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Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Status | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution | Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview | Taxonomy | Key Documents | More Info

Status

ESA Proposed Threatened- 2 "distinct population segments” (DPSs) 
» Central America DPS
» Western North Pacific DPS

ESA Proposed Endangered- 2 DPSs
» Arabian Sea DPS
» Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa DPS

ESA Endangered - throughout its range
MMPA Depleted - throughout its range
CITES Appendix I - throughout its range

**NOAA Fisheries proposes to revise the ESA listing for the humpback whale to identify 14 Distinct Population Segments (DPS), list 2 as threatened and 2 as endangered, and identify 10 others as not warranted for listing.

You can provide public comments on this proposal electronically, by mail, or in person as described in the Federal Register Notice (comment period opens on 4/21/2015 and closes 7/20/2015 ). Public hearings are scheduled in Honolulu, HI (May 6th), Juneau, AK (May 19th), Plymouth, MA (June 3rd), and Virginia Beach, VA (June 10th).

Read more information about NOAA Fisheries proposal here.

Click here or on the map below to see the distribution of the 14 identified humpback whale distinct population segments**

Humpback DPS

Species Description

Weight:
25-40 tons (50,000-80,000 pounds; 22,000-36,000 kg);
newborns weigh about 1 ton (2,000 pounds; 900 kg)
Length:
up to 60 feet (18 m), with females larger than males;
newborns are about 15 feet (4.5 m) long
Appearance:
primarily dark grey, with some areas of white
Lifespan:
about 50 years
Diet:
tiny crustaceans (mostly krill), plankton, and small fish; they can consume up to 3,000 pounds (1360 kg) of food per day
Behavior:
breaching (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface

Humpback whales are well known for their long "pectoral" fins, which can be up to 15 feet (4.6 m) in length. Their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means "big-winged New Englander" as the New England population was the one best known to Europeans. These long fins give them increased maneuverability; they can be used to slow down or even go backwards.

Similar to all baleen whales, adult females are larger than adult males, reaching lengths of up to 60 feet (18 m). Their body coloration is primarily dark grey, but individuals have a variable amount of white on their pectoral fins and belly. This variation is so distinctive that the pigmentation pattern on the undersides of their "flukes" is used to identify individual whales, similar to a human fingerprint.

Humpback whales are the favorite of whale watchers, as they frequently perform aerial displays, such as breaching (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface with their pectoral fins, tails, or heads.

In the summer, humpbacks are found in high latitude feeding grounds, such as the Gulf of Maine in the Atlantic and Gulf of Alaska in the Pacific. In the winter, they migrate to calving grounds in subtropical or tropical waters, such as the Dominican Republic in the Atlantic and the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific. The Arabian Sea humpback does not migrate, remaining in tropical waters all year.

Humpback whales travel great distances during their seasonal migration, the farthest migration of any mammal. The longest recorded migration was 5,160 miles (8,300 km); this trek from Costa Rica to Antarctica was completed by seven animals, including a calf. One of the more closely studied routes is between Alaska and Hawaii, where humpbacks have been observed making the 3,000 mile (4,830 km) trip in as few as 36 days.

During the summer months, humpbacks spend the majority of their time feeding and building up fat stores (blubber) that they will live off of during the winter. Humpbacks filter feed on tiny crustaceans (mostly krill), plankton, and small fish and can consume up to 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg) of food per day. Several hunting methods involve using air bubbles to herd, corral, or disorient fish. One highly complex variant, called "bubble netting," This link is an external site. is unique to humpbacks. This technique is often performed in groups with defined roles for distracting, scaring, and herding before whales lunge at prey corralled near the surface.

