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Humpback Whale Population Bounces Back From Near-Extinction—From 450 to Over 25,000

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News of declining populations of more and more species has become depressingly commonplace in recent times. It seems there is reason to celebrate however, as recent research shows that the humpback whales in the South Atlantic have rebounded from the brink of extinction and are thriving.

The population of South Atlantic humpbacks were under immense pressure in the early 1990s due to the whaling industry and their numbers declined to a dismal total of just 450 in total. According to a report by GoodNewsNetwork, an estimated 25,000 of the mammals were hunted over a 12-year period.

Scientists noticed the decline of the whale populations worldwide in the 1960s and in the mid-1980s, the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on all commercial whaling. Further safeguards were put in place since to assist the struggling populations.

Research co-authored by Grant Adams, John Best, and André Punt of the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, now show that the population of the species, (Megaptera novaeangliae), bounced back to 25,000, similar to pre-whaling numbers, according to conservationists.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the comeback; previous studies hadn’t suggested that humpback whales in this region were doing this well,” said Best.

Published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the study negates a previous assessment conducted by the International Whaling Commission between 2006 and 2015 which indicated that the population had recovered to about 30% of its numbers prior to their exploitation. However, this newly-published data does provide more accurate information on catches, life-history, and genetics.

“Accounting for pre-modern whaling and struck-and-lost rates where whales were shot or harpooned but escaped and later died, made us realize the population was more productive than we previously believed,” said Adams, a UW doctoral student who helped construct the new model.

The authors hope the model built for the study can be used to determine population recovery in other species, as well. “We believe that transparency in science is important,” said Adams. “The software we wrote for this project is available to the public and anyone can reproduce our findings.”

Lead author Alex Zerbini, of the UW’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, emphasized the importance of capturing population assessments without biases. He added that the findings are good news – an example of a species rebounding from near-extinction.

 “Wildlife populations can recover from exploitation if proper management is applied,” said Zerbini, who completed this work at the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory.

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