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Small Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; Taking of Ringed and Bearded Seals Incidental to On-ice Seismic Activities

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AGENCY:

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

ACTION:

Notice of receipt of application and proposed authorization for a small take exemption; request for comments.

SUMMARY:

NMFS has received a request from ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc. (CPA) for an authorization to take small numbers of ringed and bearded seals by harassment incidental to conducting on-ice seismic operations in the Beaufort Sea during oil and gas exploration activities. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NMFS is requesting comments on its proposal to authorize CPA to incidentally take, by harassment, small numbers of these two species in the above mentioned area during the winter of 2002/2003.

DATES:

Comments and information must be received no later than January 29, 2003.

ADDRESSES:

Comments on the application should be addressed to Donna Wieting, Chief, Marine Mammal Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910-3225. A copy of the application, Environmental Assessment (EA), and/or a list of references used in this document may be obtained by writing to this address or by telephoning one of the contacts listed here.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Kenneth Hollingshead, Office of Protected Resources (301) 713-2322, ext. 128, or Bradley Smith, Alaska Region (907) 271-5006.

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SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

Sections 101(a)(5)(A) and (D) of the MMPA (16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.) direct the Secretary of Commerce to allow, upon request, the incidental, but not intentional taking of small numbers of marine mammals by U.S. citizens who engage in a specified activity (other than commercial fishing) within a specified geographical region if certain findings are made and either regulations are issued or, if the taking is limited to harassment, notice of a proposed authorization is provided to the public for review.

Permission may be granted if NMFS finds that the taking will have no more than a negligible impact on the species or stock(s) and will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the species or stock(s) for subsistence uses and that the permissible methods of taking and requirements pertaining to the monitoring and reporting of such taking are set forth.

On April 10, 1996 (61 FR 15884), NMFS published an interim rule establishing, among other things, procedures for issuing incidental harassment authorizations (IHAs) under section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA for activities in Arctic waters. For additional information on the procedures to be followed for this authorization, please refer either to that document or to 50 CFR 216.107.

Description of the Activity

Background

Deep seismic surveys use the “reflection” method of data acquisition. Reflection seismic exploration is the process of gathering information about the subsurface of the earth by measuring acoustic (sound or seismic) waves, which are generated on or near the surface. Acoustic waves reflect at boundaries in the earth that are characterized by acoustic impedance contrasts. The acoustic impedance of a rock layer is its density multiplied by its acoustic velocity. Geologists and geophysicists commonly attribute different acoustic impedances to different rock characteristics. Seismic exploration uses a controlled energy source to generate acoustic waves that travel through the earth (including sea ice and water, as well as subsea geologic formations), and then uses ground sensors to record the reflected energy transmitted back to the surface. Energy that is directed into the ground takes on numerous forms. When acoustic energy is generated, compression (p) and shear (s) waves form and travel in and on the earth. The compression and shear waves are affected by the geological formations of the earth as they travel in it and may be reflected, refracted, diffracted or transmitted when they reach a boundary represented by an acoustic impedance contrast.

The basic components of a seismic survey include an energy source (either acoustic or vibratory), which generates a seismic signal; hydrophones or geophones, which receive the reflected signal; and electronic equipment to amplify and record the signal. The number and placement of sensors, the energy sources, the spacing and placement of energy input locations, and the specific techniques of recording reflected energy are broadly grouped as “parameters” of a given exploration program.

In modern reflection seismology, many sensors are used to record each energy input event. The number of sensors in use for each event varies widely according to the type of survey being conducted and the recording equipment available. Common numbers of groups of sensors are 240, 480, and 1040, and some new recording instruments may use as many as 4000 groups of sensors at the same time. The sensors are normally placed in one or more long lines at specified intervals. In North America the common group Start Printed Page 79566placement intervals are multiples of 55 feet (17 meters), 110 feet (33.5 meters) and 220 feet (67 meters).

