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Not over the hump: Caution urged on ending endangered status for whales

The government estimates whaling reduced humpback whale populations off eastern Australia from 26,133 to 200-500 by 1962.

Macquarie University marine scientist Vanessa Pirotta said the east coast humpback whale population is increasing by about 11 per cent a year, and is not at risk of extinction.

Academic discussions about downgrading the conservation status of humpback whales began in 2016, Dr Pirotta said: “This is not just something that came out of the blue”.

“Humpback whales will remain protected in Australian waters, but they are a good candidate for delisting because their numbers have increased,” Dr Pirotta said.

“This is a good news story. This is an opportunity for us to focus our conservation efforts on species that have more need, like the southern right whale.”

The Threatened Species Scientific Committee, which provides independent advice to federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley, is responsible for making proposals for adding or removing listed species under the act. Ms Ley will have the final say.

Listed species get extra protection, and any action that could impact on them – such as land clearing or project development – must undergo an environmental assessment.

To be removed from the threatened list, evidence must be provided that the risks to a species’ survival have abated, and removing it from the list would not result in it becoming eligible for listing in the foreseeable future.

The first migrating humpback whale seen off the southern NSW coast was on February 27, although sadly it was entangled in buoys and ropes.

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Each year, around a dozen whales become entangled on the east coast migration according to Jools Farrell, the vice president of the Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia. Ms Farrell’s organisation is concerned that humpbacks might be delisted because while their numbers have increased, they are not abundant “They’re still not out of the woods,” she said.

Humpback whales have started migrating earlier because of the warming climate, with 30,000 to 35,000 moving up the east coast each year, she said.

“We appreciate the role Australia has played in the international conservation of whales but it seems to us to be a little bit too hasty,” she said.

A spokesperson for Ms Ley said the recovery of the humpback whale is one of the most significant demonstrations of domestic and international species protection efforts.

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