Feds designate critical whale habitat areas in Alaska and the West Coast

Humpback whale entangled in commercial lobster gear, sighted off San Diego in 2015 (photographed under NOAA permit #: 18786) (Photo courtesy NOAA Fisheries)
Humpback whale entangled in commercial lobster gear, sighted off San Diego in 2015. The main threats identified for the whales were ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. (Courtesy of NOAA, photographed under NOAA permit #: 18786)

The National Marine Fisheries Service published a final rule on April 21 designating critical habitat for three populations of humpback whales, including some areas in Alaska. The federal ruling affects the eastern Aleutians, Kodiak and Prince Williams Sound as well as the coastlines of Washington, Oregon and California.

The ruling excludes Bristol Bay and Southeast Alaska.

The rule establishes about 116,000 square nautical miles of protected area for the endangered Western North Pacific and Central American populations of humpback whales and the threatened Mexico population.

Critical habitat for three populations of humpback whales in Alaska and the West Coast/NOAA

These whales winter in warm, southern waters but travel north for seasonal feeding on krill, herring and other small species. In Alaska, critical habitat has been identified near the eastern Aleutian Islands, Kodiak, and Prince William Sound areas.

The Endangered Species Act mandates that the federal government create critical habitat for endangered species. Lisa Manning with NMFS says the 238-page ruling came after careful consideration of public comments.

“The goal is to identify everything the species really needs to get to recovery,” she said.

Some areas in Alaska were excluded in the designation, like Bristol Bay and Southeast Alaska, because the federal agency determined the economic impacts and national security concerns in those areas outweigh the potential protection of the whales.

Manning says NMFS decided to exclude Southeast because it’s considered one of the least important areas for conservation of these whale groups.

“Out of all the other areas considered, it is the one they’re using the least,” Manning said. “Most of the whales there are from the unlisted Hawaii population.”

This image indicates critical habitat near the Aleutians and Kodiak/NOAA

Dozens of Southeast fishermen from different gear groups spoke out against the designation in a public hearing in Petersburg last January.

Amy Daugherty was one of them. She’s the executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.

“We were a little bit concerned about having some lines drawn over our grounds that could potentially impact us,” Daugherty said. “So we’re glad that the agency is bypassing Southeast Alaska.”

Other fishing groups said they are still reviewing the recent ruling, as is Alaska Fish and Game commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang.

The main threats identified for the whales were ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements, specifically pots and traps that have vertical lines such as for black cod fishing or crabbing. The habitat designation can only affect federal commercial fisheries, not state-managed ones. The ruling could also impact federal activities like Coast Guard operations, oil spill response, seismic surveys and permitting for Army Corps in-water construction.

The Center for Biological Diversity believes this will be enough to help protect the whales. Catherine Kilduff is an attorney with the center.

“We’re excited, this was a huge win for humpback whales,” she said.

The center was one of three environmental groups that had sued the federal government to force the designation required by law. Kilduff says that now the whales’ prey species can be protected, and hopefully the whales can be delisted in the future like the Hawaii population was.

“Animals with critical habitat designated are twice as likely to be recovering as those without them,” Kilduff said. “So, we know that having these areas drawn on a map increases awareness about where the animals are and what kind of protections they need.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service began considering the critical habitat ruling in the spring of 2018 but things became delayed with a government shutdown and then the pandemic.

The rule goes into effect May 21, 30 days after its publication.

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