In their wintering grounds, humpback whales congregate and engage in mating activities. Humpbacks are generally "polygynous" with males exhibiting competitive behavior on wintering grounds. Aggressive and antagonistic behaviors include chasing, vocal and bubble displays, horizontal tail thrashing, and rear body thrashing. Males within these groups also make physical contact, striking or surfacing on top of one another. These bouts can cause injuries ranging from bloody scrapes to, in one recorded instance, death. Also on wintering grounds, males sing complex songs that can last up to 20 minutes and be heard 20 miles (30 km) away. A male may sing for hours, repeating the song several times. All males in a population sing the same song, but that song continually evolves over time. Humpback whale singing has been studied for decades, but scientists still understand very little about its function.

Gestation lasts for about 11 months. Newborns are 13-16 feet (4-5 m) long and grow quickly from the highly nutritious milk of their mothers. Weaning occurs between 6-10 months after birth. Mothers are protective and affectionate towards their calves, swimming close and frequently touching them with their flippers. Males do not provide parental support for calves. Breeding usually occurs once every two years, but sometimes occurs twice in a three year span.

humpback whale bubble feeding
Bubble Feeding Humpback Whale
Credit: Christin Khan, NOAA NEFSC

humpback whale
Humpback Whale
(Megaptera novaeangliae)
Credit: Robert Pitman, NOAA

Habitat

During migration, humpbacks stay near the surface of the ocean.

While feeding and calving, humpbacks prefer shallow waters. During calving, humpbacks are usually found in the warmest waters available at that latitude. Calving grounds are commonly near offshore reef systems, islands, or continental shores.

Humpback feeding grounds are in cold, productive coastal waters.

Distribution

Humpback whales live in all major oceans from the equator to sub-polar latitudes.

In the western North Atlantic ocean, humpback whales feed during spring, summer, and fall over a range that encompasses the eastern coast of the United States (including the Gulf of Maine), the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland/ Labrador, and western Greenland. In winter, whales from the Gulf of Maine mate and calve primarily in the West Indies. Not all whales migrate to the West Indies every winter, and significant numbers of animals are found in mid- and high-latitude regions at this time.

In the North Pacific, there are at least three separate populations:

  1. California/Oregon/Washington stock that winters in coastal Central America and Mexico and migrates to areas ranging from the coast of California to southern British Columbia in summer/fall;
  2. Central North Pacific stock that winters in the Hawaiian Islands and migrates to northern British Columbia/ Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound west to Kodiak; and
  3. Western North Pacific stock that winters near Japan and probably migrates to waters west of the Kodiak Archipelago (the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands ) in summer/fall. There is some mixing between these populations, though they are still considered distinct stocks.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) This link is an external site. has designated seven major breeding stocks linked to seven major feeding areas. Most breeding areas for Southern Hemisphere humpbacks are at 20°S, although some are in the Northern Hemisphere, including areas along the west coast of Africa and Central America. In Costa Rica, there is overlap with Northern Hemisphere humpbacks geographically, but they are not there at the same time. All Southern Hemisphere humpbacks share feeding grounds in the Antarctic south of 40°S and between 120°E and 110°W.

Based on the most recent status review of the humpback whale, we determined that the species consists of 14 DPSs. View a map showing the identification and distribution of these DPSs here.

Population Trends

Humpbacks are increasing in abundance in much of their range. While estimating humpback whale abundance is inherently difficult, the best population estimates for U.S. stocks of humpback whales can be found in our most recent stock assessment reports and the latest status review of the species.

Threats

Humpback whales face a series of threats including:

Humpbacks can become entangled in fishing gear, either swimming off with the gear or becoming anchored. We have observed incidental "take" of humpback whales in the California/ Oregon swordfish and thresher shark drift gillnet fishery. Potential entanglement from gear from several fisheries can occur on their long migration from Hawaii to Alaska. Humpbacks in Hawaii have been observed entangled in longline gear, crab pots, and other non-fishery-related lines.

Inadvertent ship strikes can injure or kill humpbacks. We have verified mortality related to ship strikes in the Gulf of Maine and in southeastern Alaska. Ship strikes have also been reported in Hawaii.

