With its population approaching historic high levels, the California gray whale, the beast of prey that became a majestic icon of the deep, was removed Wednesday from the endangered species list, making it the first marine creature to be delisted.
Estimated at 21,000, gray whales may be as numerous today as they were before an American whaling ship discovered their breeding grounds off the Baja California peninsula in 1855 and began the commercial slaughter that decimated the species. Commercial whaling wiped out two other gray whale populations in the Atlantic during Colonial times, and later in the western Pacific.
Although the gray whales will remain under the jurisdiction of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which shields them from hunting in U.S. waters, several environmental groups warn that the whales will be more vulnerable to a variety of hazards--such as oil drilling, sea mining, salt extraction and tourism--than they were as an officially endangered species.
Environmentalists say such commercial activities will no longer require the stringent reviews mandated by the endangered species list.
"Delisting from the Endangered Species Act removes a protection that has been vital to recovery," said Maxine McCloskey of the Sierra Club. "It will leave them more vulnerable to pollution and other environmental hazards."
Right now, the environmental pressures appear greatest in Mexico, where ambitious plans for seaside resort development as well as salt mining could disturb the tranquillity of the bays and lagoons that have been safe harbors for newborn whales for hundreds of years.
Although Endangered Species Act jurisdiction does not extend to foreign waters, critics of delisting argue that it will make it harder for Mexican environmentalists to resist pressure for intense development along the Baja coast.
The gray whale's recovery is attributed to a variety of factors, beginning in the 1930s with a series of international whaling bans. However, exemptions continued to permit subsistence hunting of nearly 170 whales each year by native peoples in Alaska and Siberia.
In the early 1970s, the National Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act established procedures for safeguarding the whale's long migration corridor and feeding grounds. Around the same time, the Mexican government gave sanctuary status to the Baja lagoons where the whales migrate in winter. In the 1980s, concerns about oil spills along the whales' migratory route contributed to the decision to place a moratorium on oil and gas leasing off the California coast.
For the past two decades, at least, the gray whales have been multiplying at a rate of about 3% a year, more than doubling their population since the 1930s, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for taking the whale off the endangered species list.
Thirty-five to 50 feet long, the gray is by no means the largest whale, but it is unique in ways that have endeared it to humans. Unlike other whales that mate and give birth in the solitude of the deep ocean, the sociable gray whales clump together in shallow lagoons to breed and calve. They tend to be bottom feeders whose diet of crustaceans brings them close to shore, and their epic, 1,300-mile migration from Alaska to Baja California has made them the most visible of whales.
Ultimately, their proximity to their old nemesis, the human being, has helped save them, as generations of Pacific Coast residents and visitors have come to know the rambunctious gray whales, and commercial whale-watching has become a bread-and-butter industry to towns up and down the Pacific Coast.
The gray whale is the 22nd species to be delisted since the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973. The last big animal to come off the list was the American alligator in the late 1980s. The 892 plants and animals that remain listed as either endangered or threatened include 13 marine mammals, seven of which are whale species.
Still under the jurisdiction of the Marine Mammal Recovery Act, the gray whales will be monitored under a five-year plan, according to David Hollingshead, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Hollingshead said the monitoring will involve watching for any changes in the whales' migratory habits as well as measuring the level of water-borne contaminants, including pesticides and hydrocarbons, that have been known to harm smaller marine mammals.
David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island Institute, a San Francisco-based environmental group opposed to delisting the gray whale, contends that the action was prompted, in part, by mounting pressure in Congress to show that the Endangered Species Act is not "a one-way street" that never acknowledges that a species has regained its health.
Although Phillips acknowledges that the whales have made a substantial recovery, he said that without the Endangered Species Act it will be harder to regulate any number of activities, ranging from the explosions used in seismic exploration to the sea bed disruption caused by oil drilling operations.
"Before oil companies were allowed to drill, they had to do extensive environmental impact reviews," Phillips said. "The degree of protection won't be required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act."
Phillips also contends that delisting will send a signal to the International Whaling Commission that a limited resumption of whale hunting by interested nations such as Norway and Japan will not hurt the species.
"It means that there would be a greater chance for open season on gray whales outside of U.S. waters," he said.
And the critics also worry that delisting could send the wrong message to foreign governments regarding coastal economic development that could harm whale habitats.
Much of that concern is now focused on the west coast of Baja.
"Two of the three critical lagoons are under enormous pressure for development," said Bruce Mate, a professor of fishing and wildlife at Oregon State University and a member of the federal Marine Mammal Commission.
"At San Ignacio Lagoon there are plans for a saltworks 2 1/2 times larger than the world's largest facility," Mate said. It would mean the creation of a town of 5,000 to 10,000 people and the combined pressures of sewage and recreational fishing as well as barge traffic. Meanwhile, on Magdalena Bay, he said, Japanese developers have planned eight "Club Med-sized resorts with all the marinas, para-sailing, motor boats and jet skis that go with those sorts of places."
"The Mexicans have been world leaders in whale conservation," said Mate, "but they are under tremendous pressure to approve a totally inappropriate level of economic development."