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NOAA sets beluga critical habitat, but says it won’t change Alaska’s urbanized Cook Inlet

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NOAA has released its proposed critical habitat for the endangered Cooks Inlet beluga population: it includes the entire upper part of the inlet (which includes Anchorage and Wasilla), and a coastal stretch of the lower part of the inlet as well.  This isolated population of belugas experienced a population crash in the 1980’s which is widely blamed on over-harvesting by native subsistence hunters, but has not recovered since the hunting was limited.  Pollution, limited salmon runs, and noise are all considered likely factors in the population’s struggle to survive.  Over the past few years, it has become apparent from field research studies and monitoring around seismic surveys that belugas are among the more sensitive cetacean species to sound; they tend to avoid noise sources at greater distances than most other whales, often tens of kilometers.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, NOAA officials said the proposed rule and the prior listing of belugas could trigger some changes to major development projects over the next decade — seismic drilling for offshore oil and gas, and a dock for the Chuitna coal strip-mine proposed on the west side of Cook Inlet, for example, the agency said.  NOAA said it doesn’t anticipate the stepped-up scrutiny will result in rejection of energy projects in the Inlet. The rule would require other federal agencies to consult with the federal fisheries service before approving projects in the proposed critical habitat areas. Ongoing construction at the Port of Anchorage, planned to continue for several more years, includes monitoring for belugas that may be close enough to be seriously disturbed, though the Port Director said they will be submitting comments on the proposed designation.

UPDATE: Public comments on the critical habitat designation have been extended to March 2010. A NOAA biologist assured locals attending a public meeting that the new designation would not add “onerous” oversight.

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