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Taking and Importing Marine Mammals; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to Missile Launch Operations from San Nicolas Island, CA

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AGENCY:

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

ACTION:

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

SUMMARY:

NMFS has received a request from the U.S. Navy for the harassment of small numbers of pinnipeds incidental to missile launch operations from San Nicolas Island, CA (SNI). As a result of that request, NMFS is considering whether to propose regulations that would govern the incidental taking of a small number of marine mammals under a Letter of Authorization (LOA). In order to promulgate these regulations and issue an LOA, NMFS must determine that these takings will have a negligible impact on the affected species and stocks of marine mammals. NMFS invites comment on the application and suggestions on the content of the regulations.

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DATES:

Comments and information must be postmarked no later than March 26, 2003.

ADDRESSES:

Comments should be addressed to the Chief, Marine Mammal Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910-3226. A copy of the application, NMFS' Environmental Assessment (EA)/Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) and a list of references used in this document may be obtained by writing to this address, or by telephoning the contact listed here (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT). Comments will not be accepted if submitted via e-mail or the Internet.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Kenneth R. Hollingshead, NMFS, 301-713-2055, ext 128.

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SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

Section 101(a)(5)(A) of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.)(MMPA) directs the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary) to allow, upon request, the incidental, but not intentional taking 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 regulations are issued.

Permission may be granted for periods of 5 years or less if the Secretary finds that the taking will have a negligible impact on the species or stock(s), will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the species or stock(s) for subsistence uses, and regulations are prescribed setting forth the permissible methods of taking and the requirements pertaining to the monitoring and reporting of such taking.

NMFS has defined “negligible impact” in 50 CFR 216.103 as “an impact resulting from the specified activity that cannot be reasonably expected to, and is not reasonably likely to, adversely affect the species or stock through effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival.” The MMPA defines “harassment” as:

any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which (i) has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (Level A harassment); or (ii) has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering (Level B harassment).

Summary of Request

On October 23, 2002, NMFS received an application from the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake (NAWS), under section 101(a)(5)(A) of the MMPA, requesting an authorization, effective from August 26, 2003 through August 25, 2008, for the harassment of small numbers of three species of marine mammals incidental to target missile launch operations conducted by the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) on SNI, one of the Channel Islands in the Southern California Bight. These regulations, if implemented, would allow NMFS to issue an annual LOA to NAWS, which would replace the process of issuance of annual Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHAs) under section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA (see 66 FR 41843, August 9, 2001; 67 FR 56271, September 3, 2002). This action is being undertaken in part based upon recommendations made on May 23, 2001 and August 6, 2002 by the Marine Mammal Commission, under section 202(a)(4) of the MMPA. The current IHA expires on August 26, 2003.

According to the NAWS' application, these operations may occur at any time during the year depending on test and training requirements and meteorological and logistical limitations. On occasion, two or three launches may occur in quick succession on a single day. NAWS anticipates an average of 40 launches annually of Vandal (or similar sized) vehicles from SNI's Alpha Launch Complex (ALC) and smaller supersonic and subsonic missiles and targets from either ALC or the Building 807 Launch Site (Building 807). Launches at this level would be an increase as the NAWCWD conducted a total of 19 launches (including one dual launch) of Vandal rockets (14 launches) and 5 other missiles and targets from SNI between August 15, 2001 and July 18, 2002 under an IHA.

The purpose of these launches is to support activities associated with operations on the NAWCD's Point Mugu Sea Range. The Sea Range is used by the U.S. and Allied military services to test and evaluate sea, land, and air weapon systems; to provide realistic training opportunities; and to maintain operational readiness of these forces. Some of the SNI launches are used for practicing defensive drills against the types of weapons simulated by these vehicles. Some launches may be conducted for the related purpose of testing new types of targets, to verify that they are suitable for use as operational targets. While SNI is under the land management responsibility of NAWS, planned missile and other target launches are conducted by the NAWCWD. A detailed description of the operations is contained in the NAWS application (NAWS, 2002) which is available upon request (see ADDRESSES).

Measurement of Airborne Sound Levels

The following section is provided to facilitate understanding of airborne and impulsive noise characteristics. In its application, NAWS has referenced both pressure and energy measurements for sound levels. For pressure, the sound pressure level (SPL) is described in terms of decibels (dB) re micro-Pascal (micro-Pa), and for energy, the sound exposure level (SEL) is described in terms of dB re micro-Pa2 -second. In other words, SEL is the squared instantaneous sound pressure over a specified time interval, where the sound pressure is averaged over 5 percent to 95 percent of the duration of the sound (in this case, one second).

