel-based harassment

Due to their well-known jumps and closeness to shore, humpback whales are popular attractions for whale-watching tours.

However, a lot of tour operators don’t follow the rules set in place which can stress the whales. 

Commercial Whaling

Unfortunately, some countries refuse to stop hunting these beautiful animals, and continue to be a threat to all humpback whale populations.

Japan, Norway, and Iceland continue to catch whales, although the latter hasn’t hunted since 2018.

Additionally, the International Whaling Commission grants indigenous tribes in the Arctic a special permit called “Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling” that allows them to hunt a specific number of whales per year.

Final Thoughts

To sum things up, the good news for ocean lovers like you and me is that humpback whales are currently not endangered and their population is increasing. 

They are still highly vulnerable as there are many measures set in place for their protection but if one of them disappeared for some reason and commercial whaling re-started their population could easily be depleted in the blink of an eye.

One thing you can do to protect them is to be respectful if you are ever in their presence and choose responsible tour operators if you ever have the chance to see them in the wild. 

Until next time!