Vibroseis

Vibroseis seismic operations use large trucks with vibrators that systematically put variable frequency energy into the earth. At least 1.2 m (4 ft) of sea ice is required to support heavy vehicles used to transport equipment offshore for exploration activities. These ice conditions generally exist from 1 January until 31 May in the Beaufort Sea. The exploration techniques are most commonly used on landfast ice, but they can be used in areas of stable offshore ice. Several vehicles are normally associated with a typical vibroseis operation. One or two vehicles with survey crews move ahead of the operation and mark the energy input points. Crews with rubber-tire or rubber-track vehicles often require trail clearance with bulldozers for adequate access to and within the site. Crews with rubber-tracked vehicles are typically limited by heavy snow cover, and may require trail clearance beforehand.

A typical wintertime exploration seismic crew consists of 40-110 personnel. Roughly 75 percent of the personnel routinely work on the active seismic crew, with approximately 50 percent of those working in vehicles and the remainder outside laying and retrieving geophones and cable.

With the vibroseis technique, activity on the surveyed seismic line begins with the placement of sensors. All sensors are connected to the recording vehicle by multi-pair cable sections. The vibrators move to the beginning of the line, and recording begins. The vibrators move along a source line, which will be at some angle to a sensor line. The vibrators begin vibrating in synchrony via a simultaneous radio signal to all vehicles.

In a typical survey, each vibrator will vibrate four times at each location. The entire formation of vibrators subsequently moves forward to the next energy input point (e.g., 67 m (220 ft) in most applications) and repeat the process. In a typical 16- to 18-hour day, 4 to 10 linear miles (6 to 16 km) in 2D seismic operations and 15 to 40 linear miles (24 to 64 km) in a 3D seismic operation are conducted. A detailed description of the work proposed for 2003 is contained in this document and in the application which is available upon request (see ADDRESSES).

Summary of the Request

CPA is requesting an IHA for the taking of ringed seals (Phoca hispida) and bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) for a period of 5 months beginning January 1 (upon the expiration of the existing regulations covering the Alaskan North Slope on 31 December 2002 (see 63 FR 5277, February 2, 1998) and ending on about May 31, 2003). On-ice seismic operations are ordinarily confined to this five-month period since this is the period when ice is sufficiently thick (4 - 5 ft; 1.2 - 1.5 m) to safely support the equipment.

The geographic region of activity in 2003 encompasses a 846-square mile (2,190 km2) area extending from approximately Cape Halkett on the west to Oliktok Point on the east and to approximately 4-20 nm (7.4 - 37 km) offshore the coast. Water depths in most (> 60 percent) of the area are less than 10 ft (3 m), but drop to 30 ft (9 m) along the northern fringe of the region of activity. Few seals inhabit water less than 10 ft (3 m) during winter, since water typically freezes to or near the bottom at this depth or what water is available supports few food resources (Miller et al., 1998 and Link et al., 1999).

Description of Habitat and Marine Mammals Affected by the Activity

A detailed description of the Beaufort Sea ecosystem can be found in several documents (Corps of Engineers, 1999; NMFS, 1999; Minerals Management Service (MMS), 1992, 1996) and is not repeated here.

Marine Mammals

The Beaufort/Chukchi Seas support a diverse assemblage of marine mammals, including bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus), gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus), beluga (Delphinapterus leucas), ringed seals, spotted seals (Phoca largha) and bearded seals. Descriptions of the biology and distribution of these species and of others can be found in NMFS (1998, 1999), Western Geophysical (2000) and several other documents (Corps of Engineers, 1999; Lentfer, 1988; MMS, 1992, 1996; Angliss et al. (2001)). Angliss et al. (2001) is available online at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​prot_​res/​PR2/​ #Stock_Assessment_Program/sars.htmlStock Assessment Reports.

Ringed and to a lesser degree bearded seals could be affected by on-ice seismic activities. These species as well as other marine mammal species in the Beaufort Sea appear to have stable to increasing populations, which is a condition indicative of a healthy ecosystem. Polar bears, which prey on these species, are believed to be stable or increasing in numbers in the Beaufort Sea (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), 2000 a, b). Similarly, the most recent estimate of bowhead whales shows the population has steadily increased annually at a growth rate of 3.2-3.3 percent to 9,860 (7,700-12,600) animals (International Whaling Commission, 2002). These increases are occurring in concert with subsistence harvest of these species including a five-year harvest quota of 255 bowheads. The status of these marine mammal populations reflects the high quality of the habitat, which supports abundant and diverse prey populations.