Airborne noise measurements are usually expressed relative to a reference pressure of 20 micro-Pa, which is 26 dB above the underwater sound pressure reference of 1 micro-Pa. However, the conversion from air to water intensities is more involved than this and is beyond the scope of this document. NMFS recommends interested readers review NOAA's tutorial on this issue: http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/​vents/​acoustics/​tutorial/​tutorial.html Also, airborne sounds are often expressed as broadband A-weighted (dBA) or C-weighted (dBC) sound levels. A-weighting refers to frequency-dependent weighting factors applied to sound in accordance with the sensitivity of the human ear to different frequencies. With A-weighting, sound energy at frequencies below 1 kHz and above 6 kHz are de-emphasized and approximates the human ear's response to sounds below 55 dB. C-weighting corresponds to the relative response to the human ear to sound levels above 85 dB. C-weight scaling is useful for analyses of sounds having predominantly low-frequency sounds, such as sonic booms.

While it is unknown whether the pinniped ear responds similarly to the human ear, a study by C. Malme (pers. commun. to NMFS, March 5, 1998) found that for predicting noise effects, the Navy believes that A-weighting is better than unweighted pressure levels because the pinniped's highest in-air hearing sensitivity is at higher frequencies than that of humans. In this document, whenever possible sound levels have been provided with A-weighting.

Description of the Specified Activity

In general, launch vehicles are the Vandal and a variety of other supersonic and subsonic missiles and targets. Most Start Printed Page 11529other vehicles used would be similar in size and weight or slightly smaller and would have characteristics generally similar to the Vandal. However, NAWS also has requested a marine mammal take authorization for up to 3 launches annually for vehicles that may be larger than the Vandal, but would be under 50,000 lbs (23,000 kilograms (kg)) in weight.

Vandal Target Missiles

The Vandal (designated MQM-8G) target missile is a relatively large, air-breathing (ramjet) vehicle with no explosive warhead that is designed to provide a realistic simulation of the mid-course and terminal phase of a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. These missiles are 7.7 m (25.2 ft) in length with a mass at launch of 3,674 kg (8,100 lbs) including the solid propellant booster. There are variants of the Vandal; they all have the same dimensions, but differ in their operational range. The Vandals are remotely controlled, non-recoverable missiles. At launch, the Vandal is accelerated for several seconds by a solid propellant rocket booster to a speed sufficient for the ram-jet engine to start. After several seconds of thrust, the booster is discarded, falls into the water of the Sea Range, and the Vandal continues along its flight path at supersonic speed under ramjet power.

The Vandal and most other targets are launched from the ALC on the west-central part of SNI, a land-based launch site. The ALC is 192 m (630 ft) above sea level and is approximately 2 kilometers (km)(1.25 miles (mi)) from the nearest pinniped haul-out site. Launch trajectories from ALC may vary from a near-vertical liftoff, crossing the west end of SNI at an altitude of approximately 3,962 m (13,000 ft) to a nearly horizontal liftoff, crossing the west end of SNI at an altitude of approximately 305 m (1,000 ft). However, to date, most Vandal launches during NAWS first IHA monitoring program had low angles (8 degrees) crossing the SNI beaches at an altitude of about 1,300 ft (396 m)(Lawson, 2002). Four Vandals however, had high angle (42 degrees) profiles, crossing SNI beaches at an altitude of about 9,600 ft (2,926 ft)(Lawson, 2002).

Vandal launches produce strong noise levels. Sound measurements collected during two Vandal launches in 1997 and 1999 indicated received A-weighted SPLs ranged from 123 dB (re 20 micro-Pa) (SEL of 126 dB re 20 micro-Pa2 -sec) at 945 m (3,100 ft) to 136 dB (re 20 μPa) (SEL of 131 dB re 20 micro-Pa2 -sec) at 370 m (1,215 ft) (Burgess and Greene, 1998; Greene, 1999). The most intense sound exposure occurred during the first 0.4 to 4.1 seconds after launch (Greene, 1999; Greene and Malme, 2002). However, what is important for this action is not the noise level near the launch site but the noise level over the pinniped haulouts on the SNI beaches. This will be discussed later in this document.

