(Reuters) - The United States lifted protection for most humpback whales around the globe on Tuesday, including some in American waters, based on evidence they have made a strong comeback since commercial whaling drove them to near extinction.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration removed humpback whales from the Endangered Species Act in nine of 14 population areas, the agency said in a statement.
"Today’s news is a true ecological success story," said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries.
The stripping of safeguards under the act means U.S. ships and commercial fishermen in international waters will no longer be bound to check levels of underwater noise that could constitute harassment of the whales, while vessel strikes that kill or injure the humpbacks might not be closely tracked.
It doesn't mean they can be hunted again.
The whales, once prized by hunters for their blubber, can weigh up to 40 tons and span 60 feet (18 meters) in length. Humpbacks are best known for periodically jumping out of the water, or breaching, behavior that has attracted throngs of people who take to the seas to engage in whale-watching.
Two of the four humpback whale populations that remain endangered are found in U.S. waters at certain times of the year including the Central America population that feeds off the West Coast and the Western North Pacific population in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, NOAA said.
The Mexico population feeds off the West Coast of the United States and Alaska remains listed as threatened.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Nick Macfie)