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Endangered sea lions, whales and sensitive fish stocks in Berners Bay are getting heightened scrutiny as a major deadline looms for the proposed Kensington Gold Mine.
The Tongass National Forest has delayed until Dec. 10 publishing its final environmental study of Coeur Alaska's proposed mine, which straddles Lynn Canal and the west side of the bay, Tongass district ranger Pete Griffin said last week.
A major unresolved issue is how endangered whales and sea lions may respond to daily ferry traffic across Berners Bay during the bay's weeks-long spring feeding frenzy on hooligan.
The bay often attracts other whales and harbor seals during the hooligan run.
"We're communicating to folks what our concerns may be about those species as well," said Kaya Brix, the National Marine Fisheries Service's Alaska region chief for protected resources.
Almost 1,000 sea lions, a few whales and harbor seals and thousands of gulls and eagles descend on Berners Bay during its spring run of hooligan, a type of smelt. The proposed location of one of the ferry docks, Cascade Point, is an occasional spawning site for the depleted herring stock in Lynn Canal. Sea lions and seals also haul out in Slate Creek Cove, where the second ferry dock is proposed.
Were doing everything we can to minimize our trips and stay out of areas where foraging occurs, said Rick Richins, project director for the Kensington Mine Project. During the hooligan run, daily ferry trips to the mine could be limited to two to three trips, instead of the routine three to five trips, he said.
Brix is finalizing a report to national forest officials detailing the mines likely impacts to sea lions and whales. Her agencys habitat conservation division already has lodged opposition to the Cascade Point dock.
Coeur Alaska has proposed suspending barge traffic during the bays hooligan run and fueling boats outside of the bay during herring spawning. Coeur Alaska also proposed carrying federal wildlife observers on its boats.
Juneau biologist Mary Willson is worried about the proposed dock at Slate Creek Cove, on the west side of Berners Bay.
The proposed dock is very close to a harbor seal haulout, Willson said, and she feels that federal regulators havent devoted enough attention to it so far.
Theres a considerable potential for disrupting something thats biologically important, Willson said.
If NMFS finds significant adverse effects to endangered species from the mines ferry traffic, it must conduct a formal consultation, Brix said.
A formal study could result in a finding that the sea mammals are jeopardized, requiring more severe limitations on mine operations under the Endangered Species Act.
Griffin said there were other reasons for delaying publication of the Tongass environmental impact study. Coeur Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service and the state historic preservation officer still need to sign a plan to protect historic remnants of the Jualin Mine, he said.
Coeur plans to build a mill to process its gold-flecked ore on a portion of the Jualin site, which sits above Berners Bay.
Within 30 days of publishing the environmental impact study, its likely that Tongass Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole will issue the critical decision: how and if the mine should be developed.
Tongass officials previously predicted they would complete their final environmental analysis of the mine by Nov. 19. Coeur Alaska project director Rick Richins said the delay is minimal and the companys board of directors still plans to decide this year whether to build the mine.
A third issue that remains partly unresolved for the mine is preventing harm to the struggling herring stock that spawns in Berners Bay. Large schools of herring spawn at times at Cascade Point.
Herring havent returned to healthy numbers in the Juneau area despite 20 years without a local fishery, said Dave Harris, assistant Juneau area management biologist for the NMFS commercial fisheries division.
The fish are most vulnerable when they come to the beach to spawn, Harris said.
Disturbances could drive them to less optimal spawning areas, he said.
Females lay eggs in seaweed and on rocks, though the latter is less suitable for larvae. The proposed ferry terminal at Cascade Point would reduce some of their habitat and increase the amount of rock, said Carl Shrader, a habitat biologist for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
State and federal officials have conflicting ideas about how to prevent harm at Cascade Point.
State regulators suggested that Coeur Alaska and Goldbelt reduce or suspend ferry traffic at Cascade Point during the two-week herring spawning season, Shrader said. They also suggested that Goldbelt fuel the ferry elsewhere during the three-week period while eggs are hatching. Oil spills can kill herring.
Goldbelt, Juneaus urban Native corporation, plans to build and operate a ferry dock at Cascade Point.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service suggested a more drastic change. They dont want Coeur Alaska to use Cascade Point a small beach on the southeastern rim of the bay at all. NMFS suggested nearby Echo Cove instead.
A Cascade Point ferry terminal has been approved by the Juneau Planning Commission but requires a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
On balance, Echo Cove is the better option, said Jon Kurland, NMFS regional administrator for habitat conservation.
The Tongass National Forest has the final word on where the ferry terminal would be located, and Echo Cove has been analyzed as one of those options, Richins said.