Sitka objects to ‘critical habitat’ designation for humpback whales

A humpback whale shows its tail as it dives for food in Sitka Sound. (Ed Schoenfeld)

The City of Sitka has gone on record opposing a proposed federal rule that would create special protections for humpback whales in Southeast waters, even though most of the whales that feed in the region are not listed as endangered or threatened.

The public comment period on the rule has been extended to the end of January.

Four years ago humpback whales were taken off the Endangered Species List, but that doesn’t mean that all whale populations are healthy. Instead, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration split humpbacks into 14 distinct population groups, nine of which need no further protection, four of which remain endangered, and one of which — a population which breeds off the coast of Mexico — remains listed as threatened.

Some of that Mexico breeding population of humpbacks feeds in Southeast Alaska in summertime, which is why NOAA now proposes designating much of the area as “critical habitat.” (Farther to the north and west, Alaska’s coastal waters are proposed to be designated critical habitat for humpback whales that breed in the Western North Pacific, one of the endangered populations.)

Local officials in Sitka are concerned that a critical habitat designation will be another hurdle in the permitting process for work on the city’s waterfront, and become an impediment to the management of the region’s commercial fisheries. Interim municipal administrator Hugh Bevan outlined the issue for the Sitka Assembly in November.

“It’s somewhat of a misconception that things like this only apply to federal actions,” Bevan said. “They also apply to any permits that we are required to obtain from the federal government. And I’m especially concerned about impacts to our abilities to maintain our harbor infrastructure and things like that.”

Bevan provided the assembly with a letter he had submitted on Nov.7 to NOAA objecting to the proposed rule because of the regulation of vessel traffic, high administrative costs, and the regulatory burden Sitka already bears under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Bevan concludes by stating “There is no clear presentation in the proposed rule that the subspecies of humpback whales that visit our waters are indeed in danger of extinction.”

Sitka-based whale biologist Jan Straley is one of the dozens of researchers whose work is cited by NOAA in the proposed rule. In this case, the city administrator is correct: Most of the humpback whales that feed in Southeast in summertime, don’t go to Mexico to breed.

“About 95 percent of them go to Hawaii,” Straley said.

The Hawaii breeding population is not one of the subpopulations of concern in the proposed critical habitat rule. Straley says the proposed rule is working off of the best available data for humpback whales, most of it more than 10 years old. There’s not a lot of funding for these studies, she says, and the latest work suggests that the whale populations are moving around more, as food becomes more scarce on their traditional feeding grounds.

“Multiple feeding aggregations go to these breeding areas in the winter,” Straley said. “So Hawaii has whales from Southeast and Prince William Sound and farther west. And Mexico mostly has whales from Prince William Sound and farther west. Southeast whales do not go to Mexico in very high numbers.”

Straley plans to forward this information to NOAA during the comment period. She hopes the agency will focus more attention on long-term monitoring of humpbacks, whose populations dipped during the recent period of ocean warming.

The concerns that Sitka outlined in Bevan’s November letter are shared by other communities. The Petersburg Borough Assembly asked NOAA to hold a public hearing on the proposed critical habitat rule, and the agency agreed: The meeting is scheduled for the evening of January 6 — the last of public hearings held before the close of public comment at the end of January.

NOAA’s Lisa Manning is the Endangered Species Act national listing coordinator. She told CoastAlaska public radio station KFSK that coastal communities did not have to be alarmed by the proposed rule.

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

NOAA also states that the costs associated with the rule are “expected to be small, and largely associated with the administrative costs borne by Federal agencies.” The tab in Southeast Alaska to designate critical habitat for the subpopulation of the Mexico-breeding whales is estimated to be between $64,000 and $75,000 a year.