Alaska’s new marine highway runs afoul of environmental group

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The new marine highway — pictured in blue — includes waterways in the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay, Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta and the Arctic Ocean. (From MARAD)

The Center for Biological Diversity intends to sue the federal government over a new marine highway in Alaska. The environmental group sent a notice letter on Sept. 21 to the U.S. Maritime Administration, which designated the new highway. The letter contends that the federal agency is violating the Endangered Species Act for failing to consider possible harm to endangered wildlife along Alaska’s coast.

Jared Margolis, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said increased shipping traffic along the highway could pose a threat to several protected species including humpback and North Pacific right whales.

He said the federal agency, known as MARAD, should have consulted with federal environmental agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Services prior to designating the new highway. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NMFS’s parent agency, announced Tuesday that it would revise Alaska’s critical habitat for right whales in response to a request from the Center.

“The (MARAD) regulators designated this new marine highway route — which goes right through critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale, a highly endangered species that’s susceptible to ship strikes — without giving any consideration to what that means for the species, in terms of targeting this area for increased vessel traffic,” Margolis said.

MARAD did not respond to requests for comment.

The maritime agency designated the new highway – called M-11 – in mid-August. It will add more than 6,500 miles to Alaska’s marine highway system. It includes waterways in the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay, Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta and the Arctic Ocean, and covers coastal and river ports from the Aleutians to the Y-K Delta, and around the North Slope to the Canadian border. The infrastructure for the highway is not yet in place but the designation opens federal funding channels.

According to the Center, protected species such as fin whales, humpback whales, polar bears and bearded seals live and migrate along the route.

Margolis said it also puts the critically endangered North Pacific right whale at greater risk.

“With species like the North Pacific right whale, the death of even one mother or calf could really impact the continued existence of this species,” he said. “These are animals that have been on this planet for quite a long time, and we’re driving them to the edge.”

On top of that, he said these animals are already struggling to survive as climate change threatens their habitats.

“This is sort of compounding that impact by saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to target this area for increased vessel traffic, and we’re going to give potentially millions of dollars to private companies and ports to do things to increase their ability to put boats on the water’,” Margolis said.

More vessels, he said, mean more ship strikes, more habitat destruction, and more pollution from things like fuel and oil spills.

The Center isn’t aiming to shut down the route. Instead, Margolis said, they’d like to see some checks and balances and policies in place to protect these vulnerable populations.

“Where do we want to see vessel traffic? How do we want to see it develop?” he said. “What do we need to put in place — safeguards — to ensure that vessels are not harming species? And how do we collect data on impacts to species under this program so that there isn’t death by 1000 small cuts?”

He said the Endangered Species Act requires agencies to consider those kinds of questions.

What would be the outcome? In Margolis’ opinion, it should result in program-wide criteria for tracking and minimizing harmful impacts. He said it’s important that MARAD consider the effects of increased vessel traffic as a whole, rather than individually among grants or projects, which could cumulatively jeopardize protected species.

The Center is giving the U.S. Maritime Administration a deadline of 60 days to make changes or they will launch a lawsuit.

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