Whale watching vessels may stress or even strike whales. The Gulf of Maine stock is the focus of whale watching in New England from late spring to early fall, particularly within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The central North Pacific stock is the focus of a whale-watching industry on their wintering grounds in the Hawaiian Islands. The feeding aggregation in southeast Alaska is also the focus of a developing whale-watching industry that may impact whales in localized areas.

Shipping channels, fisheries, and aquaculture may occupy or destroy humpback whale aggregation areas. Recreational use of marine areas, including resort development and increased boat traffic, may displace whales that would normally use that area. In Hawaii, acoustic impacts from vessel operation, oceanographic research using active sonar, and military operations are also of increasing concern.

Japan has issued scientific permits in the Antarctic and in the western North Pacific in recent years. In 2009, the full JARPA II program commenced. Annual sample sizes for the full-scale research (lethal sampling) are set at 50 humpback whales. According the the IWC, Japan has refrained from taking humpback whales.

Conservation Efforts

Efforts to conserve humpback whales include:

Regulatory Overview

In 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling regulated commercial whaling of humpback whales.

In 1966, the International Whaling Commission prohibited commercial whaling of humpbacks.

In June 1970, humpback whales were designated as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Conservation Act (ESCA). In 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) replaced the ESCA, and continued to list humpbacks as endangered.

In April 2015, we proposed to revise the ESA listing of the humpback whale by identifying 14 DPSs and listing 2 DPSs as threatened and 2 as endangered (80 FR 22304). The other 10 identified DPSs are not being proposed for listing. We are soliciting comments on this proposal through 07/20/215. More information on this proposal can be found here.

Under the MMPA, threats to humpbacks are mitigated by regulations implementing the Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Plan and the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan.

Taxonomy

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenopteridae
Genus: Megaptera
Species: novaeangliae

Key Documents

(All documents are in PDF format.)
Title Federal Register Date

Permit for incidental take of Western North Pacific and Central North Pacific stocks of humpback whales in Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) flatfish trawl, BSAI pollock trawl, BSAI Pacific cod longline fisheries 

81 FR 40870 06/23/2016
Notice of Availability of Draft Monitoring Plan for Humpback Whale DPSs 81 FR 14820 03/18/2016
Post-Delisting Monitoring Plan for Humpback Whale DPSs (DRAFT) n/a 03/18/2016

Amended MMPA 101(a)(5)(E) permit for incidental take in CA thresher shark/ swordfish drift gillnet fishery (>14 inch mesh) and WA/ OR/ CA sablefish pot fishery

80 FR 22709 04/22/2015
12-month Findings and Proposed Rule to divide the globally-listed humpback whale into 14 DPSs and list 2 DPSs as endangered and 2 DPSs as threatened 80 FR 22304 04/21/2015
Status Review of the Humpback Whale n/a 03/2015
90-Day Finding on a Petition To Identify the Central North Pacific Population of Humpback Whale as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) and Delist the DPS 79 FR 36281 06/26/2014

Permit for incidental take of individuals from the CA/OR/WA stocks of fin, humpback, and sperm whales in CA thresher shark/ swordfish drift gillnet fishery (>14 inch mesh) and WA/OR/CA sablefish pot fishery

78 FR 54553 09/04/2013

90-Day Finding on a Petition To Delist the North Pacific Population of the Humpback Whale; Notice of Status Review

78 FR 53391 08/29/2013

Permit for Incidental Take of Central North Pacific Humpback Whales in Hawaii-based Longline Fisheries

75 FR 29984 05/28/2010

Proposed Permit for Incidental Take of the Central North Pacific Humpback Whales in Hawaii-based Longline Fisheries

75 FR 8305 02/24/2010
ESA status review initiated for humpback whales 74 FR 40568 08/12/2009
Recovery Plan   11/1991
  • Draft Recovery Plan
55 FR 29646 07/20/1990
ESA Listing Rule 35 FR 18319 12/02/1970
Regulations Governing the Approach to Humpback Whales in Alaska and Hawaii 50 CFR 224.103 n/a
Stock Assessment Reports n/a various

More Information

Updated: June 17, 2016