Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 7:31 PM on Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Beluga habitat protection draws criticism, praise

By Brielle Schaeffer Peninsula Clarion and Michael Armstrong
Homer News

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. Environmentalists praised the decision, though.

"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."

Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, an environmental organization based in Homer, said some have overreacted to the critical habitat designation.

"There's been a lot of sky-is-falling rhetoric around protecting the Cook Inlet beluga whale," Shavelson said. "Numerous examples across the United States show that endangered species protections and economic development go hand-in-hand."

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.

In Homer, City Manager Walt Wrede said his administration doesn't think the critical habitat designation will stop any projects. Projects like a proposed harbor expansion might be affected and require consultation with NOAA.

"It's just going to take a little longer and we might spend a little more money on studies and mitigation measures," Wrede said.

Kachemak Bay is designated a state critical habitat area. City planners already have to accommodate state rules, such as not doing harbor work during salmon runs. Brad Smith, supervisor for protective resources with NOAA Fisheries in Anchorage, said the beluga whale critical habitat area would complement the state critical habitat area.

"I think that will marry well with the management plan for the area that has guidelines generally protective of fish and wildlife," he said.

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.

While Kachemak Bay hasn't had high numbers of beluga whale sightings in recent years, its value as potential future habitat is why it was designated critical habitat, particularly at the head of the bay at the Fox River Flats, Smith said.

"We have to establish a critical habitat that's capable of supporting a recovering population," Smith said.

"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."

Smith said projects in endangered species protected critical habitat near Kodiak haven't been stopped.

"It hasn't unreasonably prevented development," Smith said. "At worst they have modifications in area and time restrictions. By and large most projects go forward."

"There's all this hair-on-fire, arm waving rhetoric," Shavelson said. "What it does is it requires any impact to beluga habitat to go through consultation with NMFS."

Carey also is 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."

Shavelson said the RDC estimate is overstated.

"I think that a developer that comes in, they could see a couple days added on to a review," he said. "I don't think it's going to be a huge cost."

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.

One concern for Cook Inlet communities with the beluga whale habitat designation is discharges of treated sewage waste. Homer has a secondary treatment plant and discharges under a permit from EPA and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Smith said NOAA Fisheries consulted with EPA on the mixing zone criteria for secondary sewage treatment plants and didn't see any issues. The Anchorage sewage treatment plant, which has a waiver to allow only primary treatment, is an exception.

Carey, as part of a stakeholders panel on the Cook Inlet beluga whales designation under the endangered species act, said its meeting this 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. Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.