Supersonic and Subsonic Targets and Other Missiles

The Navy also plans to launch other subsonic and supersonic vehicles to simulate various types of threat missiles and aircraft. These are small unmanned aircraft that are launched using jet-assisted take-off (JATO) rocket bottles. Once launched, they continue offshore where they are used in training exercises to simulate various types of subsonic threat missiles and aircraft. The larger target, BQM-34, is 7 m (23 ft) long and has a mass of approximately 1,134 kg (2,500 lb) plus the JATO bottle. The smaller BQM-74, is 420 centimeters (cm) (165.5 inches (in)) long and has a mass of approximately 250 kg (550 lbs) plus the JATO bottle. Additional types of small vehicles that may be launched include the Exocet and Tomahawk missiles, and the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM).

All of these smaller targets are launched from either the ALC or from Building 807. Building 807 is approximately 10 m (30 ft) above sea level and accommodates several fixed and mobile launchers that range from 30 m (98 ft) to 150 m (492 ft) from the nearest shoreline. For these smaller vehicles, launch trajectories from Building 807 may range from 6 to 45 degrees and cross over the nearest beach at altitudes from 15 to 190 m (50 to 625 ft).

Sound measurements were collected from the launch of a BQM-34S at the Point Mugu Naval Air Station (NAS) in 1997. Burgess and Greene (1998) found that for this launch, the A-weighted SPL ranged from 92 dB (re 20 micro-Pa) (SEL of 102.2 dB re 20 micro-Pa2 -sec) at 370 m (1,200 ft) to 145 dB (re 20 micro-Pa) (SEL of 142.2 dB re 20 micro-Pa2 -sec) at 15 m (50 ft). These estimates are approximately 20 dB lower than that of a Vandal launch at similar distances (Greene, 1999). The measured Terrior Orion SPL ranged from 89 to 138 dB and the SEL from 93 to 138 dB, although the SPL/SEL of 138 dB appears to be anomalously high (Lawson, 2002). The SPL/SELs for the AGS launches ranged from 95 to 150 dB (93 to 137 dB SEL) and the RAM launch SPL was 126 dB (131 dB SEL). It should be noted that these measurements were all flat-weighted, meaning that A-weighted SPL/SELs values were several decibels lower.

General Launch Operations

Aircraft and helicopter flights between NAS on the mainland, the airfield on SNI and the target sites in the Sea Range will be a routine part of any planned launch operation. These operational flights do not pass at low level over the beaches where pinnipeds are expected to be hauled out. In addition, movements of personnel are restricted near the launch sites 2 hours prior to a launch, no personnel are allowed on the western end of SNI during Vandal and other vehicle launches, and various environmental protection restrictions exist near the island's beaches during other times of the year.

Description of Habitat and Marine Mammals Affected by the Activity

A detailed description of the Channel Islands/southern California Bight ecosystem and its associated marine mammals can be found in several documents (Le Boeuf and Brownell, 1980; Bonnell et al., 1981; Lawson et al., 1980; Stewart, 1985; Stewart and Yochem, 2000; Sydeman and Allen, 1999) and is not repeated here.

Many of the beaches in the Channel Islands provide resting, molting or breeding places for species of pinnipeds including: northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris), harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), and Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus). On SNI, three of these species, northern elephant seals, harbor seals, and California sea lions, can be expected to occur on land in the area of the proposed activity either regularly or in large numbers during certain times of the year. Descriptions of the biology and distribution of these three species and others in the region can be found in NAWS (2002), Stewart and Yochem (2000, 1994), Sydeman and Allen (1999), Lowry et al. (1996), Schwartz (1994), Lowry (1999) and several other documents (Barlow et al., 1997; NMFS, 2000; NMFS, 1992; Koski et al., 1998; Gallo-Reynoso, 1994; Stewart et al., 1987). General information on harbor seals and other marine mammal species found in Central California waters can be found in Caretta et al. (2001, 2002), which are available at the following URL: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​ prot_res/ PR2/ Stock_Assessment_Program/ sars.html. Please refer to those documents and the application for further information on these species.

