Federal scientists are studying Pacific herring stocks in Lynn Canal to see if the fish should be listed as endangered or threatened, a move that could add more regulatory hurdles for the Kensington gold mine and other proposed developments in Berners Bay.
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The review by the National Marine Fisheries Service is a response to a petition filed by the Sierra Club in April. The service says there is enough evidence that the fish population might be in trouble to warrant a review under the Endangered Species Act.
The only remaining spawning ground for the herring in Lynn Canal is in and around Berners Bay, close to where the Kensington Mine is under construction. A vital permit for the mine that allows it to dispose of tailings has been hung up in court, so the mine is not in operation yet. Tailings are ground waste rock from which metal has been extracted.
The listing also could have implications for the proposed Juneau Access Road, which would run north out of town and around Berners Bay.
Any projects proposed within the habitat of an endangered species have to go through additional regulatory requirements, said Erika Phillips, a biologist who is coordinating the review for the fisheries service.
"We would have to conclude whether it would place the species in jeopardy and then recommend conservation measures," she said.
Herring stocks in Lynn Canal have declined 85 percent since the 1970s, the fisheries service said in its federal register filings. Commercial fishing of herring has been closed in the area since 1982, but stocks have not rebounded, the service said.
These factors contributed to the decision to review the fish's status, in addition to "proposed development activities in Lynn Canal, including Berners Bay, that threaten to further modify or curtail the population's habitat and spawning range."
In the past, herring also spawned in Auke Bay, but haven't for many years, Phillips said. There's been no research to determine why herring stopped spawning in Auke Bay, she said.
Tom Crafford, acting large mine permitting coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources, said any listing under the act would make mining operations more expensive.
"I would think it would create additional hurdles and additional opportunities for third-party lawsuits," Crafford said. "I think that would be a concern to the developers. It doesn't necessarily mean the project would be stopped. It doesn't mean that at all. It would mean they would have to have plans and procedures for how those species would be protected."
Tony Ebersole, spokesman for mine operator Coeur Alaska, declined to comment because he has not had a chance to review the filing.
Mark Rorick of the Sierra Club's Juneau Chapter was not available for comment because of travel.
The fisheries service expects to make a recommendation by April 2008 on whether the herring should be listed. The secretary of commerce would then make a final decision.