Alaska wants the humpback whale off the Endangered Species list


File:  Alaska. Credit: Jon Tigar

The state of Alaska wants the federal government to remove endangered species protections for humpback whales that migrate seasonally between Alaska and Hawaii, a step that would remove a hurdle for companies that want to explore the Arctic Coast for oil.

On Wednesday, Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service seeking to designate the specific subspecies of humpback that travels between the two states, and to take it off the endangered species list  because its population has rebounded from dangerously low levels just a few decades ago.

The humpback whale was one of the first animals placed on the endangered species list in 1970. By the time the International Whaling Commission ordered hunters to stop harvesting humpbacks, only about 1,000 remained. In the intervening four decades, population stocks have rebounded across the world, and now an estimated 21,800 live in the North Pacific, the department said in its petition.

“The recovery of humpback whales in the North Pacific is an [Endangered Species Act] success story,” Division of Wildlife Conservation director Doug Vincent-Lang said in a statement. “These whales have shown consistent gains in numbers and occupy their entire historical range, which demonstrates that they are not in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.”

Listing an animal as an endangered species means any activity that might harm the animal’s natural habitat requires federal approval. If the humpback is removed from the list, Alaska could begin authorizing companies to look for oil — and eventually to drill — in arctic oceans.

Alaska officials are worried that after years of successful oil production throughout the state, production rates have been declining sharply. Production has dropped from a high of 759 million barrels of oil in 1988 to just 205 million barrels today. Companies are not only producing less in Alaska, but new technologies mean they find it more efficient to drill for oil in places like the Bakken oil field in North Dakota.

Extraction taxes make up a huge percentage of Alaska’s budget. The state has stockpiled billions of dollars in a rainy-day fund, fueled entirely by oil money, which helped the state survive the economic recession without making major cuts. But a change in the state’s tax code means the state will take in far less this fiscal year, about $2.1 billion, than it did last fiscal year, about $4 billion. By 2015, the state projects oil revenue will make up 82 percent of state revenues, down from 92 percent in Fiscal Year 2013.

Environmentalists oppose taking the humpback off the list. They say the species hasn’t fully recovered to a point at which it could survive without government protection.

Alaska isn’t alone in wanting to take the humpback whale off the list. Last year, a Hawaii fishing association also asked the federal government to remove protections on humpbacks. The NMFS began a status review of the humpback population last August.

The last species to be removed from the endangered species list was the Carribean monk seal, which went extinct before 2008, the Associated Press reported. The last time a species recovered sufficiently to be removed from the list was back in 1994, when the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration took off the eastern North Pacific population of gray whales.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | February 28