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Potential Effects of Target Missile Launches and Associated Activities on Marine Mammals

As outlined in several previous NMFS documents, the effects of noise on marine mammals are highly variable, and can be categorized as follows (based on Richardson et al., 1995):

(1) The noise may be too weak to be heard at the location of the pinniped (i.e., lower than the prevailing ambient noise level, the hearing threshold of the animal at relevant frequencies, or both);

(2) The noise may be audible but not strong enough to elicit any overt behavioral response;

(3) The noise may elicit reactions of variable conspicuousness and variable relevance to the well being of the pinniped; these can range from temporary alert responses to active avoidance reactions such as stampedes into the sea from terrestrial haulout sites;

(4) Upon repeated exposure, pinnipeds may exhibit diminishing responsiveness (habituation), or disturbance effects may persist; the latter is most likely with sounds that are highly variable in characteristics, infrequent and unpredictable in occurrence (as are vehicle launches), and associated with situations that the pinniped perceives as a threat;

(5) Any anthropogenic noise that is strong enough to be heard has the potential to reduce (mask) the ability of pinnipeds to hear natural sounds at similar frequencies, including calls from conspecifics, and environmental sounds such as surf noise;

(6) If mammals remain in an area because it is important for feeding, breeding or some other biologically important purpose even though there is chronic exposure to noise, it is possible that there could be noise-induced physiological stress; this might (in turn) have negative effects on the well-being or reproduction of the animals involved; and

(7) Very strong sounds have the potential to cause temporary or permanent reduction in hearing sensitivity. In terrestrial mammals, and presumably marine mammals, received sound levels must far exceed the animal's hearing threshold for there to be any temporary threshold shift (TTS). For transient sounds, the sound level necessary to cause TTS is inversely related to the duration of the sound. Received sound levels must be even higher for there to be risk of permanent hearing impairment.

Sounds generated by the launches of Vandal and similar target missiles and smaller subsonic targets and missiles (BQM-34 or BQM-74 type), as they depart sites on SNI towards operational areas in the Point Mugu Sea Range, have the potential to result in the incidental harassment of seals and sea lions. Taking by harassment will potentially result from these launches when pinnipeds on the beaches near the launch sites are exposed to the sounds produced by the rocket boosters and the high-speed passage of the missiles as they depart the island on their routes to the Sea Range. However, the extremely rapid departure of the Vandal and other targets means that pinnipeds would be exposed to increased sound levels for very short time intervals (i.e., a few seconds). In addition, because launches are conducted relatively infrequently, neither physiological stress nor hearing related injuries are likely for pinnipeds exposed to more than a single launch event.

Noise generated from aircraft and helicopter activities associated with the launches may provide a potential secondary source of incidental harassment. The physical presence of aircraft could also lead to non-acoustic effects on marine mammals involving visual or other cues. There are no anticipated effects from human presence on the beaches, since movements of personnel are restricted near the launch sites two hours prior to launches for safety reasons.

Reactions of pinnipeds on the western end of SNI to Vandal target launches have not been well-studied, but based on monitoring studies conducted under the IHA for this activity on SNI in 2001 and 2002, and on other rocket launch activities and their effects on pinnipeds in the Channel Islands (Stewart et al., 1993), anticipated impacts can be predicted. In general, studies have shown that responses of pinnipeds on beaches to acoustic disturbance arising from rocket and target missile launches are highly variable. This variability may be due to many factors, including species, age class, and time of year. Among species, northern elephant seals seem very tolerant of acoustic disturbances (Stewart, 1981), whereas harbor seals (particularly outside the breeding season) seem more easily disturbed. Research and monitoring at Vandenberg Air Force Base found that prolonged or repeated sonic booms, very strong sonic booms, or sonic booms accompanying a visual stimulus, such as a passing aircraft, are most likely to stimulate seals to leave the haul-out area and move into the water. During three launches of Vandal missiles from SNI, California sea lions near the launch track line were observed from video recordings to be disturbed and to flee (both up and down the beach) from their former resting positions. Launches of the smaller BQM-34 targets from NAS have not normally resulted in harbor seals leaving their haul-out area at the mouth of Mugu Lagoon, which is approximately 3.2 km (2 mi) from the launch site. An Exocet missile launched from the west end of SNI appeared to cause far less disturbance to hauled out California sea lions than Vandal launches.

Given the variability in pinniped response to acoustic disturbance, as supported by recent IHA monitoring (Lawson et al., 2002), the Navy (NAWS, 2002) conservatively assumes that biologically significant disturbance (i.e., Level B harassment) will sometimes occur upon exposure to launch sounds with SEL's of 100 dBA (re 20 micro-Pa2 -sec) or higher for California sea lions and northern elephant seals and 90 dBA for Pacific harbor seals. A biologically significant disturbance has been defined by NMFS in several previous rulemakings (e.g., 66 FR 43442, August 17, 2001; 67 FR 46712, July 16, 2002) as a disturbance of a behavior pattern that has the potential to have an effect on the reproduction or survival of the animal or the species.

