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Sea Turtle Conservation; Restrictions Applicable to Shrimp Trawl Activities; Leatherback Conservation Zone

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Information about this document as published in the Federal Register.

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AGENCY:

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce.

ACTION:

Temporary area gear restriction.

SUMMARY:

NMFS is closing, for a short 2-week period, all inshore waters and offshore waters 10 nautical miles (nm) (18.5 km) seaward of the COLREGS demarcation line, bounded by 31° N. lat. (approximately St. Andrews Sound, Georgia) and 32° N. lat. (approximately Tybee Island, Georgia) within the Leatherback Conservation Zone, to fishing by shrimp trawlers required to have a turtle excluder device (TED) installed in each net that is rigged for fishing, unless the TED has an escape opening large enough to exclude leatherback turtles, as specified in the regulations. This action is necessary to reduce mortality of endangered leatherback sea turtles incidentally captured in shrimp trawls.

DATES:

This action is effective from April 19, 2002 through 11:59 p.m. (local time) on May 3, 2002.

ADDRESSES:

Comments on this action should be addressed to the Chief, Endangered Species Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Comments may also be sent via fax to 301-713-0376. Comments will not be accepted if submitted via e-mail or the Internet.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

David Bernhart (ph. 727-570-5312, fax 727-570-5517, e-mail David.Bernhart@noaa.gov); or Barbara Schroeder (ph. 301-713-1401, fax 301-713-0376, e-mail Barbara.Schroeder@noaa.gov).

For assistance in modifying TED escape openings to exclude leatherback sea turtles, fishermen may contact gear specialists at the NMFS, Pascagoula, MS laboratory by phone 228-762-4591 or fax 228-769-8699.

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SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Prohibitions on taking sea turtles are governed by regulations implementing the Endangered Species Act at 50 CFR parts 222 and 223. The incidental take of turtles during shrimp fishing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the southeastern United States and in the Gulf of Mexico is excepted from the taking prohibition pursuant to sea turtle conservation regulations at 50 CFR 223.206, which include a requirement that shrimp trawlers have a NMFS-approved TED installed in each net rigged for fishing. The use of TEDs significantly reduces mortality of loggerhead, green, Kemp's ridley, and hawksbill sea turtles. Because leatherback turtles are larger than the escape openings of most NMFS-approved TEDs, use of these TEDs is not an effective means of protecting leatherback turtles.

Through a final rule (60 FR 47713 September 14, 1995), NMFS established regulations to provide protection for leatherback turtles when they occur in locally high densities during their annual, spring northward migration along the Atlantic seaboard. Within the Leatherback Conservation Zone, NMFS may close an area for 2 weeks when leatherback sightings exceed 10 animals per 50 nm (92.6 km) during repeated aerial surveys pursuant to § 223.206(d)(2)(iv)(A) through (C).

An initial aerial survey conducted on March 29, 2002, along the Georgia coast documented 17 leatherback turtles over a total survey trackline of approximately 80 nm (148 km). Concentrations were noted in waters off Wassaw, Ossabaw, St. Catherines, and Sapelo Islands. No shrimp trawlers were seen working. Due to mechanical difficulties, the survey did not continue south of Sapelo Island. A replicate survey was flown along the entire Georgia coast on April 15, 2002. Thirty-three leatherback turtles and 77 shrimp trawlers were spotted, over a total survey trackline of approximately 190 nautical miles (352 km). Leatherbacks were concentrated again off Ossabaw, St. Catherines, and Sapelo Islands and also off Jekyll and St. Simons Islands. Leatherbacks were also spotted off Tybee Island in the north and Cumberland Island in the south. The sighting frequencies in the original and replicate surveys all met or exceeded the regulatory standard of at least 10 animals within a 50 nautical mile (92.6 km) length of survey trackline.

The Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, NOAA (AA), is closing all inshore waters and offshore waters within 10 nm (18.5 km) seaward of the COLREGS demarcation line, bounded by 31° N. lat. and 32° N. lat., within the Leatherback Conservation Zone to fishing by shrimp trawlers required to have a TED installed in each net that is rigged for fishing, unless the TED installed has an escape opening large enough to exclude leatherback turtles, meeting the specifications at 50 CFR 223.207(a)(7)(ii)(B)(1) or (2) or 223.207(c)(1)(iv)(B). These regulations specify modifications that can be made to either single-grid hard TEDs or Parker soft TEDs to allow leatherbacks to escape.

The regulations at 50 CFR 223.206(d)(2)(iv) also state that fishermen operating in the closed area with TEDs modified to exclude leatherback turtles must notify the NMFS Southeast Regional Administrator of their intention to fish in the closed area. This aspect of the regulations does not have a current Office of Management and Budget control number, issued pursuant to the Paperwork Reduction Act. Consequently, fishermen are not required to notify the Regional Administrator prior to fishing in the closed area, but they must still meet the gear requirements.

Classification

This action has been determined to be not significant for purposes of Executive Order 12866.

The AA is taking this action in accordance with the requirements of 50 CFR 223.206(d)(2)(iv) to provide protection for endangered leatherback sea turtles from incidental capture and drowning in shrimp trawls. Leatherback sea turtles are occurring in high concentrations in coastal waters in shrimp fishery statistical zone 31. This Start Printed Page 20055action allows shrimp fishing to continue in the affected area so long as fishermen make the required gear modifications.

Pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 553(b)(B), the AA finds that there is good cause to waive prior notice and opportunity to comment on this action. As a sizeable concentration of leatherback turtles was recently observed in close proximity to a large number of shrimp trawlers, it is extremely likely that interactions will occur. It would be impracticable to provide prior notice and opportunity for comment because providing notice and comment would prevent the agency from implementing the necessary action in a timely manner to protect the endangered leatherback.

Pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 553(d)(3), the AA finds that there is good cause not to delay the effective date of this rule for 30 days. Such delay would prevent the agency from implementing the necessary action in a timely manner to protect the endangered leatherback. Accordingly, the AA is making the rule effective April 19, 2002 through May 3, 2002. This closure has been announced on the NOAA weather channel, in newspapers, and other media. Shrimp trawlers may also call (727)570-5312 for updated area closure information. -As prior notice and an opportunity for public comment are not required to be provided for this notification by 5 U.S.C. 553, or by any other law, the analytical requirements of 5 U.S.C. 601 et seq., are inapplicable.

The AA prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the final rule requiring TED use in shrimp trawls and the regulatory framework for the Leatherback Conservation Zone (60 FR 47713, September 14, 1995). Copies of the EA are available (see ADDRESSES).

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Dated: April 19, 2002.

Rebecca Lent

Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine Fisheries.

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[FR Doc. 02-10060 Filed 4-19-02; 3:30 pm]

BILLING CODE 3510-22-S