Humpback whales in Alaska, which have been under U.S. protections as required for an endangered species for 40 years, could be taken off the endangered list soon, officials say.
That possibility has come a step closer as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued a finding on Alaska's petition to end the current "endangered" status of certain north Pacific humpback populations under the Endangered Species Act.
In February, the state had petitioned federal fisheries managers to end the classification, citing the growth of whale populations and asserting existing regulations provided sufficient protections for the marine mammals.
"Simply put, they no longer need ESA protection," said Doug Vincent-Lang, an Alaska wildlife conservation official. "They should be removed and effort focused on species needing protection,."
On Wednesday, NOAA issued a statement saying it found "substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted."
In its petition, Alaska noted that the entire population of humpback whales -- which migrate between Alaska and Hawaii -- in the north Pacific was estimated at 21,800, an increase from the 1,000 estimated when commercial whaling ended in 1966.
The Hawaii Fishermen's Alliance for Conservation and Tradition has also petitioned the federal government for a delisting of the whale from endangered status, a petition that also brought a positive initial finding from NOAA in August 2013.
NOAA officials say the next step will be to conduct a full review of the various humpback populations in the Pacific, a process that should take about a year.
While humpback whales are found in all the oceans of the world, the north Pacific has three separate stocks or populations -- a central stock cited in the Alaska petition, a western stock located in Asian waters, and a stock that swims off Mexico, California, Washington and Oregon.
"Within that status review, we will look at the different stocks," NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle said.
Following the review, NOAA could choose to delist the humpbacks, upgrade their status from "endangered" to "threatened," or it could decide to take no action at all, Speegle said.
NOAA is taking public comment on the delisting proposal until July 28, and environmental groups will likely oppose any effort to remove the humpback whales from the endangered list.
In addition to the protections provided under the Endangered Species Acts, humpbacks are also protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which includes a number of ship-operating regulations intended to spare the whales from harm or harassment from ocean-going commercial vessels and cruise ships.