Ringed seals are year-round residents in the Beaufort Sea. They are the most abundant and widely distributed species of marine mammal in the Beaufort Sea (Frost et al., 1988). The world-wide population is estimated at 6 to 7 million (Stirling and Calvert, 1979). The Alaska stock of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea area is roughly estimated at between 1 to 1.5 (Frost, 1985) to 3.3 to 3.6 million seals (Frost et al., 1988). Although there are no recent population estimates in the Beaufort Sea, Bengston et al. (2000) estimated ringed seal abundance from Barrow south to Shismaref in a portion of the Chukchi Sea to be 245,048 animals from aerial surveys flown in 1999. In Angliss et al. (2001), marine mammal scientists state that there are at least that many ringed seals in the Beaufort Sea. Frost et al. (1999) reported that observed densities within the area of industrial activity along the Beaufort Sea coast were generally similar between 1985-87 and 1996-98, suggesting that the regional population has been relatively stable during this 13-year period of industrial activity.

During winter and spring, ringed seals inhabit landfast ice and offshore pack ice. Seal densities are highest on stable landfast ice but significant numbers of ringed seals also occur in pack ice (Wiig et al., 1999). Seals congregate at holes and along cracks or deformations in the ice (Frost et al., 1999). Breathing holes are established in landfast ice as the ice forms in autumn and maintained by seals throughout the winter. Adult ringed seals maintain an average of 3.4 holes per seal (Hammill and Smith, 1989). Some holes may be abandoned as winter advances probably in order for seals to conserve energy by maintaining fewer holes (Brueggeman and Grialou, 2001). As snow accumulates, ringed seals excavate lairs in snowdrifts surrounding their breathing holes, which they use for resting and for the birth and nursing of their single pups in late March to May (McLaren, 1958; Smith and Stirling, 1975; Kelly and Quakenbush, 1990). Pups have been observed to enter the water, dive to over Start Printed Page 7956710 m (32.8 ft), and return to the lair as early as 10 days after birth (Brendan Kelly, personal communication, June 2002), suggesting pups can survive the cold water temperatures at a very early age. Mating occurs in late April and May. From mid-May through July, ringed seals haul out in the open air at holes and along cracks to bask in the sun and molt.

The seasonal distribution of ringed seals in the Beaufort Sea is affected by a number of factors but a consistent pattern of seal use has been documented since monitoring began over 20 years ago by using aerial surveys. Seal densities have historically been substantially lower in the western than the eastern part of the Beaufort Sea (Burns and Kelly, 1982; Kelly, 1988). Frost et al. (1999) reported consistently lower ringed seal densities in the western versus eastern sectors they surveyed in the Beaufort Sea during 1996, 1997, and 1998. The relatively low densities appear to be related to much of the area occurring between the shore and the barrier islands, which is generally shallow. This area of historically low ringed seal density is also the focus for much of the recent on-ice seismic surveys.

The estimated number of ringed seals likely to be in the 846-square mile (2,190 km2) activity area is less than 3,900 animals. This estimate is based on a density of 1.73 seals per km2, which was derived from the most current aerial surveys of the region. Frost and Lowry (1999) reported an observed density of 0.61 ringed seals per km2 on the fast ice from aerial surveys conducted in spring 1997 of an area (Sector B2) overlapping the activity area, which is in the range of densities (0.28-0.66) reported for the Northstar project from 1997 to 2001 (Moulton et al., 2001). This value (0.61) was adjusted to account for seals hauled out but not sighted by observers (x 1.22, based on Frost et al. (1988)) and seals not hauled out during the surveys (x 2.33, based on Kelly and Quakenbush (1990)) to obtain the density of 1.73 seals/km2. This estimate covered an area from the coast to about 2-20 miles beyond the activity area, and it assumed that habitat conditions were uniform and, therefore, it was not adjusted for water depth. Since a high proportion (> 60 percent) of the activity area is within water less than 3 m (9.8 ft) deep, which Moulton et al. (2001) reported for Northstar supported about five times fewer seals (0.12 0.13 seals/km2) than the 0.61 seals reported by Frost and Lowry, the actual number of ringed seals is probably closer to slightly more than half of the 3,900 seals or about 2,000 seals. This estimate is calculated as follows: (1) 1,314 km2 x 0.13 x 1.22 x 2.33 = 486 seals in area having water depths of 0-3 meter (60 percent) in activity area; (2) 876 km2 x 0.61 x 1.22 x 2.33 = 1,519 seals in area having water depths over 3 meters (40 percent) in activity area; and (3) combining the two numbers gives an estimate of 2,005 seals or approximately 2,000 for the entire activity area. Observed densities of ringed seals reported over 15 years ago in the region of the activity area from 1985 through 1987 (0.85, 1.09, and 1.11 seals per km2) were not used in this analysis, since an estimate was available within the last five years (Frost and Lowry, 1999).

