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Notice

Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to an Exploration Drilling Program Near Camden Bay, Beaufort Sea, AK;

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AGENCY:

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

ACTION:

Notice; proposed incidental harassment authorization; request for comments.

SUMMARY:

NMFS received an application from Shell Offshore Inc. (Shell) for an Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) to take marine mammals, by harassment, incidental to offshore exploration drilling on Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) leases in the Beaufort Sea, Alaska. Pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NMFS is requesting comments on its proposal to issue an IHA to Shell to take, by Level B harassment only, eight species of marine mammals during the specified activity.

DATES:

Comments and information must be received no later than December 7, 2011.

ADDRESSES:

Comments on the application should be addressed to Michael Payne, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910. The mailbox address for providing email comments is ITP.Nachman@noaa.gov. NMFS is not responsible for email comments sent to addresses other than the one provided here. Comments sent via email, including all attachments, must not exceed a 10-megabyte file size.

Instructions: All comments received are a part of the public record and will generally be posted to http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​pr/​permits/​incidental.htm without change. All Personal Identifying Information (for example, name, address, etc.) voluntarily submitted by the commenter may be publicly accessible. Do not submit Confidential Business Information or otherwise sensitive or protected information.

A copy of the application, which contains several attachments, including Shell's marine mammal mitigation and monitoring plan and Plan of Cooperation, used in this document may be obtained by writing to the address specified above, telephoning the contact listed below (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT), or visiting the Internet at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​pr/​permits/​incidental.htm. Documents cited in this notice may also be viewed, by appointment, during regular business hours, at the aforementioned address.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Candace Nachman, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, (301) 427-8401.

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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, a notice of a proposed authorization is provided to the public for review.

Authorization for incidental takings shall be granted if NMFS 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 (where relevant), and if the permissible methods of taking and requirements pertaining to the mitigation, monitoring and reporting of such takings are set forth. 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.”

Section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA established an expedited process by which citizens of the U.S. can apply for an authorization to incidentally take small numbers of marine mammals by harassment. Section 101(a)(5)(D) establishes a 45-day time limit for NMFS review of an application followed by a 30-day public notice and comment period on any proposed authorizations for the incidental harassment of marine mammals. Within 45 days of the close of the comment period, NMFS must either issue or deny the authorization.

Except with respect to certain activities not pertinent here, 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

NMFS received an application on May 10, 2011, from Shell for the taking, by harassment, of marine mammals incidental to offshore exploration drilling on OCS leases in the Beaufort Sea, Alaska. NMFS reviewed Shell's application and identified a number of issues requiring further clarification. After addressing comments from NMFS, Shell modified its application and submitted a revised application on September 2, 2011. NMFS carefully evaluated Shell's application, including their analyses, and determined that the application is complete. The September 2, 2011, application is the one available for public comment (see ADDRESSES) and considered by NMFS for this proposed IHA.

Shell plans to drill two exploration wells at two drill sites in Camden Bay, Beaufort Sea, Alaska, during the 2012 Arctic open-water season (July through October). Impacts to marine mammals may occur from noise produced by the drillship, zero-offset vertical seismic profile (ZVSP) surveys, and supporting vessels (including icebreakers) and aircraft. Shell has requested an authorization to take 11 marine mammal species by Level B harassment. However, some of these species are not expected to be found in the activity area. Therefore, NMFS is proposing to authorize take of eight marine mammal species, by Level B harassment, incidental to Shell's offshore exploration drilling program in Camden Bay. These species include: Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas); bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus); gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus); harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena); bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus); ringed seal (Phoca hispida); spotted seal (P. largha); and ribbon seal (Histriophoca fasciata).

Description of the Specified Activity and Specified Geographic Region

Shell plans to conduct an offshore exploration drilling program on U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM, formerly the Minerals Management Service) Alaska OCS leases located north of Point Thomson near Camden Bay in the Beaufort Sea, Alaska, during the 2012 open-water season. During the 2012 drilling program, Shell plans to complete two exploration wells at two Start Printed Page 68975drill sites, one well each on the Torpedo prospect (NR06-04 Flaxman Island lease block 6610, OCS-Y-1941 [Flaxman Island 6610—Torpedo “H” or “J” drill site]) and the Sivulliq prospect (NR06-04 Flaxman Island lease block 6658, OCS-Y 1805 [Flaxman Island 6658—Sivulliq “N” or “G” drill sites]). See Figure 1-1 in Shell's application for the lease block and drill site locations (see ADDRESSES). All drilling is planned to be vertical.

Exploration Drilling

Shell plans to drill the Torpedo prospect well (Torpedo “H” or “J”) first, followed by the Sivulliq well (Sivulliq “N” or “G”), unless adverse surface conditions or other factors dictate a reversal of drilling sequence. In that case, Shell will mobilize to the Sivulliq prospect and drill there first. Because this is an Arctic program, weather and ice conditions will dictate actual operations. The Torpedo H and J drill sites are located 20.8 and 23.1 mi (33.5 and 37.2 km) from shore in water 120 and 124 ft (36.6 and 37.8 m) deep, respectively. The Sivulliq G and N drill sites are located 16.6 and 16.2 mi (26.7 and 26.1 km) from shore in water 110 and 107 ft (33.5 and 32.6 m) deep, respectively.

(1) Drilling Vessels

Shell plans to use one of two drilling vessels for its proposed 2012 Camden Bay exploratory drilling program: The Kulluk (owned by Shell and operated by Noble Drilling [Noble]); or the Discoverer (owned and operated by Noble). Only one of these drilling vessels would be used for the Camden Bay program, not both. Information on each vessel is provided next, and additional details can be found in Attachment A of Shell's IHA application (see ADDRESSES).

