The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is proposing to designate more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the Inlet’s beluga whales.
NMFS has identified the entire upper half of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the estimated population of 321 whales, which were listed on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008. Federal regulators identified as critical habitat the entire upper Cook Inlet, the mid-Inlet, all of the Inlet’s western shores, and Kachemak Bay.
The federal government’s proposal has drawn widespread bi-partisan criticism from across Alaska’s political spectrum and business sector.
Governor Sean Parnell said it would do little to help grow the beluga population and would harm industry and commerce in the most populace region of the state. “The beluga whale population has been coexisting with industry for years,” Parnell said. “The main threat facing belugas was over-harvest, which is now regulated under a cooperative harvest management plan.”
Senator Mark Begich noted the proposed designations could cost Southcentral Alaska residents hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade facilities without a clear benefit for the environment. Begich said he is especially concerned about the potential impact on military deployments through the Port of Anchorage. Both he and Senator Lisa Murkowski said the port should be exempt from the proposed rule.
“I remain concerned since our experience with critical habitat in other areas of the state is that a designation can sometimes lead to costly delays in permitting, construction and protracted litigation,” said Murkowski.
Congressman Don Young called the proposed rule “yet another attempt to halt resource production and development in Alaska, and a step towards making the whole state a national park for the enjoyment of Outsiders.”
The proposed rule and prior listing of the belugas will place additional burden on economic and community development activities. Ongoing and proposed activities could potentially be affected through increased delays and cost, decreased investment interest in the region, as well as making them much more susceptible to litigation.
Likely activities and projects impacted by the rule include energy exploration and development, the Port of Anchorage expansion, municipal discharges, the Knik Arm Bridge, Port MacKenzie, commercial and sport fishing, military operations, the Chuitna Coal Project, the Pebble Project, tourism, vessel traffic, and community development.
The Port of Anchorage, which is the entry point for 90 percent of the goods sent to Alaska, already has to comply with 25 requirements to protect beluga whales as it advances with its efforts to expand the port. Port officials are concerned about additional requirements they may face from the latest rule.
NMFS estimated that the costs of additional regulatory oversight would be relatively minor – $600,000 over the next decade. The agency, however, did not speculate about the cost projects and ongoing operations would incur to comply with beluga protections, nor did it consider legal costs projects and communities are highly likely to incur from environmental groups suing to challenge agency permits for activities inside or near critical habitat.
“Six-hundred thousand dollars isn’t even the tip of the ice berg,” noted RDC Executive Director Jason Brune. “One single project alone could easily incur millions of dollars in protracted litigation and local communities could be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with new regulations and standards.”
Brune warned that industries tend to avoid investing in projects that are within ESA critical habitat areas, fearing substantial delays, higher costs, regulatory uncertainty and litigation. “The actual loss of future investment dollars flowing into our region and the loss of potential new jobs from those investments are difficult to measure, but they are real,” Brune added. “This proposal will mean less economic opportunity and a weaker economy – all with no corresponding benefit to the whales, which are already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other measures.”
The ESA requires federal agencies to consider the economic impact of critical habitat designations. Areas may be excluded from critical habitat if the benefits of such exclusion outweigh the benefits of the designation. However, an area cannot be exempt if the failure to designate critical habitat will result in the extinction of a species.
In previous comments, RDC encouraged NMFS to exclude the entire Cook Inlet from critical habitat, given extensive mitigation and regulatory measures already in place to protect beluga whales make extinction of the species unlikely.
Federal scientists predicted it would take five to seven years after the unsustainable subsistence harvest was stopped before growth would be seen in the population. As predicted, growth has been seen, with the population rising from 278 belugas in 2005 to 321 in 2009 – nearly 4% growth per year as predicted.
Cook Inlet belugas are one of five populations within Alaskan waters. The other belugas, which are not listed as threatened or endangered, spend summers in Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea.
RDC has been engaged in the beluga whale issue since the 1990s, convening stakeholder meetings of many potentially-affected users. Over the years, RDC has worked closely with its members and NMFS on a number of initiatives to assist in the recovery of the stock.
Moreover, RDC members have invested millions of dollars on beluga research. “We have all been long-time advocates of additional research, with RDC members funding the majority of the work that has been done on belugas in the last decade,” said Brune. “Their research and data should be incorporated into any final plan.”
The comment period on the proposed critical habitat areas ends January 31, 2010. Send comments to: Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources, Alaska Region, NOAA Fisheries, ATTN: Ellen Sebastian. Comments must be identified by “RIN 0648-AX50” and sent by one of the following methods:
Mail: Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802
The designations could become final in the spring.
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