A conservative estimate of the SEL at which TTS (Level B harassment) may be elicited in harbor seals and California sea lions and northern elephant seals has been determined to be 145 dB (re 20 micro-Pa2 -sec) and 165 dB (re 20 micro-Pa2 -sec), respectively (Lawson et al., 1998). The sound levels necessary to elicit mild TTS in captive California sea lions and harbor seals exposed to impulse noises, such as sonic booms, were tens of decibels higher (Bowles et al., 1999) than sound levels measured during Vandal launches (Burgess and Greene, 1998; Greene, 1999). This evidence, in combination with the known sound levels produced by vehicles launched from SNI (described later in this document), suggests that no pinnipeds will be exposed to TTS-inducing SELs during planned launches.

Based on modeling of sound propagation in a free field situation, Burgess and Greene (1998) data were used by the Navy to predict that Vandal target launches from SNI could produce a 100-dBA acoustic contour that extends an estimated 4,263 m (13,986 ft) perpendicular to its launch track. In other words, Vandal target launch sounds are predicted to exceed the SEL (100 dBA) disturbance criteria out to a distance of 4,263 m (13,986 ft) from the ALC. Northern elephant seals, harbor seals, and California sea lions haul out in areas within the perimeter of this Start Printed Page 11531100-dBA contour for Vandal launches. For BQM-34 launches from ALC, the Navy assumes that the 100 dBA contour extends an estimated 1,372 m (4,500 ft), perpendicular to its launch track (C. Malme, Engineering and Scientific Services, Hingham, MA, unpublished data). Along the launch track and ahead of the BQM-34, the 100 dBA contour extends a shorter distance (549 m or 1,800 ft). For the smaller BQM-74 and Exocet missiles, the Navy predicts that the 100 dBA contours will be smaller still. The free field modeling scenario used to predict these acoustic contours does not account for transmission losses caused by wind, intervening topography, and variations in launch trajectory or azimuth. Therefore, the predicted 100 dBA contours may be smaller at certain beach locations and for different launch trajectories.

In general, the extremely rapid departure of the Vandal and smaller targets means that pinnipeds could be exposed to increased sound levels for very short time intervals (a few seconds) potentially leading to alert and startle responses from individuals on haul out sites in the vicinity of launches. Some animals may flee to the water. Since recorded observations of the responses of pinnipeds to Vandal launches along with post-launch surveys at the SNI haulouts have not shown injury, mortality, or extended biological disturbance, the Navy anticipates that the effects of the planned target launches will have no more than a negligible impact on pinniped populations.

Since the launches are relatively infrequent, and of brief duration, it is unlikely that the pinnipeds near the launch site will become habituated to launch sounds. Pinnipeds that haul out on beaches at the western end of SNI for extended periods, or that return to haul-out sites regularly over the course of the year, may be exposed to sounds of more than a single launch, and may be “harassed” more than once each year. However, given the infrequency and brevity of these events, it is unlikely that much, if any, habituation to target missile launch activities has occurred.

In addition, the infrequent and brief nature of these sounds will cause masking for not more than a very small fraction of the time (usually less than 2 seconds per launch) during any single day. Therefore, the Navy assumes that these occasional and brief episodes of masking will have no significant effects on the abilities of pinnipeds to hear one another or to detect natural environmental sounds that may be relevant to the animals.

Numbers of Marine Mammals Expected to Be Taken by Harassment

NAWS provisionally estimates that the following numbers of pinnipeds may be subject to Level B harassment annually: 1,403 northern elephant seals, 457 harbor seals, and 1,637 California sea lions. To determine the number of takings by harassment annually, one would need to multiply those numbers by the number of launches conducted annually. The animals affected may be the same animals or may be different animals, depending upon site fidelity of the species. For the 5-year period of the regulations, these numbers of Level B harassment takes would be multiplied by five. Based on the results of recent monitoring of the haulouts, the estimated number of potential harassment takes would be significantly less than authorized under the two recent IHAs.

Effects of Target Missile Launches and Associated Activities on Subsistence Needs

There are no subsistence uses for these pinniped species in California waters, and, thus, there are no anticipated effects on subsistence needs.

