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Lawsuit Threat Spurs Fish Habitat Designation

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service has designated critical habitat for three species of Puget Sound rockfish listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The habitat designation for the endangered bocaccio, and the threatened yelloweye and canary rockfish, comes more than four years after they were listed under the act in April 2010, according to an agency regulation.

As noted in the agency's own fact sheet, the ESA requires critical habitat to be designated at the time a species is listed as threatened or endangered, or within one year if it is not determinable at that time.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental group that frequently litigates on behalf of endangered and threatened species, filed a notice of intent to sue last year. Weeks later, the NMFS issued a proposed critical habitat designation in August 2013. The final designation will not take effect until February 2015, nearly five years after the fish were listed.

The benefit of critical habitat stems from the ESA requirement that every federal agency must ensure that "any action it authorizes, funds or carries out" will not result in the destruction of or damage to designated critical habitat, or jeopardize the listed species, according to the action. In addition, the designation educates the public and others regarding the "conservation value of an area," the agency said. "Systematic analysis and delineation of important rockfish habitat has not been previously conducted in the Puget Sound, so designating critical habitat may focus and contribute to conservation efforts by clearly delineating areas that are important to species conservation."

The CBD noted that the value of a critical habitat designation can be seen in the direct effect on the species. "Species with critical habitat protected are more than twice as likely to be recovering as those without," CBD's Catherine Kilduff said in the group's reaction to the designation.

The NMFS designated 590.4 square miles of nearshore habitat for the canary and bocaccio rockfish, and 414.1 square miles of deepwater habitat for all three species. The designation is a 15 percent reduction for the canary and bocaccio rockfish, and a 28 percent reduction for the yelloweye from last year's proposal, the agency said.

The reductions were accounted for by deductions for tribal lands and military areas. The NMFS considers tribal governments as co-managers of the marine resources in the Pacific Northwest, and they are already engaged in activities that focus on the recovery of listed salmon and steelhead in the Puget Sound, but which will also benefit the rockfish, the agency said.

The U.S. Navy has a presence in five basins in Puget Sound. The Navy notified the NMFS that some parts of the proposed habitat designation would "adversely affect operations, testing, training and other essential military activities," the action noted. The proposed rockfish habitat under the Navy's control comprised about 8 percent of the nearshore and 6 percent of the deepwater areas. "The Navy actively seeks to protect actions that would impact their mission and these protections provide ancillary protections to rockfish habitat by restricting actions that may harm the Navy mission and rockfishes in the respective area. Thus the benefit of designating these areas as critical habitat would be reduced," the agency said.

"The Puget Sound is part of a remarkable inland sea and fed by 14 major river systems. It's home to endangered marine mammals and fish, making it all the more important to preserve. Protecting this habitat from pollution, abandoned fishing gear and other threats will benefit the recovery of rockfish and even people who depend on these waters," CBD's Kilduff was quoted as saying in the group's press release.The critical habitat designation is effective Feb. 11, 2015.

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