Petersburg assembly to ask for hearing on humpback whale critical habitat

A humpback whale that stranded near Kake in September, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Kate Savage)

Petersburg’s borough assembly Monday voted to seek a hearing in the Southeast Alaska community for proposed habitat protection for some of the humpback whales that frequent the region.

The National Marine Fisheries Service published a federal register notice Oct. 9 for a proposed rule to designate critical habitat for some populations of humpback whales. Those include whales listed as threatened that winter in Mexico and spend part of their year in Southeast Alaska.

Assembly member Bob Lynn thought the rule could have wide impacts starting with crabbers and gillnetters.

“I really do believe we need to have a meeting in Petersburg, let them describe what effects that has on our population,” Lynn said. “I’m very adamant we need to do that because it’s not very specific. But it also affects power lines, it affects a lot of our businesses here in town in addition, like our fishery processors and a few other folks too.”

The mayor and assembly were in agreement on this topic. Assembly member Jeff Meucci also wanted to request a hearing here.

“With all the fishermen that we have in Petersburg and Wrangell, it would be only be right to have it here,” Meucci said. “I mean if we think that the sea otters are going to impact the fisheries in Southeast Alaska, the possibility of designating critical habitat for humpback whales here is going to be tough. And it’s not just fishermen. It’s people who have the whale viewing things, marine mammal center. This has a big chance to impact this community.”

Meucci wanted to send a letter to the federal agency requesting the hearing and keeping the Congressional delegation informed. The vote was unanimous to do so.

The federal agency in 2016 decided to revise the species listing for humpbacks under the Endangered Species Act. That rule removed protections for the species throughout its range, but determined that portions of the population in the Pacific are still endangered or threatened. This rule attempts to designate parts of the Pacific that are essential to the conservation.

Such a determination could impact everything from fisheries to vessel traffic, to dredging and Forest Service activities. The proposed rule estimates that the Mexican humpback population numbers just over 2,800. The NMFS identifies the primary threat is entanglement fishing gear in Washington, Oregon and California. It also notes that ships colliding with humpbacks are also a threat to their numbers.

The comment deadline on the proposed rule is Dec. 9. The other hearings planned in Alaska are in Juneau Nov. 7 and Anchorage Dec. 3.