The Kulluk has an Arctic Class IV hull design, is capable of drilling in up to 600 ft (182.9 m) of water and is moored using a 12-point anchor system. The vessel is 266 ft (81 m) long. The Kulluk' s mooring system consists of 12 Hepburn winches located on the outboard side of the main deck. Anchor wires lead off the bottom of each winch drum inboard for approximately 55 ft (16.8 m). The wire is then redirected by a sheave, down through a hawse pipe to an underwater, ice protected, swivel fairlead. The wire travels from the fairlead directly under the hull to the anchor system on the seafloor. The Kulluk would have an anchor radius maximum of 3,117 ft (950 m) for the Sivulliq and Torpedo drill sites. While on location at the drill sites, the Kulluk will be affixed to the seafloor using 12, 15 metric ton Stevpris anchors arranged in a radial array.

The Kulluk is designed to maintain its location in drilling mode in moving ice with thickness up to 4 ft (1.2 m) without the aid of any active ice management. With the aid of the ice management vessels, the Kulluk would be able to withstand more severe ice conditions. In more open-water conditions, the Kulluk can maintain its drilling location during storm events with wave heights up to 18 ft (5.5 m) while drilling, and can withstand wave heights of up to 40 ft (12.2 m) when not drilling and disconnected (assuming a storm duration of 24 hours).

The Discoverer is a true drillship and is a largely self-contained drillship that offers full accommodations for a crew of up to 140 persons. The Discoverer is 514 ft (156.7 m) long with a maximum height (above keel) of 274 ft (83.7 m). It is an anchored drillship with an 8-point anchored mooring system and would likely have a maximum anchor radius of 2,969-2,986 ft (905-910 m) at either the Sivulliq or Torpedo drill sites. While on location at the drill sites, the Discoverer will be affixed to the seafloor using eight 7,000 kg (7.7 ton) Stevpris anchors arranged in a radial array. The underwater fairleads prevent ice fouling of the anchor lines. Turret mooring allows orientation of the vessel's bow into the prevailing ice drift direction to present minimum hull exposure to drifting ice. The vessel is rotated around the turret by hydraulic jacks. Rotation can be augmented by the use of the fitted bow and stern thrusters. The hull has been reinforced for ice resistance. Ice-strengthened sponsons have been retrofitted to the ship's hull.

(2) Support Vessels

During the 2012 drilling season, the Kulluk or Discoverer will be attended by 11 vessels that will be used for ice-management, anchor handling, oil spill response (OSR), refueling, resupply, drill mud/cuttings and wastewater transfer, equipment and waste holding, and servicing of the drilling operations. Tables 1-1a and 1-1b in Shell's application provide lists of the support vessels to be used during the drilling program and OSR vessels. The workboats associated with OSR training (which are stored on an OSR barge) are not counted among the 11 attending vessels. All vessels are intended to be either in transit or staged (i.e., on anchor) in the Beaufort Sea during the exploration drilling activities. The oil spill tanker (OST) would be staged such that it would arrive at a recovery site, if needed, within 24 hours of departure from the staging location. The purpose of the OST would be to provide a place to store large volumes of recovered crude oil, emulsion and free water in the unlikely event of a spill, and OSR operations. Additional information on Shell's fleet of oil spill response vessels can be found in the IHA application.

The M/V Nordica (Nordica) or a similar vessel will serve as the primary ice management vessel in support of the Kulluk or Discoverer. Hull 247 or a similar vessel will provide anchor handling duties, serve as the berthing (accommodations) vessel for the OSR crew, and will also serve as a secondary ice management vessel by managing smaller ice floes that may pose a potential safety issue to the drillship and the support vessels servicing the drillship. This vessel will also provide supplemental oil recovery capability (Vessel of Opportunity Skimming System [VOSS]). When managing ice, the Nordica (or similar vessel) and Hull 247 will generally be confined to a 40° arc up to 3.1 mi (4.9 km) upwind originating at the drilling vessel (see Figure 1-3 in Shell's application). It is anticipated that the ice management vessels will be managing ice for up to 38% of the time when within 25 mi (40 km) of the Kulluk or Discoverer. Active ice management involves using the ice management vessel to steer larger floes so that their path does not intersect with the drill site. Around-the-clock ice forecasting using real-time satellite coverage (available through Shell Ice and Weather Advisory Center [SIWAC]) will support the ice management duties. When the Nordica and Hull 247 are not needed for ice management, they will reside outside the 25 mi (40 km) radius from the Kulluk or Discoverer if it is safe to do so. These vessels will enter and exit the Beaufort Sea with the Kulluk or Discoverer.

The exploration drilling operations will require the transfer of supplies between either the Deadhorse/West Dock shorebase or Dutch Harbor and the drillship (either the Kulluk or Discoverer). While the Kulluk or Discoverer is anchored at a drill site, Shell anticipates 24 visits/tie-ups (if the Kulluk is the drilling vessel being used) or 8 visits/tie-ups (if the Discoverer is being used) throughout the drilling season from support vessels. During resupply, mud/cuttings and other waste streams will be transferred to a deck barge or waste barge for temporary storage, which will be brought south for disposal at the end of the drilling season. Additional information on the resupply and waste removal vessels can be found in Shell's application. Removal of waste and resupply to the Start Printed Page 68976drilling vessels will be conducted the same way regardless of drilling vessel.

(3) Aircraft

An AW139 or Sikorsky S-92 helicopter based in Deadhorse will be used for flights between the shorebase and drill sites. It is expected that on average, up to two flights per day (approximately 12 flights per week) will be necessary to transport supplies and rotate crews. A Sikorsky S-92 based in Barrow will be used for search and rescue operations. Marine mammal monitoring flights will utilize a de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft. The de Havilland Twin Otter is expected to fly daily. Table 1-1c in Shell's application presents the aircraft planned to support the exploration drilling program.

