Federal managers extend comment period for humpback whale critical habitat decision

A humpback whale. (Photo by NOAA)

A comment period over designating critical habitat for some of the humpback whales that swim off Alaska’s coastline is being extended by the federal government. 

Coastal waters from southern California to the Aleutian Islands could be listed as habitat critical to sustaining three distinct populations of humpback whales. The move by the National Marine Fisheries Service could require future consultation for activities that are permitted, funded or carried out by a federal agency.

“Critical habitat really affects federal actions,” NMFS endangered species act national listing coordinator Lisa Manning explained.  “It’s not something that affects everything that takes place within those areas that everyone’s seeing on the map. The regulatory effect of critical habitat is it requires federal action agencies to make sure their actions don’t adversely affect or destroy the critical habitat.”

Those activities could include vessel traffic, aquaculture, clean water permitting, in-water construction, alternative energy development and work permitted by the U.S. Forest Service on the Tongass National Forest. Manning says there are also indirect impacts possible that the agency has analyzed in documents available on the agency’s website. For instance, the agency’s analysis states the designation may impact how the state of Alaska manages commercial fisheries for herring, a food for the whales.

The Petersburg borough assembly has asked for a hearing in this Southeast Alaska community. At a recent meeting, assembly member Jeff Meucci said word needs to spread across Southeast Alaska.

“I think this would be a good opportunity to get the community to understand what’s going on with this proposed rule and the effects it could have on different fisheries around Petersburg,” Meucci said. “And I think it would be a good opportunity to hear from Ketchikan, and invite Wrangell and Sitka to this public hearing that we’re scheduling.”

Elected officials in Petersburg and Ketchikan had requested additional hearings: they’re expected to be held in early January. Sitka city officials are also concerned about herring fisheries and other impacts on its marine economy.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang has also asked for an extended comment period. He testified at a recent hearing that the federal agency has not analyzed “considerable consequences for Alaska” and thought designating such a large area would have little benefit for these humpbacks.

Some of the humpback whales that swim in the waters off Southeast Alaska are thriving, while others remain listed as threatened or endangered. The agency in 2016 revised the endangered species listing for humpbacks, removing some populations from that protection while listing some other portions of the populations in the Pacific. Federal fisheries managers are required to designate critical habitat for species that are listed as threatened or endangered. In this case the agency has designated area for humpbacks that spend part of their year in the western north Pacific and off the coast of Mexico and Central America.

The Petersburg hearing is scheduled for Monday Jan. 6 from 4-7 p.m. in borough assembly chambers. Another hearing is also planned Dec. 3 in Anchorage.

The proposed rule and supporting documents can be found here.