After decades of global efforts to save Humpback whales, Australia has removed them from its threatened species list.

At their lowest, there were as few as 1500 Humpback whales in Australian waters, Australian Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said in a press statement last Saturday.

There are now more than 40,000, Ley said.

Marine species programme manager WWF-New Zealand, Dr Krista Van Der Linde, said Humpback Whale populations around New Zealand have also been increasing but not to the same extent as Australia because whales in New Zealand were hunted closer to extinction. 

Across centuries of commercial whaling around the world, many whale species were hunted to near extinction. An estimated 90 percent of Humpback whale populations were killed.

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission placed a halt on all whaling, which still remains in place today. However, some whaling has continued - with an estimated 40,000 whales being killed across the period the practice has been banned. 

“It is a real win to be able to remove any species from a threatened list. We often hear the opposite, so to actually have one removed is a huge win,” Van Der Linde said.

“But we shouldnt neccessarily take [Australia’s decision] as the whole population being stable long term.”

While the halt on whaling has allowed the populations to increase, Van Der Linde said there are other threats on the horizon.

“As human population increases and climate change impacts their environment, we have to be aware of these other pressures other than whaling. In New Zealand, we have a high risk of entanglement, with whales getting caught in fishing gear like cray pots lines.”

Despite a positive trajectory for the health and population of these whales, she said continued monitoring and research is crucial.

Māori whale expert Ramari Stewart has spent a career working with alive and dead whales, particularly in supporting Maori with customary recoveries of dead whales.

She said a concern with taking these whales off threatened species lists is that this may result in a decrease in funding and research.

Stewart said it is just as important now to continue researching the Humpback, especially as people don’t fully know what the result of these expanding whale populations will have on the wider ecosystem.

“Could this population explosion have an impact on the wider ecosystem? They are like the rabbits of whales.”

The population recovery also offers opportunities for Stewart and other researchers to better understand the cultural relationship Humpback whales had with early Māori explorers.

“My interest in that population is about the early explorer Maui, who came from the west. 

“Whatever route he took, I am fairly confident that he encountered these migratory streams of the eastern Australian whale.”

New Zealand judges the endangerment of Humpback whales based on assessments made by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The organisation collects data on the health and populations of different animals. 

The IUCN has currently classified the endangerment of Humpback whales as being of “least concern” as there is a global population of about 84,000 mature Humpback whales. 

Top image: Humpback Whale Mother and Calf. Credit: Craig Lambert / iStock

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