Zero-Offset Vertical Seismic Profile

At the end of each drill hole, Shell may conduct a geophysical survey referred to as ZVSP at each drill site where a well is drilled in 2012. During ZVSP surveys, an airgun array is deployed at a location near or adjacent to the drilling vessel, while receivers are placed (temporarily anchored) in the wellbore. The sound source (airgun array) is fired repeatedly, and the reflected sonic waves are recorded by receivers (geophones) located in the wellbore. The geophones, typically in a string, are then raised up to the next interval in the wellbore, and the process is repeated until the entire wellbore has been surveyed. The purpose of the ZVSP is to gather geophysical information at various depths, which can then be used to tie-in or ground-truth geophysical information from the previous seismic surveys with geological data collected within the wellbore.

Shell intends to conduct a particular form of vertical seismic profile known as a ZVSP, in which the sound source is maintained at a constant location near the wellbore (see Figure 1-2 in Shell's application). A typical sound source that would be used by Shell in 2012 is the ITAGA eight-airgun array, which consists of four 150 in3 airguns and four 40 in3 airguns. These airguns can be activated in any combination, and Shell intends to utilize the minimum airgun volume required to obtain an acceptable signal. Current specifications of the array are provided in Table 1-2 of Shell's application. The airgun array is depicted within its frame or sled, which is approximately 6 ft x 5 ft x 10 ft (1.8 m x 1.5 m x 3 m) (see photograph in Shell's application). Typical receivers would consist of a Schlumberger wireline four level Vertical Seismic Imager (VSI) tool, which has four receivers 50-ft (15-m) apart.

A ZVSP survey is normally conducted at each well after total depth is reached but may be conducted at a shallower depth. For each survey, Shell plans to deploy the airgun array over the side of the Kulluk or Discoverer with a crane (sound source will be 50-200 ft [15-61 m] from the wellhead depending on crane location) to a depth of approximately 10-23 ft (3-7 m) below the water surface. The VSI, with its four receivers, will be temporarily anchored in the wellbore at depth. The sound source will be pressured up to 2,000 pounds per square inch (psi) and activated 5-7 times at approximately 20-second intervals. The VSI will then be moved to the next interval of the wellbore and reanchored, after which the airgun array will again be activated 5-7 times. This process will be repeated until the entire well bore is surveyed in this manner. The interval between anchor points for the VSI usually is between 200 and 300 ft (61 and 91 m). A normal ZVSP survey is conducted over a period of about 10-14 hours, depending on the depth of the well and the number of anchoring points. Therefore, considering a few different scenarios, the airgun array could be fired between 117 and 245 times during the 10-14 hour period. For example, a 7,000-ft (2,133.6-m) well with 200-ft (61-m) spacing and seven activations per station would result in the airgun array being fired 245 times to survey the entire well. That same 7,000-ft (2,133.6-m) well with 300-ft (91-m) spacing and five activations would result in the airgun array being fired 117 times to survey the entire well. The remainder of the time during those 10-14 hours when the airgun is not firing is used to move and anchor the geophone array.

Ice Management and Forecasting

Shell recognizes that the drilling program is located in an area that is characterized by active sea ice movement, ice scouring, and storm surges. In anticipation of potential ice hazards that may be encountered, Shell has developed and will implement an Ice Management Plan (IMP; see Attachment B in Shell's IHA application) to ensure real-time ice and weather forecasting is conducted in order to identify conditions that might put operations at risk and will modify its activities accordingly. The IMP also contains ice threat classification levels depending on the time available to suspend drilling operations, secure the well, and escape from advancing hazardous ice. Real-time ice and weather forecasting will be available to operations personnel for planning purposes and to alert the fleet of impending hazardous ice and weather conditions. Ice and weather forecasting is provided by SIWAC. The center is continuously manned by experienced personnel, who rely on a number of data sources for ice forecasting and tracking, including:

  • Radarsat and Envisat data—satellites with Synthetic Aperture Radar, providing all-weather imagery of ice conditions with very high resolution;
  • Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer—a satellite providing lower resolution visual and near infrared imagery;
  • Aerial reconnaissance—provided by specially deployed fixed wing or rotary wing aircraft for confirmation of ice conditions and position;
  • Reports from ice specialists on the ice management and anchor handling vessels and from the ice observer on the drillship;
  • Incidental ice data provided by commercial ships transiting the area; and
  • Information from NOAA ice centers and the University of Colorado.

Drift ice will be actively managed by ice management vessels, consisting of an ice management vessel and an anchor handling vessel. Ice management for safe operation of Shell's planned exploration drilling program will occur far out in the OCS, remote from the vicinities of any routine marine vessel traffic in the Beaufort Sea causing no threat to public safety or services that occurs near to shore. Shell vessels will also communicate movements and activities through the 2012 North Slope Communications Centers. Management of ice by ice management vessels will occur during a drilling season predominated by open water and thus is not expected to contribute to ice hazards, such as ridging, override, or pileup in an offshore or nearshore environment.

The ice-management/anchor handling vessels would manage the ice by deflecting any ice floes that could affect the Kulluk or Discoverer when it is drilling and would also handle the Kulluk's or Discoverer's anchors during connection to and separation from the seafloor. When managing ice, the ice management and anchor handling vessels will generally be operating at a 40° arc up to 3.1 mi (4.9 km) upwind originating at the Kulluk or Discoverer (see Figure 1-3 in Shell's application).

