From Dan Joling, AP:
May 16, 2013

Credit: Dave Withrow, AP

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Thursday it will consider listing a population of harbor seals that live in a freshwater Alaska lake as a threatened or endangered species, a decision that could affect the massive Pebble Mine development project. 

The agency said it has accepted a petition filed in November by the Center for Biological Diversity, kicking off a status review of the seals that live in Iliamna Lake 200 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The animals are the only known U.S. freshwater population of harbor seals, but a listing carries the added importance of possible effects on the Pebble Mine. The proposed open-pit copper and gold mine would require a 140-mile road to Cook Inlet. About 50 to 60 miles would pass along the lake shore, where the seals hunt for salmon.

Mike Heatwole, spokesman for Pebble Limited Partnership, the group behind the proposed mine, said the decision was expected and that Pebble already has submitted seal research to the agency.

The petition authors, he said, clearly had Pebble in mind by filing the petition but the company is hearing concerns from residents of Kakhonak, Pedro Bay, Igiugig and other villages about how a listing could affect lake travel.

“A lot of locals are pretty concerned about what impact it could have on their subsistence activities,” he said.

Acceptance of the petition kicks off the next step under the Endangered Species Act. The agency has 12 months after the filing date to conduct a status review of the seals. At that point, it can reject or propose a listing.

The agency said it would solicit scientific and commercial information regarding seals during a 60-day comment period that ends July 17. 

Kiersten Lippman, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity in Anchorage, hailed the announcement and said she expects the agency will be able to meet the 12-month deadline for the status review and possible proposed listing. She’s aware of just one published study on the seals and two current studies.

“There’s not a lot out there to review,” she said by phone from Santa Cruz, Calif., where she’s attending meetings.

Iliamna Lake is Alaska’s largest and deepest lake. It’s about 75 miles long and 22 miles wide. The seals are found on the lake’s east side more than 100 miles from saltwater. The seals are thought to be able to stay year-round by using cracks in the ice, ice caves or underground caves, according to the listing petition.

The petition claims the seals are threatened by human-caused climate change that will affect both seals and salmon. The petition claims warming and ocean acidification are progressing in the Bering Sea and threaten plankton that ocean-going salmon need for food.

The petition also says warming will increase the temperature in salmon streams to harmful levels and will increase precipitation, threating salmon reproduction by washing away eggs. It also says activity connected to the mine 17 miles upstream from a favorite seal haul-out would disturb the animals during pupping and molting periods.

The Pebble Limited Partnership has called its deposit one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum.

Heatwole said it remains unknown whether the freshwater seals are a distinct population and that no natural barriers keep the seals from saltwater. Seals have been sighted in the Kvichak River, he said, though it’s unclear whether they’re freshwater seals moving downstream or saltwater seals moving upstream.

The mine proposal has drawn strong opposition from groups who contend it will harm fish that migrate to Bristol Bay, home of the world’s largest sockeye salmon harvest.

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