January 31, 2020

Endangered Species Division
Office of Protected Resources
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Submitted via regulations.gov 

Re: Docket #NOAA-NMFS-2019-0066 – Proposed Critical Habitat Designation for the Humpback Whale

To Whom It May Concern:

The Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc. (RDC) is writing to comment on the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed Critical Habitat (CH) designation for the Humpback Whale.

RDC is a statewide business association comprised of individuals and companies from Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, forest products, tourism and fisheries industries. RDC’s membership includes Alaska Native Corporations, local communities, organized labor, and industry support firms. RDC’s purpose is to encourage a strong, diversified private sector in Alaska and expand the state’s economic base through the responsible development of our natural resources.

It is a policy of RDC to support efforts to challenge unwarranted Endangered Species Act (ESA) proposed critical habitat designations. RDC is concerned that large portions of the proposed critical habitat areas in Alaska waters will have little conservation value to humpback whales, much less to the listed Distinct Population Segments (DPS) identified in the proposed rule. Further, the proposed CH designation is of a large area and lacks economic data and economic impact analysis.  

The unintended consequences of such broad CH designation will likely impact community and resource development, including fisheries, transportation, shipping, and infrastructure. It is also a policy of RDC to advocate for improved infrastructure across our state, including marine transportation access. RDC is concerned over the long-term that mitigation measures will be required resulting in lost opportunities for communities and projects in Alaska.

Additionally, RDC is concerned the proposed rule lacks conservation benefits. For example, NMFS has proposed an area the size of California as CH for the Mexico DPS. According to NMFS, the area is secondary feeding grounds of the listed DPS, and portions of these areas are not even known humpback feeding grounds. NMFS proposed an area the size of Colorado for the Western North Pacific population.

Designating vast areas as CH provides little to no added conservation benefit to the listed species. Establishing regulatory burdens and costs without conservation benefits just serves to add complexity and costs.

Our membership, which includes municipalities and boroughs, and companies in the  business of marine transportation of both people and goods, will likely be negatively impacted by the overreaching CH designation proposed by NMFS without an added benefit to the Humpback Whale. 

Designating critical habitat under the ESA does not set aside the area, but any activities and developments requiring Federal permits or funding that are proposed within critical habitat must then undergo ESA “Section 7” consultation with the federal agencies. Consultation is likely to result in costs to project applicants and could cause project delays, as well as required changes to the initial project plans to avoid adverse modification of important biological or physical features found within the designated critical habitat, likely without added benefit to the species.  

Lastly, the ESA, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Marine Mammal Regulations of the Fisheries Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Act provide ample protections for the Humpback Whales and their habitat, including prey populations. It is important to note that the termination of commercial whaling was paramount in the recovery of the Humpback Whales. 

RDC urges NMFS to carefully reconsider the overreaching vast CH designation it has proposed for the Humpback Whale. In addition, RDC supports meaningful consultation with local and state agencies, and encourages NMFS to work with the State of Alaska and other stakeholders. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

Sincerely,

Resource Development Council for Alaska