It is anticipated that the ice management vessels will be managing ice for 38% of the time when within 25 mi (40 km) of the Kulluk or Discoverer. Start Printed Page 68977The ice floe frequency and intensity are unpredictable and could range from no ice to ice sufficiently dense that the fleet has insufficient capacity to continue operating, and the Kulluk or Discoverer would need to disconnect from its anchors and move off site. If ice is present, ice management activities may be necessary in early July and towards the end of operations in late October, but it is not expected to be needed throughout the proposed drilling season. Shell has indicated that when ice is present at the drill site, ice disturbance will be limited to the minimum needed to allow drilling to continue. First-year ice (i.e., ice that formed in the most recent autumn-winter period) will be the type most likely to be encountered. The ice management vessels will be tasked with managing the ice so that it will flow easily around and past the Kulluk or Discoverer without building up in front of or around it. This type of ice is managed by the ice management vessel continually moving back and forth across the drift line, directly up-drift of the Kulluk or Discoverer and making turns at both ends. During ice management, the vessel's propeller is rotating at approximately 15-20 percent of the vessel's propeller rotation capacity. Ice management occurs with slow movements of the vessel using lower power and therefore slower propeller rotation speed (i.e., lower cavitation), allowing for fewer repositions of the vessel, thereby reducing cavitation effects in the water. Occasionally, there may be multi-year ice (i.e., ice that has survived at least one summer melt season) ridges that would be managed at a much slower speed than that used to manage first-year ice.

During Camden Bay exploration drilling operations, Shell has indicated that they do not intend to conduct any icebreaking activities; rather, Shell would deploy its support vessels to manage ice as described here. As detailed in Shell's IMP (see Attachment B of Shell's IHA application), actual breaking of ice would occur only in the unlikely event that ice conditions in the immediate vicinity of operations create a safety hazard for the drilling vessel. In such a circumstance, operations personnel will follow the guidelines established in the IMP to evaluate ice conditions and make the formal designation of a hazardous, ice alert condition, which would trigger the procedures that govern any actual icebreaking operations. Historical data relative to ice conditions in the Beaufort Sea in the vicinity of Shell's planned operations, and during the timeframe for those operations, establish that there is a very low probability (e.g., minimal) for the type of hazardous ice conditions that might necessitate icebreaking (e.g., records of the National Naval Ice Center archives). This probability could be greater at the shoulders of the drilling season (early July or late October); therefore, for purposes of evaluating possible impacts of the planned activities, Shell has assumed limited icebreaking activities for a very limited period of time, and estimated incidental takes of marine mammals from such activities.

Timeframe of Activities

Shell's base plan is for the Kulluk or Discoverer and the associated support vessels to transit through the Bering Strait, after July 1, 2012, then through the Chukchi Sea, around Pt. Barrow, and east through the Alaskan Beaufort Sea, before arriving on location at the Torpedo “H” location on or about July 10, or Sivulliq “N” if adverse surface conditions or other factors dictate a reversal of drilling sequence. At the completion of the drilling season on or before October 31, 2012, one or two ice management vessels, along with various support vessels, such as the OSR fleet, will accompany the Kulluk or Discoverer as it travels west through the Beaufort Sea, then south through the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Strait. Subject to ice conditions, alternate exit routes may be considered. Shell has planned a suspension of all operations beginning on August 25 for the Nuiqsut (Cross Island) and Kaktovik subsistence bowhead whale hunts. During the suspension for the whale hunts, the drilling fleet will leave the Camden Bay project area, will move to a location at or north of 71.25 ° N. latitude and at or west of 146.4 ° W. longitude and will return to resume activities after the Nuiqsut (Cross Island) and Kaktovik subsistence bowhead whale hunts conclude. Shell will consult with the Whaling Captain's Associations of Kaktovik and Nuiqsut to ascertain the conclusion of their respective fall subsistence bowhead whale hunts.

Shell will cease drilling on or before October 31, after which the Kulluk or Discoverer will exit the Alaskan Beaufort Sea. In total, Shell anticipates that the exploration drilling program will require approximately 78 drilling days, excluding weather delays, the shutdown period to accommodate the fall bowhead whale harvests at Kaktovik and Cross Island (Nuiqsut), or other operational delays. Time to conduct the ZVSP surveys is included in the 78 drilling days. Shell assumes approximately 11 additional days will be needed for drillship mobilization, drillship moves between locations, and drillship demobilization.

Activities associated with the 2012 Camden Bay, Beaufort Sea, exploration drilling program include operation of the drillship (either the Kulluk or Discoverer), associated support vessels, crew change support, and re-supply, ZVSP surveys, and icebreaking. The Kulluk or Discoverer will remain at the location of the designated exploration drill sites except when mobilizing and demobilizing to and from Camden Bay, transiting between drill sites, and temporarily moving off location if it is determined ice conditions require such a move to ensure the safety of personnel and/or the environment in accordance with Shell's IMP. Ice management vessels, anchor tenders, and OSR vessels will remain in close proximity to the drillship during drilling operations.

Exploratory Drilling Program Sound Characteristics

Potential impacts to marine mammals could occur from the noise produced by the drillship and its support vessels (including the icebreakers), aircraft, and the airgun array during ZVSP surveys. The drillship produces continuous noise into the marine environment. NMFS currently uses a threshold of 120 dB re 1 µPa (rms) for the onset of Level B harassment from continuous sound sources. This 120 dB threshold is also applicable for the icebreakers when actively managing or breaking ice. The drilling vessel to be used will be either the Kulluk or the Discoverer. The two vessels are likely to introduce somewhat different levels of sound into the water during the exploration drilling activities. The airgun array proposed to be used by Shell for the ZVSP surveys produces pulsed noise into the marine environment. NMFS currently uses a threshold of 160 dB re 1 µPa (rms) for the onset of Level B harassment from pulsed sound sources.