Effects of Target Missile Launches and Associated Activities on Marine Mammal Habitat on SNI

Harbor seals, California sea lions, and northern elephant seals use various beaches around SNI as places to rest, molt, and breed. These beaches consist of sand (e.g., Red Eye Beach), rock ledges (e.g., Phoca Beach) and rocky cobble (e.g., Vizcaino Beach). Pinnipeds do not feed when hauled out on these beaches, and the airborne launch sounds will mostly reflect or refract from the water surface and, except for sounds within a diameter of approximately 60 degrees directly below the launch vehicle, will not penetrate into the water column. The sounds that do penetrate will not persist in the water near the island for more than a few seconds. Therefore, the Navy does not expect that launch activities will have any impact on the food or feeding success of these animals. The solid rocket booster from the Vandal target and the JATO bottles from the BMQs are jettisoned shortly after launch and fall into the sea west of SNI. While it is theoretically possible that one of these boosters might instead land on a beach, the probability of this occurring is very low. Fuel contained in the boosters and JATO bottles is consumed rapidly and completely, so there would be no risk of contamination even if a booster or bottle did land on the beach. Overall, the proposed target missile launches and associated activities are not expected to cause significant impacts on habitats or on food sources used by pinnipeds on SNI.

Mitigation

To avoid additional harassment to the pinnipeds on beach haul out sites and to avoid any possible sensitizing or predisposing of pinnipeds to greater responsiveness towards the sights and sounds of a launch, NAWCWD Point Mugu will limit its activities near the beaches in advance of launches. Existing safety protocols for Vandal launches provide a built-in mitigation measure. That is, personnel are normally not allowed near any of the pinniped beaches close to the flight track on the western end of SNI within two hours prior to a launch. Where practicable, NAWCWD Point Mugu will adopt the following additional mitigation measures when doing so will not compromise operational safety requirements or mission goals: (1) The Navy will attempt to limit launch activities during pinniped pupping seasons, particularly harbor seal pupping season; (2) the Navy will attempt not to launch vehicles at low elevation on launch azimuths that pass close to beach haul-out site(s); (3) the Navy will attempt to avoid multiple target launches in quick succession over haul-out sites, especially when young pups are present; and, (4) the Navy will attempt to limit launch activities during the night.

Monitoring

As part of its application, NAWS provided a proposed monitoring plan, similar to that adopted for the 2001/2002 and 2002/2003 IHAs (see 66 FR 41834, August 9, 2001; 67 FR 56271, September 3, 2002), for assessing impacts to marine mammals from Vandal and smaller subsonic target and missile launch activities on SNI. This monitoring plan is described in their application (NAWS, 2002).

The Navy proposes to conduct the following monitoring during the first year under an LOA and regulations.

Land-Based Monitoring

In conjunction with a biological contractor, the Navy will continue its land-based monitoring program to assess effects on the three common pinniped species on SNI: northern elephant seals, harbor seals, and California sea lions. This monitoring would occur at three different sites of varying distance from the launch site before, during, and after each launch. Start Printed Page 11532 The monitoring would be via autonomous video cameras.

During the day of each missile launch, the observer would place three digital video cameras overlooking chosen haul out sites. Each camera would be set to record a focal subgroup within the haul out aggregation for a maximum of 4 hours or as permitted by the videotape capacity.

Following each launch, all digital recordings will be transferred to DVDs for analysis. A DVD player/computer with high-resolution freeze-frame and jog shuttle will be used to facilitate distance estimation, event timing, and characterization of behavior. Details of analysis methods can be found in LGL Ltd. Environmental Research Associates et al. (LGL, 2002).

Acoustical Measurements

During each launch, the Navy would obtain calibrated recordings of the levels and characteristics of the received launch sounds. Acoustic data would be acquired using three Autonomous Terrestrial Acoustic Recorders (ATAR) at three different sites of varying distances from the target's flight path. ATARs can record sounds for extended periods (dependent on sampling rate) without intervention by a technician, giving them the advantage over traditional digital audio tape (DAT) recorders should there be prolonged launch delays of as long as 10 hours. Insofar as possible, acoustic recording locations would correspond with the sites where video monitoring is taking place. The collection of acoustic data would provide information on the magnitude, characteristics, and duration of sounds that pinnipeds may be exposed to during a launch. In addition, the acoustic data can be combined with the behavioral data collected via the land-based monitoring program to determine if there is a dose-response relationship between received sound levels and pinniped behavioral reactions. Once collected, sound files will be transferred onto compact discs (CDs) and sent to the acoustical contractor for sound analysis.

