Whale of an issue: Biologist explains Cook Inlet critical habitat

Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service tried to ease concerns area industry leaders might have over the federal agency's proposed critical habitat designation for endangered beluga whales in Cook Inlet.

Brad Smith, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service, spoke to the the proposed designation and what it could mean for future development projects at the Industrial Outlook Forum in Kenai last week.

"Critical habitat isn't just a very stingy description of where the remaining whales exist but rather has to be capable to accommodate a recovered population," Smith told the crowded room at the Challenger Learning Center.

The proposed critical habitat area encompasses more than 3,000 square miles including the upper Cook Inlet, from just south of Kalgin Island, north to and encompassing Knik and Turnagain arms, as well as Kachemak Bay and a three-mile wide strip along the western shore of Cook Inlet.

The fisheries service has yet to make a final rule on the critical habitat designation, but Smith said he expects it to come out very soon, possibly as early as the end of this month.

Under the federal Endangered Species Act, once animals are listed as endangered a critical habitat needs to be designated within one year and take into account economic impacts. The act also requires federal agencies, or those using federal money for a project, to consult with the fisheries service to see if the project could jeopardize the species or adversely modify its critical habitat.

"That consultation can be informal or formal," Smith said. "When it's formal it requires us to consider whether the action is likely to result in the extinction of the species."

He said if the project is determined not to affect the belugas the process is complete and the act has been complied with. But more likely, and commonly, if the fisheries service finds the project might affect the whales then it will evaluate it further.

"We had a hard time envisioning any project where we wouldn't consult because of the presence of the whale but only because of its critical habitat," he said.

Because of the consultations and associated fees, the fisheries service determined the critical habitat designation requirements could set businesses back anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000.

The Endangered Species Act allows for certain areas to be excluded from critical habitat designation for economic or military reasons. None were excluded for economics, Smith said, but the fisheries service excluded lower reaches of the Eagle River because of Fort Richardson army base's firing range and its conservation plan that provides for benefit to the species.

"Critical habitat isn't unique to Kenai or to Anchorage," Smith said. "Communities such as Kodiak or Seward have lived with it for years."

The proposed designation in Cook Inlet has been out for more than a year now and the fisheries service has already done development consultations so when the designation becomes final it does not delay projects for another year, he said.

So far, Smith said, the fisheries service has consulted on three projects -- the Port of Anchorage expansion, with the Environmental Protection Agency's plan for mixing valves in Cook Inlet; and for the Knik Arm crossing project.

None of these projects were found to jeopardize belugas or harm their habitat.

He said the Knik Arm crossing project was a "close call" on whether or not it would impact the whales, but after an analysis the fisheries service found that the project was not at the level of jeopardizing the species.

"I don't want to send you away with the assurance that everything that's ever going to be built in Cook Inlet is going to be hunky dory with us and compatible with our goals of recovering these whales. It's not," Smith said. "I think there's going to be few, if any, instances work simply stops because of belugas."

Despite Smith's presentation, Homer Mayor James Hornaday was concerned about the impact of the critical habitat designation on the city's hopes to expand its dock.

He said that Anchorage reported the proposed critical habitat designation increased costs $5 million for its port expansion project.

Smith said the costs associated with the Port of Anchorage project also came from the Marine Mammal Protection Act because belugas fall under both that and the Endangered Species Act.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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