(1) Drilling Sounds

Exploratory drilling will be conducted from the Kulluk or Discoverer, vessels specifically designed for such operations in the Arctic. Underwater sound propagation results from the use of generators, drilling machinery, and the rig itself. Received sound levels during vessel-based operations may fluctuate depending on the specific type of activity at a given time and aspect from the vessel. Underwater sound levels may also depend on the specific equipment in operation. Lower sound levels have been reported during well logging than during drilling operations Start Printed Page 68978(Greene, 1987b), and underwater sound levels appeared to be lower at the bow and stern aspects than at the beam (Greene, 1987a).

Most drilling sounds generated from vessel-based operations occur at relatively low frequencies below 600 Hz although tones up to 1,850 Hz were recorded by Greene (1987a) during drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea. At a range of 558 ft (170 m) the 20-1000 Hz band level was 122-125 dB for the drillship Explorer I. Underwater sound levels were slightly higher (134 dB) during drilling activity from the Northern Explorer II at a range of 656 ft (200 m), although tones were only recorded below 600 Hz. Underwater sound measurements from the Kulluk at 0.62 mi (1 km) were higher (143 dB) than from the other two vessels. Sounds from the Kulluk were measured in the Beaufort Sea in 1986 and reported by Greene (1987a). The back propagated broadband source level from the measurements (185.5 dB re 1 µPa at 1 m (rms); reported from the 1/3-octave band levels), which included sounds from a support vessel operating nearby, were used to model sound propagation at the Sivulliq prospect near Camden Bay.

Sound measurements from the Discoverer have not previously been conducted in the Arctic. However, measurements of sounds produced by the Discoverer were made in the South China Sea in 2009 (Austin and Warner, 2010). The results of those measurements were used to model the sound propagation from the Discoverer (including a nearby support vessel) at planned exploration drilling locations in the Beaufort Sea (Warner and Hannay, 2011). Broadband source levels of sounds produced by the Discoverer varied by activity and direction from the ship but were generally between 177 and 185 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m (rms) (Austin and Warner, 2010). Once on location at the drill sites in Camden Bay, Shell plans to take measurements of the drillship (either the Kulluk or Discoverer) to quantify the absolute sound levels produced by drilling and to monitor their variations with time, distance, and direction from the drilling vessel.

(2) Vessel Sounds

In addition to the drillship, various types of vessels will be used in support of the operations, including ice management vessels, anchor handlers, offshore supply vessels, barges and tugs, and OSR vessels. Sounds from boats and vessels have been reported extensively (Greene and Moore, 1995; Blackwell and Greene, 2002, 2005, 2006). Numerous measurements of underwater vessel sound have been performed in support of recent industry activity in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Results of these measurements were reported in various 90-day and comprehensive reports since 2007 (e.g., Aerts et al., 2008; Hauser et al., 2008; Brueggeman, 2009; Ireland et al., 2009). For example, Garner and Hannay (2009) estimated sound pressure levels of 100 dB at distances ranging from approximately 1.5 to 2.3 mi (2.4 to 3.7 km) from various types of barges. MacDonald et al. (2008) estimated higher underwater sound pressure levels (SPLs) from the seismic vessel Gilavar of 120 dB at approximately 13 mi (21 km) from the source, although the sound level was only 150 dB at 85 ft (26 m) from the vessel. Like other industry-generated sound, underwater sound from vessels is generally at relatively low frequencies.

The primary sources of sounds from all vessel classes are propeller cavitation, propeller singing, and propulsion or other machinery. Propeller cavitation is usually the dominant noise source for vessels (Ross, 1976). Propeller cavitation and singing are produced outside the hull, whereas propulsion or other machinery noise originates inside the hull. There are additional sounds produced by vessel activity, such as pumps, generators, flow noise from water passing over the hull, and bubbles breaking in the wake. Icebreakers contribute greater sound levels during icebreaking activities than ships of similar size during normal operation in open water (Richardson et al., 1995a). This higher sound production results from the greater amount of power and propeller cavitation required when operating in thick ice.

Measurements of the icebreaking supply ship Robert Lemeur pushing and breaking ice during exploration drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea in 1986 resulted in an estimated broadband source level of 193 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m (Greene, 1987a; Richardson et al., 1995a).

Sound levels during ice management activities would not be as intense as during icebreaking, and the resulting effects to marine species would be less significant in comparison. During ice management, the vessel's propeller is rotating at approximately 15-20 percent of the vessel's propeller rotation capacity. Instead of actually breaking ice, during ice management, the vessel redirects and repositions the ice by pushing it away from the direction of the drillship at slow speeds so that the ice floe does not slip past the vessel bow. Basically, ice management occurs at slower speed, lower power, and slower propeller rotation speed (i.e., lower cavitation), allowing for fewer repositions of the vessel, thereby reducing cavitation effects in the water than would occur during icebreaking. Once on location at the drill sites in Camden Bay, Shell plans to measure the sound levels produced by vessels operating in support of drilling operations. These vessels will include crew change vessels, tugs, ice management vessels, and OSR vessels.

(3) Aircraft Sound

Helicopters may be used for personnel and equipment transport to and from the drillship. Under calm conditions, rotor and engine sounds are coupled into the water within a 26° cone beneath the aircraft. Some of the sound will transmit beyond the immediate area, and some sound will enter the water outside the 26° area when the sea surface is rough. However, scattering and absorption will limit lateral propagation in the shallow water.

Dominant tones in noise spectra from helicopters are generally below 500 Hz (Greene and Moore, 1995). Harmonics of the main rotor and tail rotor usually dominate the sound from helicopters; however, many additional tones associated with the engines and other rotating parts are sometimes present.

Because of doppler shift effects, the frequencies of tones received at a stationary site diminish when an aircraft passes overhead. The apparent frequency is increased while the aircraft approaches and is reduced while it moves away.

