State Responds to Proposed Critical Habitat for ESA-Listed Humpback Whales

Juneau — Today, the federal government announced their final rule designating critical habitat for populations of humpback whales in Alaska waters that remain listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Today’s notice reveals that the total area designated by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is nearly 300,000 square miles when combined across the three humpback whale populations, with over 150,000 square miles of waters from California up the Pacific coast and out to the Aleutians included in the designation.

Critical habitat designated areas in Alaskan waters are concentrated around the eastern Aleutians and Bering Sea, Kodiak, and Prince William Sound.

The State is pleased that NMFS listened to the State and many Alaskans who weighed in with concerns about the designation by deciding to exclude several areas from its proposal, such as Southeast Alaska. These areas were less biologically valuable for the listed populations and for which a critical habitat designation would have had significant negative impacts to extremely valuable industries such as fisheries and tourism.

The reduction to overall area of critical habitat designated is appreciated. However, the State remains convinced, based on an extensive analysis done by the department, that overly large critical habitat designations provide negligible conservation benefits to humpback whales compared to smaller designations in more biologically important areas. “We were disappointed that NMFS did not adopt our recommendations on this point, nor does it appear they will consider them for future critical habitat designations,” said ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang.

“We are increasingly concerned about the trend for NMFS to propose enormous areas as critical habitat in Alaska,” Vincent-Lang added. “Five of the six largest critical habitat designations proposed in the U.S. are in the waters off Alaska. There is more than a million square miles of designated and proposed critical habitat in waters off Alaska-more than 50% more than for the waters off all the lower 48 states. We think this focus on Alaska is based on a misguided interpretation of the ESA, and it is causing unnecessary restrictions on Alaskans and marine activities. It is the epitome of Federal overreach, and it doesn’t benefit the species. When they designate everything as critical, then nothing is critical.”

Vincent-Lang went on to say that “Alaska is also deeply concerned with the unequal application of designation of critical habitat in Alaska compared to other areas of the United States. NMFS’s actions regarding critical habitat in Alaska are in stark contrast to their actions in the North Atlantic.” In 2016, NMFS expanded the designated critical habitat for the endangered North Atlantic right whale to encompass a total of 39,415 square miles. This designated critical habitat is an order of magnitude smaller than the proposed designation for humpback whales off Alaska. “Such unequal treatment of similar species points in biases of treatment”, Vincent-Lang said.

The department will be reviewing the final rule and evaluate its options pending our analysis.