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Ketchikan bypassed for incoming humpback regulations: Hearing set for Monday in Petersburg

Daily News Staff Writer

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is proposing critical habitat areas for humpback whales in Southeast Alaska that, if approved, will affect federal operations in those areas, as well as any activity that's federally funded or permitted.

The proposed critical habitat areas have been defined by the federal government as feeding areas for three distinct species of humpback whale, and are being introduced under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

This proposal affects areas from Mexico to the Aleutian Islands, including waterways around Ketchikan.

According to NOAA's proposed rule document, activities that could be affected by the proposal include: commercial fishing, vessel traffic, aquaculture, in-water construction including dredging and offshore mining, alternative energy development, U.S. Forest Service activities and oil and gas activities.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of NOAA, will host the last of six public hearings regarding the proposal Monday in Petersburg.

Ketchikan Assistant City Manager Lacey Simpson said in an interview Friday that the primary concern is how the proposal would affect the already strained fishing industry in Southeast Alaska. She said the fishing community is concerned over potential regulation and limits on where they can or cannot fish.

The second concern, according to Simpson, is the effect on commerce and vessel traffic. She said if shipping routes are modified, or speed regulations are put in place for barges in certain areas, it could take additional time to ship items to Southeast, potentially increasing the costs of goods.

Similarly, if alternative routes or regulations are implemented for cruise ship traffic federally, it could change the length of time that ships stay in Ketchikan. Simpson said Ketchikan is often the first or last stop for cruises visiting Alaska. Ships already spend less time in Ketchikan compared to other ports, so Simpson is concerned that Ketchikan would be susceptible to potential changes.

She said the hearing in Petersburg will hopefully answer some questions dealing with fishing and vessel traffic.

NMFS denied requests for a public hearing from both the Ketchikan Gateway Borough and the City of Ketchikan. The hearings were requested after the Petersburg hearing was announced.  However there have hearings in California, Oregon, Washington, as well as Anchorage and Juneau.

At the Juneau public hearing in November, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game took issue with the proposal.

“We’re disappointed the NMFS didn’t consult with Alaska (Department of) Fish and Game,” Doug Vincent-Lang said. “These are large documents, and we’ve identified multiple fundamental flaws with your proposal that will take significant time to resolve.”

Vincent-Lang questioned the usefulness of the critical habitat areas proposed.

“Portions of these areas are not even known humpback feeding grounds,” Vincent-Lang said. “We requested but were denied the opportunity to review the document.”

Vincent-Lang said in an email to the Daily News Friday that he has since sat down with NMFS and expressed the concern. He said the discussion was focused on how improve the process going forward.

"We did discuss our concerns and our expectation that they will be addressed as they (NOAA) develop the final rule," wrote Vincent-Lang in the email, "I remain hopeful."

NOAA's presentation, as included in an agenda packet for the Ketchikan City Council, states the critical habitat area does not establish any type of sanctuary or preserve. It also notes that it doesn't affect private activities, such as recreational boating, or the use of private lands.

According to the presentation, the critical habitat is being proposed following a revision in 2016, which identified 14 distinct humpback whale populations, including four listed as endangered and one listed as threatened.

Petersburg's hearing is set for 4 p.m. Monday, and the Ketchikan Legislative Information office will host a teleconference of the hearing in which residents can give public comment.

NOAA Fisheries will begin the hearing with a brief presentation before public comment.

According to NOAA information comments on the humpback whale proposed rule must be received by Jan. 31, 2020.

At the Ketchikan City Council Meeting Thursday Council Member Dick Coose encouraged people to participate.

"We don't know how it’s going to affect our fishing people," said Coose, "or the cruise lines."