Aircraft flyovers are not heard underwater for very long, especially when compared to how long they are heard in air as the aircraft approaches an observer. Helicopters flying to and from the drillship will generally maintain straight-line routes at altitudes of at least 1,500 ft (457 m) above sea level, thereby limiting the received levels at and below the surface. Aircraft travel would be controlled by Federal Aviation Administration approved flight paths.

(4) Vertical Seismic Profile Sound

A typical eight airgun array (4 x 40 in3 airguns and 4 x 150 in3 airguns, for a total discharge volume of 760 in3) would be used to perform ZVSP surveys, if conducted after the completion of each exploratory well. Typically, a single ZVSP survey will be performed when the well has reached proposed total depth or final depth; although, in some instances, a prior ZVSP will have been performed at a Start Printed Page 68979shallower depth. A typical survey will last 10-14 hours, depending on the depth of the well and the number of anchoring points, and include firings of the full array, plus additional firing of a single 40-in3 airgun to be used as a “mitigation airgun” while the geophones are relocated within the wellbore. The source level for the airgun array proposed for use by Shell will differ based on source depth. At a depth of 9.8 ft (3 m), the SPL is 238 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m, and at a depth of 16.4 ft (5 m), the SPL is 241 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m, with most energy between 20 and 140 Hz.

Airguns function by venting high-pressure air into the water. The pressure signature of an individual airgun consists of a sharp rise and then fall in pressure, followed by several positive and negative pressure excursions caused by oscillation of the resulting air bubble. The sizes, arrangement, and firing times of the individual airguns in an array are designed and synchronized to suppress the pressure oscillations subsequent to the first cycle. Typical high-energy airgun arrays emit most energy at 10-120 Hz. However, the pulses contain significant energy up to 500-1,000 Hz and some energy at higher frequencies (Goold and Fish, 1998; Potter et al., 2007).

Although there will be several support vessels in the drilling operations area, NMFS considers the possibility of collisions with marine mammals highly unlikely. Once on location, the majority of the support vessels will remain in the area of the drillship throughout the 2012 drilling season and will not be making trips between the shorebase and the offshore vessels. When not needed for ice management/icebreaking operations, the icebreaker and anchor handler will remain approximately 25 mi (40 km) upwind and upcurrent of the drillship. Any ice management/icebreaking activity would be expected to occur at a distance of 0.6-12 mi (1-19 km) upwind and upcurrent of the drillship. As the crew change/resupply activities are considered part of normal vessel traffic and are not anticipated to impact marine mammals in a manner that would rise to the level of taking, those activities are not considered further in this document.

Description of Marine Mammals in the Area of the Specified Activity

The Beaufort Sea supports a diverse assemblage of marine mammals, including: bowhead, gray, beluga, killer (Orcinus orca), minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), and humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) whales; harbor porpoises; ringed, ribbon, spotted, and bearded seals; narwhal (Monodon monoceros); polar bears (Ursus maritimus); and walruses (Odobenus rosmarus divergens; see Table 4-1 in Shell's application). The bowhead and humpback whales are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and as depleted under the MMPA. Certain stocks or populations of gray, beluga, and killer whales and spotted seals are listed as endangered or are proposed for listing under the ESA; however, none of those stocks or populations occur in the proposed activity area. On December 10, 2010, NMFS published a notice of proposed threatened status for subspecies of the ringed seal (75 FR 77476) and a notice of proposed threatened and not warranted status for subspecies and distinct population segments of the bearded seal (75 FR 77496) in the Federal Register. Neither of these two ice seal species is considered depleted under the MMPA. Additionally, the ribbon seal is considered a “species of concern” under the ESA. Both the walrus and the polar bear are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and are not considered further in this Notice of Proposed IHA.

Of these species, eight are expected to occur in the area of Shell's proposed operations. These species include: The bowhead, gray, and beluga whales, harbor porpoise, and the ringed, spotted, bearded, and ribbon seals. The marine mammal species that is likely to be encountered most widely (in space and time) throughout the period of the proposed drilling program is the ringed seal. Bowhead whales are also anticipated to occur in the proposed project area more frequently than the other cetacean species; however, their occurrence is not expected until later in the season. Even though harbor porpoise and ribbon seals are not typically sighted in Camden Bay, there have been recent sightings in the Beaufort Sea near the Prudhoe Bay area, so their occurrence could not be completely ruled out. Point Barrow, Alaska, is the approximate northeastern extent of the harbor porpoise's regular range (Suydam and George, 1992), though there are extralimital records east to the mouth of the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories, Canada, and recent sightings in the Beaufort Sea in the vicinity of Prudhoe Bay during surveys in 2007 and 2008 (Christie et al., 2009). Two ribbon seal sightings were reported during vessel-based activities near Prudhoe Bay in 2008 (Savarese et al., 2009). Where available, Shell used density estimates from peer-reviewed literature in the application. In cases where density estimates were not readily available in the peer-reviewed literature, Shell used other methods to derive the estimates. NMFS reviewed the density estimate descriptions and articles from which estimates were derived and requested additional information to better explain the density estimates presented by Shell in its application. This additional information was included in the revised IHA application. The explanation for those derivations and the actual density estimates are described later in this document (see the “Estimated Take by Incidental Harassment” section).

