March 22, 2005
The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are lead agencies with permitting responsibility for the proposed Kensington Gold Project. NOAA Fisheries has been consulted on the project's possible effects on species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
"We predict that the proposed mining project will disturb sea lions and humpback whales foraging in Berners Bay, but that the project would not be likely to jeopardize these species," said Dr. James Balsiger, the Administrator for the Alaska Region of NOAA Fisheries.
NOAA Fisheries experts have determined that the Kensington Gold Project would be not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the eastern and western populations of Steller sea lions and the Central North Pacific population of humpback whales, nor adversely modify the conservation value of their critical habitat. No other listed species under NOAA Fisheries' authority are found in the area.
In the context of a biological opinion, 'jeopardy' has a very particular meaning under the Endangered Species Act. In order to conclude jeopardy to a species as a result of a project's actions, the agency must determine that the project will increase the species' risk of extinction. For such an analysis, NOAA Fisheries experts first determine impacts to individual animals, followed by population level effects to determine whether the action would appreciably reduce its likelihood of surviving and recovering in the wild, or appreciably diminish the value to its critical habitat. An action that might negatively affect individual animals or even groups of animals may or may not translate into jeopardy to the population.
The proposed project is likely to disturb individual sea lions and whales foraging in Berners Bay. Such disturbances may result in behavioral responses or harassment. In addition, habitat alterations at Cascade Point would likely reduce shoreline rearing habitat for forage fish. In turn, this might reduce the prey base available to sea lions and whales in this area. Although these effects may be significant for individual animals, they would not be expected to translate to a species-level impact.
Steller sea lions aggregate in Berners Bay to feed on spawning runs of eulachon and herring during April and May. Researchers have estimated that up to 10 percent of the Southeast Alaska sea lion population relies on this area to feed on high energy food resources. Steller sea lions cooperatively feed on schools of eulachon in Berners Bay and have been observed there in foraging groups of 75 to 300 animals. They are also seen forming large "rafts" of individuals to sleep or rest. Humpback whales also forage in Berners Bay; generally they are seen singly or as small groups of animals at any one time in the bay.
NOAA Fisheries analyzed the potential impacts to listed species in the Berners Bay from the marine components of the proposed project: the construction and operation of two marine terminals on either side of Berners Bay; repeated vessel transits across the bay from a crew ferry, tugs, barges, and landing crafts; and discharge of materials from the East Fork of Slate Creek into Slate Creek Cove.
Experts looked at the potential direct and indirect effects of the proposed project to listed species in Berners Bay, including habitat modification; marine mammal prey disruption or displacement; an increase in noise; harassment or displacement of listed species as a result of marine terminal construction and vessel operations; risk of collision between transiting vessels and listed species; and discharge from mining operations, fuel spill and leakage.
To minimize the effects of the proposed project and protect listed species, NOAA Fisheries has provided a number of conservation recommendations in its biological opinion, including using an alternative dock site to Cascade Point; suspending crew shuttle transits in Berners Bay in April and May during the eulachon run and herring spawning period; restricting public and private vessel use of dock facilities (docks should serve only Kensington operations); limiting the construction window to protect listed species and forage fish; using noise control equipment during construction and quieting technologies in vessel operations; reducing vessel speeds year-round; and directing monitoring activities into adaptive management.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 requires all federal agencies to further the purposes of the Act by carrying out programs for the conservation of threatened and endangered species. Any project authorized, funded, or carried out by the federal government must ensure that their action does not jeopardize the continued existence of threatened and endangered species, or destroy or adversely modify the conservation value of their critical habitat.
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