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Proposed Beluga habitat discussed

Posted: Monday, February 08, 2010

Public comment at last week's hearing on the proposed designation of critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales was, for the most part, supportive, though the hearing itself was lightly attended.

Matt Cannava, one of a half dozen people to share comments with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, said he wanted to reassure the agency that it wasn't necessarily addressing a hostile audience.

Cannava said there are many people, who may not be as vocal as opponents of the species' endangered listing and critical habitat designation, but value science over political posturing.

Cannava said he grew up commercial fishing in the inlet, and used to see hundreds of the whales.

"Here, we have a chance to do it right, to welcome industry and grow jobs while preserving what makes Alaska so special," Cannava said.

The fisheries service has proposed designating as critical habitat much of upper Cook Inlet, from just south of Kalgin Island north to include Knik and Turnagain arms, a three-mile strip along the west shore of Cook Inlet, and Kachemak Bay. The designation also includes the mouth of the Kenai River.

Mandy Migura, a protected resources management biologist with the fisheries service, said that the whale's summer range appears to be shrinking northward, with much of the population constrained to an area north of Point Possession and the Beluga River. She said the agency's population and distribution models matched up with data collected during annual aerial surveys.

She noted that noise appears to be the greatest habitat concern for Cook Inlet belugas, which rely on sound in the turbid inlet environment. Migura also noted that Cook Inlet belugas have the lowest level of contaminants in tested beluga stocks.

The economic impact of the critical habitat designation, required under the Endangered Species Act, pegs the cost of the designation at $187,000 to $571,000, with 86 percent of that expected in the upper inlet.

Migura said the agency acknowledges that estimate to be incomplete. The additional cost to a project cannot be estimated, she said, until exact details of a project in question can be determined.

Ken Tarbox, a retired biologist with experience in commercial fisheries, said he generally agreed with the fisheries service's designation, but said in his years of wildlife viewing, he's seen belugas range much higher in the Kenai River than the Warren Ames Bridge at river mile 5.

He also said belugas range much farther up the Susitna River than the critical habitat designation denotes.

Paul Dale, who operates Snug Harbor Seafoods, said he's not necessarily for or against any action, but, as a processor of wild fish, is interested in solving the problem.

He said that fish processing has been going on since the 1890s. In the 1980s, regulations were put in place requiring processors to grind fish waste, and Dale said he wondered if the reduced outflow of fish heads and guts might have made an impact as a food source for the whales.

Carl Portman identified himself as an employee of the Alaska Resource Development Council, but said he was making his comments on his own behalf. He said he was opposed to the "overly broad" habitat designation. He said the designation would have a significant economic impact with delays in permitting and the risk of litigation, without benefiting whales. He said litigation is one of his biggest concerns.

Sen. Mark Begich also submitted a statement during the testimony period opposing the habitat designation, suggesting that NOAA "lacks both a full understanding of where critical habitat is located and what the benefits and costs are to designating this habitat."

Roland Maw, executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said it had become apparent to the commercial fishing industry that the inlet beluga population was in decline a number of years ago. He said NMFS asked to have observers on drift vessels and at setnet sites, and never saw an encounter or entanglement with a beluga in some 9,000 hours of observation.

"We've been trying to be proactive, even though our state government hasn't," Maw said. "This is a difficult problem to work through, but we'll work through it and we'll be OK."

Critical habitat comment period extended

The comment period for Cook Inlet beluga whale critical habitat designation has been extended to March 3.

Send comments to Kaja Brix, Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources, Alaska Region, NMFS, ATTN: Ellen Sebastian.

Comments, identified by "RIN 0648-AX50," may be submitted by any one of the following methods:

* Electronic submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal Web site at http://www.regulations.gov.

* Mail: P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK, 99802-1668.

* Fax: 907-586-7557.

* Hand deliver to the Federal Building: 709 West 9th Street, Room 420A, Juneau.

For more information on proposed designation of critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales visit http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/.



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