Other cetacean species that have been observed in the Beaufort Sea but are uncommon or rarely identified in the project area include narwhal and killer, minke, and humpback whales. These species could occur in the project area, but each of these species is uncommon or rare in the area and relatively few encounters with these species are expected during the exploration drilling program. The narwhal occurs in Canadian waters and occasionally in the Beaufort Sea, but it is rare there and is not expected to be encountered. There are scattered records of narwhal in Alaskan waters, including reports by subsistence hunters, where the species is considered extralimital (Reeves et al., 2002). Humpback and minke whales have recently been sighted in the Chukchi Sea but very rarely in the Beaufort Sea. Greene et al. (2007) reported and photographed a humpback whale cow/calf pair east of Barrow near Smith Bay in 2007, which is the first known occurrence of humpbacks in the Beaufort Sea. Savarese et al. (2009) reported one minke whale sighting in the Beaufort Sea in 2007 and 2008. Due to the rarity of these species in the proposed project area and the remote chance they would be affected by Shell's proposed Beaufort Sea drilling activities, these species are not discussed further in this proposed IHA notice.

Shell's application contains information on the status, distribution, seasonal distribution, abundance, and life history of each of the species under NMFS jurisdiction mentioned in this document. When reviewing the application, NMFS determined that the species descriptions provided by Shell correctly characterized the status, distribution, seasonal distribution, and abundance of each species. Please refer to the application for that information (see ADDRESSES). Additional information can also be found in the NMFS Stock Assessment Reports (SAR). The Alaska Start Printed Page 689802010 SAR is available at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​pr/​pdfs/​sars/​ak2010.pdf.

Brief Background on Marine Mammal Hearing

When considering the influence of various kinds of sound on the marine environment, it is necessary to understand that different kinds of marine life are sensitive to different frequencies of sound. Based on available behavioral data, audiograms have been derived using auditory evoked potentials, anatomical modeling, and other data, Southall et al. (2007) designate “functional hearing groups” for marine mammals and estimate the lower and upper frequencies of functional hearing of the groups. The functional groups and the associated frequencies are indicated below (though animals are less sensitive to sounds at the outer edge of their functional range and most sensitive to sounds of frequencies within a smaller range somewhere in the middle of their functional hearing range):

  • Low frequency cetaceans (13 species of mysticetes): Functional hearing is estimated to occur between approximately 7 Hz and 22 kHz (however, a study by Au et al. (2006) of humpback whale songs indicate that the range may extend to at least 24 kHz);
  • Mid-frequency cetaceans (32 species of dolphins, six species of larger toothed whales, and 19 species of beaked and bottlenose whales): Functional hearing is estimated to occur between approximately 150 Hz and 160 kHz;
  • High frequency cetaceans (eight species of true porpoises, six species of river dolphins, Kogia, the franciscana, and four species of cephalorhynchids): Functional hearing is estimated to occur between approximately 200 Hz and 180 kHz; and
  • Pinnipeds in Water: Functional hearing is estimated to occur between approximately 75 Hz and 75 kHz, with the greatest sensitivity between approximately 700 Hz and 20 kHz.

As mentioned previously in this document, six marine mammal species (three cetacean and three pinniped species) are likely to occur in the proposed exploratory drilling area. Of the three cetacean species likely to occur in Shell's proposed project area, two are classified as low frequency cetaceans (i.e., bowhead and gray whales) and one is classified as a mid-frequency cetacean (i.e., beluga whales) (Southall et al., 2007).

Underwater audiograms have been obtained using behavioral methods for four species of phocinid seals: The ringed, harbor, harp, and northern elephant seals (reviewed in Richardson et al., 1995a; Kastak and Schusterman, 1998). Below 30-50 kHz, the hearing threshold of phocinids is essentially flat down to at least 1 kHz and ranges between 60 and 85 dB re 1 μPa. There are few published data on in-water hearing sensitivity of phocid seals below 1 kHz. However, measurements for one harbor seal indicated that, below 1 kHz, its thresholds deteriorated gradually to 96 dB re 1 μPa at 100 Hz from 80 dB re 1 μPa at 800 Hz and from 67 dB re 1 μPa at 1,600 Hz (Kastak and Schusterman, 1998). More recent data suggest that harbor seal hearing at low frequencies may be more sensitive than that and that earlier data were confounded by excessive background noise (Kastelein et al., 2009a,b). If so, harbor seals have considerably better underwater hearing sensitivity at low frequencies than do small odontocetes like belugas (for which the threshold at 100 Hz is about 125 dB).

Pinniped call characteristics are relevant when assessing potential masking effects of man-made sounds. In addition, for those species whose hearing has not been tested, call characteristics are useful in assessing the frequency range within which hearing is likely to be most sensitive. The three species of seals present in the study area, all of which are in the phocid seal group, are all most vocal during the spring mating season and much less so during late summer. In each species, the calls are at frequencies from several hundred to several thousand hertz—above the frequency range of the dominant noise components from most of the proposed oil exploration activities.

Cetacean hearing has been studied in relatively few species and individuals. The auditory sensitivity of bowhead, gray, and other baleen whales has not been measured, but relevant anatomical and behavioral evidence is available. These whales appear to be specialized for low frequency hearing, with some directional hearing ability (reviewed in Richardson et al., 1995a; Ketten, 2000). Their optimum hearing overlaps broadly with the low frequency range where exploration drilling activities, airguns, and associated vessel traffic emit most of their energy.

The beluga whale is one of the better-studied species in terms of its hearing ability. As mentioned earlier, the auditory bandwidth in mid-frequency odontocetes is believed to range from 150 Hz to 160 kHz (Southall et al., 2007); however, belugas are most sensitive above 10 kHz. They have relatively poor sensitivity at the low frequencies (reviewed in Richardson et al., 1995a) that dominate the sound from industrial activities and associated vessels. Nonetheless, the noise from strong low frequency sources is detectable by belugas many kilometers away (Richardson and Wursig, 1997). Also, beluga hearing at low frequencies in open-water conditions is apparently somewhat better than in the captive situations where most hearing studies were conducted (Ridgway and Carder, 1995; Au, 1997). If so, low frequency sounds emanating from drilling activities may be detectable somewhat farther away than previously estimated.

