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Okaloosa Commissioners object to proposed ‘critical habitat designation’ for Rice’s whale in Gulf

The Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved sending a letter objecting to a proposed federal critical habitat designation for the endangered Rice’s whale in the Gulf of Mexico at […]

The Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved sending a letter objecting to a proposed federal critical habitat designation for the endangered Rice’s whale in the Gulf of Mexico at its meeting on Tuesday. 

  • The National Marine Fisheries Service is proposing designating waters from 100 to 400 meters deep along the DeSoto Canyon in the northeastern Gulf as critical habitat for the recently recognized species. 
  • This area is about 20 to 25 miles off the coast of Okaloosa County. 

Kerry Parsons, one of the County’s attorneys, said during the meeting that the designation could require additional review processes for military activities, commercial shipping, fishing and other industries in the affected waters.

The designation of an area as critical habitat does not create a closed area, marine protected area, refuge, preservation, or other conservation area. Rather, once critical habitat is designated, other federal agencies must consult with NOAA fisheries to ensure actions they fund, authorize or undertake are not likely to destroy or adversely modify the critical habitat.

  • Actions funded, authorized or undertaken include, but are not limited to, activities such as in-water construction, energy development, commercial shipping, aquaculture, military activities and fisheries.
  • Once established as a critical habitat, additional rules may be proposed and put in place to protect the area.

“Once it’s established as critical habitat, anything federally funded or any activity that is regulated by the feds in that area must go through an additional process, both with NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries to see whether or not the activity that’s being proposed…would have an adverse impact to that area or would alter that area in any way,” said Parsons.

The Rice’s whale was only recognized as a distinct species separate from Bryde’s whale in 2021. NOAA agreed to designate critical habitat this year as part of a legal settlement after not doing so when the whale was listed as endangered in 2019. 

Back in June, the Commissioners discussed the “Vessel Slowdown Zone,” a petition to protect Rice’s whales from collisions with vessels and noise pollution.

  • The proposed measures include a year-round 10-knot speed restriction within waters ranging from approximately Pensacola, FL, to just south of Tampa, FL, covering an area from 87.5° W longitude to 27.5° N latitude. Read more.

The county alleges the habitat proposal relies on speculative assumptions and incomplete data not fully available for public review. Several industry organizations have also criticized the scientific basis and asked for an extended comment deadline, but NOAA denied the request.

  • “When we looked at the data, the actual quotes from the proposed rule involve things like the federal government saying, ‘We don’t necessarily have the data available for us as it relates to the Rice’s whale, but we have like data on like species, so we’re going to try to base it on that,'” Parsons said.

Chairman Trey Goodwin said the habitat designation could negatively impact military testing and training, recreational and commercial fishing, tourism and other industries.

“It’s got the potential to, as others have said, substantially negatively impact our military mission. To me that’s something we have to fight for,” Goodwin said. “It’s too important for the military. It’s too important for our tourism. It’s too important for our fisheries.”

Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel made a motion to send the letter, saying, “I very much like the environment and care for the environment, but our most important effort is our military. We must have open Gulf waters for the testing that we do here.”

Commissioner Nathan Boyles said he supports balancing protection for whales with other interests in the area. 

  • “Much like our military mission is able to coexist with our fishing fleet being out there in those waters, I have no doubt that targeted, thought out set of rules would allow for this population of whales to likewise coexist with the military’s use of those waters and our fishermen’s use of those waters,” Boyles said.

In addition to sending the letter before the Oct. 6 public comment deadline, the board directed the county attorney’s office to share it with other Gulf Coast counties and local economic development organizations. The commissioners hope amplifying objections will increase pressure on NOAA to reconsider the habitat proposal.

Several organizations, including the National Ocean Policy Coalition, the National Ocean Industries Association, the Offshore Operators Committee, and American Petroleum Institute, have raised concerns about the scientific data being relied upon by the Federal Government in the proposed rule and have requested additional time to be able to better analyze and review the data.  

To date, the Federal Government has denied the request for additional time, according to the county.

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