HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - After four decades of federal protection, most humpback whales are being taken off the endangered species list.
Humpbacks in nine of 14 newly-identified population segments have recovered enough to no longer needed the special status, the National Marine Fisheries Service said Tuesday.
The changes include the whales that migrate to Hawaii each winter.
Officials said the recovery of whale populations is credited in part to the international moratorium on commercial whaling and other conservation activities.
"Their population abundance numbers, we think, have risen to a level where they no longer meet the definition of a threatened or endangered species, coupled with the threats being largely ameliorated and not at a level that's posing a risk to their extinction," said Angela Somma, chief of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Endangered Species Division.
A group of local fishermen petitioned the government to take Hawaii's humpbacks off the list in 2013.
"It does not really affect fisherman but what it does do is that fisherman are now recognized as being involved in conservation matters beyond fish," said Phil Fernandez, president of the Hawaii Fishermen's Alliance for Conservation and Tradition.
Vessel collisions and fishing gear entanglement remain a threat, but Somma said the whale population around the islands has grown to more than 11,000, increasing at a rate of about 6 percent.
Whales in four population groups from the Arabian Sea, Central America, the Western North Pacific and Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa are still considered endangered. Humpbacks from Mexico are listed as threatened.
Some conservationists are concerned that the changes may be premature, but NOAA officials said all humpbacks are still covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The law prohibits harassing and harming marine mammals.
Separate regulations continue distance limits for approaching vessels in waters off Hawaii and Alaska.