The bearded seal inhabits the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas (Burns and Frost, 1979). Numbers are considerably higher in the Bering and Chukchi seas, particularly during winter and early spring. Early estimates of bearded seals in the Bering and Chukchi seas range from 250,000 to 300,000 (Popov, 1976; Burns, 1981). Reliable estimates of bearded seal abundance in Alaska waters are unavailable. Since there is no evidence of a decline in the population, the population is presumed to be healthy. Bearded seals are generally associated with pack ice and only rarely use shorefast ice (Burns and Harbo, 1972). Bearded seals occasionally have been observed maintaining breathing holes in annual ice and even hauling out from holes used by ringed seals (Mansfield, 1967; Stirling and Smith, 1977). However, since bearded seals are normally found in broken ice that is unstable for on-ice seismic operation, bearded seals will be rarely encountered during seismic operations.

There are no reliable estimates for bearded seals in the Beaufort Sea or in the activity area (Angliss et al., 2001), but recent surveys show that few bearded seals inhabit the activity area during December through May. An indication of their low numbers is provided by the results of aerial surveys conducted east of the activity area near the Northstar and Liberty development sites. Three to 18 bearded seals were observed in these areas compared to 1,911 to 2,251 ringed seals in the spring of 1999 through 2001 (Moulton et al., 2001; Moulton and Elliott 2000; Moulton et al., 2000). Similarly small numbers of bearded seals would be expected to occur in the activity area, where habitat is even less favorable because of the high proportion of shallow water area.

Potential Effects on Marine Mammals

NMFS and CPA anticipate that only small numbers of ringed seals and, if encountered, very small numbers of bearded seals will be affected. Any takes that occur would result from short-term disturbances by noise and physical activity associated with on-ice seismic operations. While operations have the potential to disturb and temporarily displace some seals, any impacts will likely be confined to small numbers of seals in the immediate vicinity of the activities.

Burns and Kelly (1982) concluded that displacement of ringed seals in close proximity (within 150 m (492 ft)) to seismic lines does occur, and ringed seal pupping in shorefast ice habitats within this distance of an on-ice shot line in favorable ringed seal habitat are likely to be disturbed by vibroseis operations. However, considering (1) the limited area of seismic surveys, (2)

the non-random distribution of ringed seals, (3) avoidance by seismic operator of optimal seal habitat (i.e., areas of extensive pressure ridging and snow accumulation) due to safety and operational constraints,(4) occurrence of most of the on-ice seismic surveys in shallow and near shore waters where ringed seal densities are low, (5) the relatively large size of the ringed seal population in the Beaufort Sea and throughout Alaska, and (6) the lack of evidence of on-ice seismic activity negatively affecting the reproductive viability or distribution of the ringed seal population, the disturbance is not likely to have any effect on the ringed or bearded seal populations as a whole.

