Critical habitat designation for belugas draws criticism

Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2011

The federal decision announced Friday to designate more than 3,016 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for beluga whales has local pro-industry policymakers worried about the cost and effects of the decision.

"My initial reaction was saddened to see that that has happened," said Kenai Mayor Pat Porter. "I just think it will become more of a hardship to do business for families that depend on the type of business activities in our area."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service's critical habitat designation decision process took more than a year to complete. After a 90-day public comment period and more than 135,000 comments, the federal agency confirmed its proposed critical habitat areas within Cook Inlet. These areas, according to the agency, are essential for the whales' survival and contain important biological and physical features for the species.

The most significant change to its designation proposal is the exclusion of the Port of Anchorage for national security reasons, and the Eagle River Flats Range on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson because this area has a separate beluga protection plan through the Department of Defense.

But the designation does include 84 river mouths, which is of most concern to Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey.

"It's very concerning when so many of our rivers are being designated as critical habitat and what we don't know is how far up," he said. "When they include the mouths of rivers the concern could be they could then say the food, in this case salmon, has to be protected."

"Hypothetically if they said the salmon in the Kenai River could not be touched because the belugas need them that could affect recreational or sport fishing," he added.

The hypothetical part of that statement is the big issue for Carey.

"I have concerns but I do not know what they're going to do with it," he said.

NOAA officials in the past have said that the critical habitat designation would not affect commercial, sport or personal-use fisheries because they are run by the state, not the federal government.

Critical Habitat Area 1 for Cook Inlet Belugas includes most of the Knik Arm. Critical Habitat Area 2 is designated as the upper part of Cook Inlet, Kachemak Bay and the west coast of Cook Inlet down to about the Douglas River.

"We have platforms in Area 2," Carey said. "Part of our concern is what restrictions might they decide to put on the industrial activities in critical habitat Area 2."

He's also concerned about future development activities too, including the proposed Chuitna coal and Pebble mines.

"We could be still in the middle of the beluga whale discussion when they're ready to start doing something," Carey said about the proposed Pebble Mine's 10-year project timeline on the west side of Cook Inlet.

Carey said he also agreed with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, when she questioned NOAA's impact cost estimates on the designation. She called the federal agency's estimates "bad math."

The agency estimated costs from critical habitat at $364,000 over the next decade. However, an economic analysis for the Resource Development Council put the cost in the multi-million dollar range.

"I think that's extremely low," Carey said about the cost estimate. "I very much would like to see how they came up with that number."

According to NOAA, the designation affects activities that involve a federal permit, license or funding and which may affect critical habitat, such as construction and operation of oil rigs, port construction, dredging, or Environmental Protection Agency-authorized discharges into Cook Inlet.

Carey, as part of a stakeholders panel on the Cook Inlet beluga whales designation under the endangered species act, said its meeting next week was canceled because of the threatened government shut down.

In a statement issued Friday, Gov. Sean Parnell said he would fight the federal action.

The final rule on the critical habitat designation will become effective 30 days after publication in the federal register.

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



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