For further details regarding the installation and calibration of the acoustic instruments and analysis methods refer to LGL (2002).

Reporting Requirements

An interim technical report is proposed to be submitted to NMFS 60 days prior to the expiration of each annual LOA issued under these regulations, along with a request for a follow-on annual LOA. This interim technical report will provide full documentation of methods, results, and interpretation pertaining to all monitoring tasks for launches during the period covered by the LOA. However, only preliminary information would be available to be included for any launches during the 60-day period immediately preceding submission of the interim report to NMFS. In the unanticipated event that any cases of pinniped mortality are judged to result from launch activities at any time during the period covered by these regulations, this event will be reported to NMFS immediately.

The proposed 2003-04 launch monitoring activities will constitute the third year of formal, concurrent pinniped and acoustical monitoring during launches from SNI. Several of the questions about effects of such launch activities on pinnipeds ashore are expected to be answered before the first LOA is issued based on the 2001-2003 monitoring under IHAs. Additional questions will be answered during the first year of monitoring under an LOA in 2003-2004. Following submission in 2004 of the interim report on the first phase of monitoring under an LOA, NAWS believes that it would be appropriate for the Navy and NMFS to discuss the scope for any additional launch monitoring work on SNI subsequent to the first LOA issued under these regulations. In particular, some biological or acoustic parameters may be documented adequately prior to or during the first LOA (2003-2004), and it may not be necessary to continue all aspects of the monitoring work after the first year.

In addition to annual LOA reports, NMFS proposes to require NAWS to submit a draft comprehensive final technical report to NMFS 180 days prior to the expiration of the regulations. This technical report will provide full documentation of methods, results, and interpretation of all monitoring tasks for launches during the first four LOAs, plus preliminary information for launches during the first 6 months of the final LOA.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

In accordance with section 6.01 of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrative Order 216-6 (Environmental Review Procedures for Implementing the National Environmental Policy Act, May 20, 1999), NMFS has analyzed both the context and intensity of this action and determined, based on an EA/FONSI conducted by NMFS on the issuance of a small take authorization for Vandal and other rocket and missile launches at SNI in 2001; the NAWCWD's March, 2002 Final Environmental Impact Statement (Final EIS) to assess the effects of its ongoing and proposed operations in the Sea Range of Point Mugu; and the content and analysis of NAWS's October, 2002 request for the proposed regulations to govern this activity, that this proposed action will not individually or cumulatively result in a significant impact on the quality of the human environment as defined in 40 CFR 1508.27. Therefore, this action is categorically excluded from further environmental review.

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

If NMFS proceeds with rulemaking, it will consider whether consultation under section 7 of the ESA is warranted.

Coastal Zone Management Act Consistency

On February 14, 2001, by a unanimous vote, the State of California Coastal Commission concluded that, with the monitoring and mitigation commitments the Navy has incorporated into their various testing and training activities on the Point Mugu Sea Range, including activities on SNI, and including the commitment to enable continuing Commission staff review of finalized monitoring plans and ongoing monitoring results, the activities are consistent with the marine resources, environmentally sensitive habitat and water quality policies (Sections 30230, 30240, and 30231) of the California Coastal Act.

National Marine Sanctuaries Act

According to the Navy, except for aircraft and vessel traffic transiting the area, none of the Navy's proposed activities would take place within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS). Also, all Navy Sea Range test and training activities are consistent with CINMS regulations (15 CFR 920.70).

Information Solicited

As this document is being published in conformance with NMFS regulations implementing the small take program (50 CFR 216.104(b)(1)(ii)), NMFS requests interested persons to submit comments, information, and suggestions concerning the request and the structure and content of the regulations to allow the taking. As required by 50 CFR 216.105, NMFS will consider this information in developing proposed regulations to authorize the taking. Prior to submitting comments, NMFS recommends reviewers of this document read the responses to comments made previously (see 66 FR 41843, August 9, 2001; 67 FR 56271, September 3, 2002) Start Printed Page 11533for this action, as NMFS does not intend to address these issues further without the submission of additional scientific information to the comment. If NMFS proposes regulations to allow this take, interested parties will be provided with a 45-day period within which to submit comments on the proposed rule.

Start Signature

Dated: March 5, 2003.

Brian P. Hayden,

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

End Signature End Supplemental Information

[FR Doc. 03-5644 Filed 3-10-03; 8:45 am]

BILLING CODE 3510-22-S