The California gray whale, whose population has more than doubled to about 21,000 since the 1930s, was removed from the United States endangered species list last week. Biologists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate that there are now at least as many gray whales as in prewhaling days before 1848. The population was estimated to have dipped below 2,000 just before the turn of the century, due primarily to excessive whaling.

One conservation group said the move could send the wrong signal to countries such as Japan that are interested in a return to commercial whaling. ``This is a step that could make it easier for an open season on gray whales outside the US and Mexico,'' said David Phillips of the Earth Island Institute.

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