From the brink of extinction, humpback whales have made a dramatic comeback over the past four decades, according to an extensive study. The new study conducted by more than 400 whale researchers for the US agency, NOAA, found the number of humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean has rebounded to approximately 18,000 to 20,000 animals.
The population of humpback whales in the North Pacific numbered less than 1,500 in 1966 when international whaling for this species was banned. In the 1970s, federal laws including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act provided additional protection for the whales, at least half of whom migrate between Alaska and Hawaii.
The results of this new report come from SPLASH (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks), an international effort involving more than 50 organizations. Launched in 2004 and funded primarily by NOAA, the project determined whale migratory patterns and estimated population sizes by using a library of 18,000 photographs of whale flukes to identify 8,000 individual whales.
Cascadia Research in Olympia, Wash., the central coordinator for the SPLASH project, matched photographs from six different feeding and breeding areas. By matching whale flukes photographed in their feeding areas with those photographed in the wintering areas, researchers were able to determine the patterns of individual whale movements, as well as estimate the sizes of different populations.