By Steve Quinn
JUNEAU Alaska (Reuters) - Alaska's humpback whales swam a little closer on Wednesday to losing their status as an endangered species after being federally protected for more than 40 years, a U.S. agency said.
Alaska in a Feb. 26 petition asked federal fisheries managers to scrap the "endangered" classification of the central north Pacific population of humpbacks under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), citing population growth and existing regulations it says protect the migratory mammals.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Wednesday said in a statement it found "substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted."
The so-called "positive ruling" comes after the agency's similar response in August to a petition by the Hawaii Fishermen's Alliance for Conservation and Tradition, which sought to delist all north Pacific whales.
The Alaska-Hawaii findings mean NOAA will conduct roughly year-long reviews of the central north Pacific and entire North Pacific populations, to project population growth rates and threats, such as fishing gear and potential ship strikes, said agency spokeswoman Julie Speegle.
It will then deliver a decision whether to delist the whales, reduce their status to "threatened," or take no action at all, Speegle said.
Speegle said the agency was already reviewing a separate petition urging status review of global populations of humpback whales, which can weigh between 50,000 and 80,000 pounds (22,680 to 36,287 kgs) and can live roughly 50 years.
"Simply put, they no longer need ESA protection. They should be removed and effort focused on species needing protection," Doug Vincent-Lang, an Alaska wildlife conservation official, said of the motivation behind the petition.
Opposition could arise from environmental groups or citizens as NOAA seeks public input until July 28.
The entire north Pacific population has been estimated at nearly 22,000 whales, having grown from about 1,000 in the late 1990s, and the central north stock is just under 6,000 whales, the Alaska Dispatch newspaper reported.
(Reporting by Steve Quinn in Juneau; Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)