Some whale species recover; others, not so much


Humpback, minke, and southern right whales populations have recovered nicely in the last 20 years, thanks to an international moratorium on whale hunting. But many other species of cetaceans (aquatic mammals) still have a long way to go.

The news comes from this week's cetacean update of the IUCN Red List, which examines 80 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Humpbacks have now been moved from the IUCN's "vulnerable" category to "least concern." (Two sub-populations are still classified as "endangered.") Southern right whales have also been moved to the "least concern" category.

(It should be noted that "least concern" still means the species are threatened, but they aren't in immediate risk of extinction or in need of conservation programs.)

(It should also be noted that the humpback populations have only grown by about 1,500 mature adults in the years since the whaling ban took effect, and that some conservationists fear Japan and other nations will use this news to push for an increase in allowable whale hunting.)

But enough digressions, because there's more news to report, and it ain't all good. IUCN reports that 44 cetacean species still lack sufficient data to assess their population status. Meanwhile, some species aren't doing well at all: 9 species, 2 subspecies and 12 sub-populations are considered "endangered" or "critically endangered." Many others are considered "vulnerable" to extinction.

Coastal and freshwater cetaceans seem to be doing the worst, thanks to greater levels of conflict with humans. Of them, the IUCN says the vaquita porpoise "will most likely be the next cetacean species to go extinct." Only about 150 vaquitas remain in the waters off the coast of Mexico. Other species considered "most at risk" by the IUCN include the North Atlantic right whale and the western gray whale.

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