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Beluga Whale Gains Protected Habitat in Alaska’s Cook Inlet

Three thousand square miles of Alaska’s Cook Inlet have been designated as critical habitat for the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale, NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service announced today.

“Scientists estimate there are less than 350 Cook Inlet beluga whales left in the wild. This distinct population segment was listed as endangered in October 2008,” the Fisheries Alaska Regional Office said in its announcement.

 

Map courtesy of NOAA

 

According to the statement:

The critical habitat comprises 3,016 square miles (7,809 square kilometers) of marine and estuarine environments considered by scientists to be essential for the whales’ survival. “These areas contain important biological and physical features for these cetaceans, such as feeding areas near the mouths of salmon streams. Not all of the current range of these whales was found to be critical.”

The critical habitat designation, required under the Endangered Species Act, only 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.

One designated area includes the upper portions of Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm and Knik Arm where belugas concentrate in summer months. The other area includes areas where the population congregates in the winter, which includes the middle of Cook-inlet, foraging areas along the western shore of lower Cook Inlet, and Kachemak Bay along east of Cook Inlet near the town of Homer.

Anchorage Port Area Excluded

The Port of Anchorage has been excluded from the critical habitat because of its importance to national security, and the Eagle River Flats Range on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson because this area provides benefit to beluga whales under an existing Department of Defense Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan, NOAA added.

“This is another prime example of the federal government locking up our land.”

Alaska State House of Representatives Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, released the following statement regarding the NOAA’s Fisheries Service decision to designate 3,016 miles of Cook Inlet as critical Beluga habitat.

“This is another prime example of the federal government locking up our land and ignoring the calls for caution from the State of Alaska and the Legislature.

“We have continually struck back against the federal government’s lack of consideration of the state’s own data that shows the Beluga population is recovering.

“They are closing off the middle and lower Cook Inlet for federal permits next month. That means no construction, drilling or dredging. What good is exempting the Port of Anchorage if the federal government chokes Alaska’s economy to the point that cargo vessels won’t come calling? What about development of Port McKenzie? Sadly, we’ve feared this decision since they originally listed the Beluga in 2008.

“This rule sends a terribly mixed message. The President of the United States says he wants to lessen reliance on foreign oil — he’s re-opened the permitting process for offshore oil and gas – but with this habitat designation, the feds are blocking just that sort of development. The State of Alaska approved helping to pay for a jack-up rig to hit the Inlet this summer. This federal overreach could jeopardize that work. It is especially troubling for the Kenai, following on the heels of the LNG plant’s closure earlier this year. We were hoping to see the benefit of the state participation in drilling this summer. Now? It’s out the window.

“I am, and will continue to be, indignant on this issue.

“The federal government ignored state data and biologists, and Alaskans and our kids will have to pay for it. That means fewer jobs, less economic multipliers of that payroll, and less energy security and stability for the entire Railbelt region.”

“Analysis found that benefits of the designation to beluga whales exceeded the costs.”

The Fisheries Service said in its statement it based its designation on the results of more than 20 years of research, and on an economic analysis on the critical habitat designation. “That analysis found that benefits of the designation to beluga whales exceeded the costs,” NOAA said.

The Fisheries Service developed the final rule after an extensive public input process which included an initial 60-day comment period on the proposed rule, which was extended an additional 30 days, NOAA said. “Four public hearings were also held. As a result of the public hearings and open comment periods, more than 135,000 individual submissions were received. The agency considered all public comments in developing the final rule, and provided responses to all significant issues raised by respondents.”

This rule will become effective 30 days after date of publication in the Federal Register. The final rule, maps, status reviews, and other materials supporting this final rule can be found here.