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April 08, 2011 --- Vol. 17, No. 30April 2011

NOAA designates critical habitat in Cook Inlet for belugas

NOAA’s Fisheries Service just announced it is designating two areas of Alaska’s Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the Cook Inlet beluga whale, which was listed as an endangered species in October 2008.

Scientists, NOAA’s press release said, estimate there are less than 350 Cook Inlet beluga whales left in the wild.

The critical habitat comprises 3,016 square miles, or 7,809 square kilometers, of marine and estuarine environments considered by NOAA scientists to be essential for the whales’ survival. “These areas contain important biological and physical features for these cetaceans, such as feeding areas near the mouths of salmon streams,” NOAA said.

Not all of the current range of these whales was found to be critical.

The critical habitat designation, required under the Endangered Species Act, affects activities that involve a federal permit, license or funding and which may affect critical habitat, such as construction and operation of oil rigs, port construction, dredging, or Environmental Protection Agency-authorized discharges into Cook Inlet.

Designated areas includes the upper portions of Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm and Knik Arm where belugas concentrate in summer months, as well as where whales congregate in the winter, which includes the middle of Cook Inlet, foraging areas along the western shore of lower Cook Inlet, and Kachemak Bay along east of Cook Inlet near the town of Homer.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service has excluded the Port of Anchorage from critical habitat because of its importance to national security, and the Eagle River Flats Range on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson because it said “this area provides benefit to beluga whales under an existing Department of Defense Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan.”

The rule will become effective 30 days after date of publication in the Federal Register.

The final rule, maps, status reviews, and other materials supporting it can be found at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/

Editor’s note: Watch for the full story in the next edition of Petroleum News, which will be available online a week from today, April 15, 2011, at www.petroleumnews.com.

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