Aerial survey data collected from 1985 to 1987 and 1997 indicate that ringed seal densities in the fast ice of the region of the activity area as well as among different section of the Beaufort Sea are highly variable among years (Frost et al., 1999). The reported inter-annual variability in overall average density during these years in the region of the activity area was 0.61 to 1.11 seals per km2. Based on an estimated rate of temporary displacement determined by Burns (1981) of 0.6 ringed seals per nm2 (0.52 per mile) of area subjected to seismic activity, a maximum of 832 seals could be displaced from 1,600 mi (2,575 km) of seismic surveys assuming a uniform distribution. However, since the distribution is not uniform and most of the activity area is marginal habitat for ringed seals, considerably fewer seals would likely be temporarily displaced by the seismic operations. Furthermore, the proposed seismic operations will be concentrated in 143 mi2 (378 km2) or about 17 percent of the 846 mi2 (2,190 km2) activity area. Consequently, a more accurate maximum limit of the potential take of ringed seals by the proposed seismic operations is 340 (17 percent x 2000) Start Printed Page 79568seals, which would be considerably higher than any incidental take of seals in birthing lairs.

Pup mortality could occur if any of these animals were nursing and displacement was protracted. However, due to mitigation measures undertaken by the industry and because it is highly unlikely that a nursing female would abandon her pup given the normal levels of disturbance from the proposed activities and the typical movement patterns of ringed seal pups among different holes as reported by Lydersen and Hammill (1993), pup mortality is unlikely. Similarly, Kelly and Quakenbush (1990) observed that radio-tagged seals used as many as four lairs spaced as far as 3,437 m (11,276 ft) apart, with mean distances for males equaling 1,997 m (6,552 ft) and for females 634 m (2,080 ft). In addition, seals have multiple breathing holes. Pups may use more holes than adults (mean 8.7), but the holes are generally closer together (Lydersen and Hammill, 1993). Holes have been found as far apart as 0.9 km (0.56 mi). This pattern of use indicates that adult seals and pups can move away from seismic activities, particularly since the seismic equipment does not remain in any specific area for a prolonged time. Given the small proportion (<1 percent) of the population potentially disturbed by the proposed activity, impacts are expected to be negligible for the overall ringed and also bearded seal populations.

Masking effects on pinniped vocalizations and other natural sounds are expected to be limited. Although pulse repetition rates will be high during vibroseis surveys, the source levels of those pulses will be considerably lower than during open-water seismic surveys. This will considerably reduce the potential for masking.

Potential Effects on Subsistence

Residents of the village of Nuiqsut are the primary subsistence users in the activity area. The subsistence harvest during winter and spring is primarily ringed seals, but during the open-water period both ringed and bearded seals are taken. Nuiqsut hunters may hunt year round; however, in more recent years most of the harvest has been in open water instead of the more difficult hunting of seals at holes and lairs (McLaren, 1958; Nelson, 1969). The most important area for Nuiqsut hunters is off the Colville River Delta, between Fish Creek and Pingok Island, which corresponds to approximately the eastern half to the activity area. Seal hunting occurs in this area by snow machine before spring break-up and by boat during summer. Subsistence patterns are reflected in harvest data collected in 1992 where Nuiqsut hunters harvested 22 of 24 ringed seals and all 16 bearded seals during the open water season from July to October (Fuller and George, 1997). Only a small number of ringed seals was harvested during the winter to early spring period, which corresponds to the time of the proposed on-ice seismic operations.

Based on harvest patterns and other factors, on-ice seismic operations in the activity area are not expected to have an unmitigable adverse impact on subsistence uses of ringed and bearded seals because:

(1) Operations would end before spring breakup, after which subsistence hunters harvest most of their seals.

(2) Operations would temporarily displace relatively few seals, since most of the habitat in the activity area is marginal to poor and supports relatively low densities of seals during winter. Displaced seals would likely move a short distance and remain in the area for potential harvest by native hunters (Frost and Lowry, 1988; Kelly e3, 1988).

(3) The area where seismic operations would be conducted is small compared to the large Beaufort Sea subsistence hunting area associated with the extremely wide distribution of ringed seals.

In order to ensure the least practicable adverse impact on the species and the subsistence use of ringed seals, all activities will be conducted as far as practicable from any observed ringed seal structure, and crews will be required to avoid hunters and the locations of any seals being hunted in the activity area, whenever possible. Finally, the applicant will consult with subsistence hunters of Nuiqsut and provide the community, the North Slope Borough, and the Inupiat Community of the North Slope with information about its planned activities (timing and extent) before initiating any on-ice seismic activities.

