NOAA extends period for Cook Inlet beluga comments

WHALES: Public has until March 3 to give their say on critical habitat.

January 9, 2010 

A comment period on a federal proposal to designate more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the area's beluga whale population has been extended to March 3.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the Cook Inlet belugas as endangered in October 2008. Last month, the agency proposed listing all of upper Cook Inlet, the coastal areas of western Cook Inlet and most of Kachemak Bay as habitat critical to the whales' survival.

Advocates for the listing say the extra level of protection is important and warranted. Opponents say it could cause big, expensive problems for future development and growth in the area.

Federal scientists say studies show that Cook Inlet's belugas are genetically distinct from and don't intermingle with other beluga populations. About 1,300 belugas lived in the Inlet in 1979, but their numbers plummeted to about 350 in the late 1990s.

Subsistence hunting of the whales ended almost completely in 1999, and scientists had hoped their numbers would rebound. That hasn't happened, and federal biologists say other factors not yet understood must be retarding their recovery.

A study published in late 2006 projected a 25 percent probability that the Cook Inlet belugas will become extinct in 100 years and better than a two-in-three chance of extinction in 300 years. If the Cook Inlet species does vanish, it is unlikely that belugas from other stocks will move in, the study said.

The public comment period originally was scheduled to end Feb. 1, but Alaska's congressional delegation asked for at least a 30-day extension. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and the municipal Assembly asked for a 60-day extension. In announcing the new deadline Thursday, agency officials said another 30 days will allow more time for comment and still give the National Marine Fisheries Service enough time to finish its work on the habitat designation.

In a statement welcoming the extension, Sen. Mark Begich said he remains concerned that the designation could threaten job and economic growth in Southcentral Alaska.

The critical habitat proposal can be found at http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/. Comments can be submitted via computer at http://www.regulations.gov or by mail to NOAA at P.O. Box 21668, Juneau 99802-1668. For additional studies and information about Cook Inlet belugas, go to http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/protectedresources/whales/beluga/management.htm#habitat.

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