Mitigation

Similar to work in previous years, NMFS expects the following mitigation will be undertaken by the applicant to ensure that any taking will be at the lowest level practicable. All activities will be required to be conducted in a manner that minimizes adverse effects on ringed and bearded seals and their habitat. Activities must be conducted as far as practicable from any observed ringed seals or ringed seal lair. For example, no energy source may be placed over an observed ringed seal lair and only vibrator-type energy-source equipment will be used. Seismic crews will receive training so that they can recognize potential ringed seal lairs and adjust their seismic operations. Furthermore, if seismic operations go beyond March 20, 2003 in waters deeper than 3 m (9.8 ft), a survey using trained dogs will be completed to identify active seal holes/ birthing lairs or hole/lair habitats so they can be avoided by seismic operations to the greatest extent practicable. If trained dogs are not available, then potential habitat will be identified by trained marine mammal biologists based on the characteristics of the ice (i.e., deformation, cracks, etc.).

Monitoring and Reporting

Ringed seal pupping occurs in lairs from late March to mid-to-late April (Smith and Hammill, 1981). Prior to commencing on-ice seismic surveys after March 20th , a survey using experienced field personnel and trained dogs will be conducted to identify potential seal structures along the planned on-ice seismic transmission routes. The seal structure survey will be conducted before selection of precise transit routes to ensure that seals, particularly pups, are not injured by equipment. The locations of all seal structures will be recorded by Global Positioning System (GPS), staked, and flagged with surveyor's tape. Surveys will be conducted 150 m (492 ft) to each side of the transit routes. Actual width of route may vary depending on wind speed and direction, which strongly influence the efficiency and effectiveness of dogs locating seal structures. Survey will only be conducted in the portions of the activity area where water depths exceed 3 m (9.8 ft). Few, if any, seals inhabit ice-covered waters below 3 m (9.8 ft) due to water freezing to the bottom or poor prey availability caused by the limited amount of ice-free water.

The level of take, while anticipated to be negligible, will be assessed by conducting a second seal structure survey immediately after the end of the seismic surveys. A single on-ice survey will be conducted by biologists on snowmachines using a GPS to relocate and determine the status of seal structures located during the initial survey. The status (active vs. inactive) of each structure will be determined to assess the level of incidental take by seismic operations. The number of active seal structures abandoned between the initial survey and the final survey will be the basis for enumerating take. If dogs are not available for the initial survey, take will be determined by using observed densities of seal on ice reported by Moulton et al. (2001) for the Northstar project, which is Start Printed Page 79569approximately 20 nm (37 km) from the eastern edge of the proposed activity area.

In the event that seismic surveys can be completed in that portion of the activity area deeper than 3 m (9.8 ft) before mid-March, no field surveys would be conducted of seal structures. Under this scenario, surveys would be completed before pups are born and disturbance would be negligible. Therefore, take estimates would be determined for only that portion of the activity area exposed to seismic surveys after March 20, which would be in water 3 m (9.8 ft) or less deep. Take for this area would be estimated by using the observed density (13/100 km2) reported by Moulton et al. (2001) for water depths between 0 to 3 m (0 to 9.8 ft) in the Northstar project area, which is the only source of a density estimate stratified by water depth for the Beaufort Sea. This would be an overestimation requiring a substantial downward adjustment to reflect the actual take of seals using lairs, since few if any of the structures in these water depths would be used for birthing, and Moulton et al. (2001) estimate includes all seals.

This monitoring program was reviewed at the fall 2002 on-ice meeting sponsored by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, NMFS in Seattle and found acceptable.

An annual report must be submitted to NMFS within 90 days of completing the year's activities.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

As a result of the information provided in EAs prepared in 1993 and 1998 for winter seismic activities, NOAA concluded that implementation of either the preferred alternative or other alternatives identified in the EA would not have a significant impact on the human environment. Therefore, an Environmental Impact Statement was not prepared. Accordingly, because the proposed action discussed in this document is not substantially different from the 1992 and 1998 actions, and because a reference search has indicated that no significant new scientific information or analyses have been developed in the past several years significant enough to warrant new NEPA documentation, this action is categorically excluded from further review under NOAA Administrative Order 216-6. A copy of the 1998 EA and FONSI is available upon request (see ADDRESSES).

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

NMFS has determined that no species listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA will be affected by issuing an authorization under section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA.

Preliminary Determinations

The anticipated impact of winter seismic activities on the species or stock of ringed and bearded seals is expected to be negligible for the following reasons:

(1) The activity area supports a small proportion (<1 percent) of the ringed seal populations in the Beaufort Sea;

(2) Most of the winter-run seismic lines will be on ice over shallow water where ringed seals are absent or present in very low abundance. Over 60 percent of the activity area is near shore and/or in water less than 3 m (9.8 ft) deep, which is generally considered poor seal habitat. Moulton et al. (2001) reported that only 6 percent of 660 ringed seals observed on ice in the Northstar project area were in water between 0 to 3 m (0 to 9.8 ft)deep.

(3) Seismic operators will avoid moderate and large pressure ridges, where seal and pupping lairs are likely to be most numerous, for reasons of safety and because of normal operational constraints;

(4) Many of the on-ice seismic lines and connecting ice roads will be laid out and explored during January and February when many ringed seals are still transient and considerably before the spring pupping season;

(5) The sounds from energy produced by vibrators used during on-ice seismic programs typically are at frequencies well below those used by ringed seals to communicate (1000 Hz). Thus, ringed seal hearing is not likely to be very good at those frequencies and seismic sounds are not likely to have strong masking effects on ringed seal calls. This effect is further moderated by the quiet intervals between seismic energy transmissions.

(6) There has been no major displacement of seals away from on-ice seismic operations (Frost and Lowry, 1988). Further confirmation of this lack of major response to industrial activity is illustrated by the fact that there has been no major displacement of seals near the Northstar Project. Studies at Northstar have shown a continued presence of ringed seals throughout winter and creation of new seal structures (Williams et al. 2001).

(7) Although seals may abandon structures near seismic activity, studies have not demonstrated a cause and effect relationship between abandonment and seismic activity or biologically significant impact on ringed seals. Studies by Williams et al. (2001), Kelley et al. (1986, 1988) and Kelly and Quakenbush (1990) have shown that abandonment of holes and lairs and establishment or re-occupancy of new ones is an ongoing natural occurrence, with or without human presence. Link et al. (1999) compared ringed seal densities between areas with and without vibroseis activity and found densities were highly variable within each area and inconsistent between areas (densities were lower for 5 days, equal for 1 day, and higher for 1 day in vibroseis area), suggesting other factors beyond the seismic activity likely influenced seal use patterns. Consequently, a wide variety of natural factors influence this patterns of seal use including time of day, weather, season, ice deformation, ice thickness, accumulation of snow, food availability and predators as well as ring seal behavior and populations dynamics.

In winter, bearded seals are restricted to cracks, broken ice, and other openings in the ice. On-ice seismic operations avoid those areas for safety reasons. Therefore, any exposure of bearded seals to on-ice seismic operations would be limited to distant and transient exposure. Bearded seals exposed to a distant on-ice seismic operation might dive into the water. Consequently, no significant effects on individual bearded seals or their population are expected, and the number of individuals that might be temporarily disturbed would be very low.

As a result, CPA believes the effects of on-ice seismic are expected to be limited to short-term and localized behavioral changes involving relatively small numbers of seals. As NMFS came to a similar finding in the EA prepared in 1998 for on-ice seismic activity in the Beaufort Sea, NMFS has preliminarily determined that these changes in behavior are expected to be negligible (NMFS, 1998). Therefore, the potential effects of the proposed on-ice seismic operations during 2003 are unlikely to result in more than small numbers of seals being affected, have no more than a negligible impact on ringed and bearded seal stocks and not have an unmitigable adverse impact on subsistence uses of these two species.

Information Solicited

NMFS requests interested persons to submit comments, and information, concerning this request (see ADDRESSES).

Start Signature
Start Printed Page 79570

Dated: December 19, 2002.

Laurie K. Allen,

Acting Deputy Director, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service.

End Signature End Supplemental Information

[FR Doc. 02-32846 Filed 12-27-02; 8:45 am]

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