Call characteristics of cetaceans provide some limited information on their hearing abilities, although the auditory range often extends beyond the range of frequencies contained in the calls. Also, understanding the frequencies at which different marine mammal species communicate is relevant for the assessment of potential impacts from manmade sounds. A summary of the call characteristics for bowhead, gray, and beluga whales is provided next.

Most bowhead calls are tonal, frequency-modulated sounds at frequencies of 50-400 Hz. These calls overlap broadly in frequency with the underwater sounds emitted by many of the activities to be performed during Shell's proposed exploration drilling program (Richardson et al., 1995a). Source levels are quite variable, with the stronger calls having source levels up to about 180 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m. Gray whales make a wide variety of calls at frequencies from <100-2,000 Hz (Moore and Ljungblad, 1984; Dalheim, 1987).

Beluga calls include trills, whistles, clicks, bangs, chirps and other sounds (Schevill and Lawrence, 1949; Ouellet, 1979; Sjare and Smith, 1986a). Beluga whistles have dominant frequencies in the 2-6 kHz range (Sjare and Smith, 1986a). This is above the frequency range of most of the sound energy produced by the proposed exploratory drilling activities and associated vessels. Other beluga call types reported by Sjare and Smith (1986a,b) included sounds at mean frequencies ranging upward from 1 kHz.

The beluga also has a very well developed high frequency echolocation system, as reviewed by Au (1993). Echolocation signals have peak frequencies from 40-120 kHz and broadband source levels of up to 219 dB re 1 μPa-m (zero-peak). Echolocation calls are far above the frequency range of the sounds produced by the devices proposed for use during Shell's Camden Bay exploratory drilling program. Therefore, those industrial sounds are Start Printed Page 68981not expected to interfere with echolocation.

Potential Effects of the Specified Activity on Marine Mammals

The likely or possible impacts of the proposed exploratory drilling program in Camden Bay on marine mammals could involve both non-acoustic and acoustic effects. Potential non-acoustic effects could result from the physical presence of the equipment and personnel. Petroleum development and associated activities introduce sound into the marine environment. Impacts to marine mammals are expected to primarily be acoustic in nature. Potential acoustic effects on marine mammals relate to sound produced by drilling activity, vessels, and aircraft, as well as the ZVSP airgun array. The potential effects of sound from the proposed exploratory drilling program might include one or more of the following: Tolerance; masking of natural sounds; behavioral disturbance; non-auditory physical effects; and, at least in theory, temporary or permanent hearing impairment (Richardson et al., 1995a). However, for reasons discussed later in this document, it is unlikely that there would be any cases of temporary, or especially permanent, hearing impairment resulting from these activities. As outlined in previous NMFS documents, the effects of noise on marine mammals are highly variable, and can be categorized as follows (based on Richardson et al., 1995a):

(1) The noise may be too weak to be heard at the location of the animal (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 marine mammal; these can range from temporary alert responses to active avoidance reactions such as vacating an area at least until the noise event ceases but potentially for longer periods of time;

(4) Upon repeated exposure, a marine mammal 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, and associated with situations that a marine mammal perceives as a threat;

(5) Any anthropogenic noise that is strong enough to be heard has the potential to reduce (mask) the ability of a marine mammal to hear natural sounds at similar frequencies, including calls from conspecifics, and underwater 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 a 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) in its hearing ability. 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. In addition, intense acoustic or explosive events may cause trauma to tissues associated with organs vital for hearing, sound production, respiration and other functions. This trauma may include minor to severe hemorrhage.

Potential Acoustic Effects From Exploratory Drilling Activities

(1) Tolerance

Numerous studies have shown that underwater sounds from industry activities are often readily detectable by marine mammals in the water at distances of many kilometers. Numerous studies have also shown that marine mammals at distances more than a few kilometers away often show no apparent response to industry activities of various types (Miller et al., 2005; Bain and Williams, 2006). This is often true even in cases when the sounds must be readily audible to the animals based on measured received levels and the hearing sensitivity of that mammal group. Although various baleen whales, toothed whales, and (less frequently) pinnipeds have been shown to react behaviorally to underwater sound such as airgun pulses or vessels under some conditions, at other times mammals of all three types have shown no overt reactions (e.g., Malme et al., 1986; Richardson et al., 1995; Madsen and Mohl, 2000; Croll et al., 2001; Jacobs and Terhune, 2002; Madsen et al., 2002; Miller et al., 2005). In general, pinnipeds and small odontocetes seem to be more tolerant of exposure to some types of underwater sound than are baleen whales. Richardson et al. (1995a) found that vessel noise does not seem to strongly affect pinnipeds that are already in the water. Richardson et al. (1995a) went on to explain that seals on haul-outs sometimes respond strongly to the presence of vessels and at other times appear to show considerable tolerance of vessels, and Brueggeman et al. (1992, cited in Richardson et al., 1995a) observed ringed seals hauled out on ice pans displaying short-term escape reactions when a ship approached within 0.25-0.5 mi (0.4-0.8 km).

(2) Masking

Masking is the obscuring of sounds of interest by other sounds, often at similar frequencies. Marine mammals are highly dependent on sound, and their ability to recognize sound signals amid other noise is important in communication, predator and prey detection, and, in the case of toothed whales, echolocation. Even in the absence of manmade sounds, the sea is usually noisy. Background ambient noise often interferes with or masks the ability of an animal to detect a sound signal even when that signal is above its absolute hearing threshold. Natural ambient noise includes contributions from wind, waves, precipitation, other animals, and (at frequencies above 30 kHz) thermal noise resulting from molecular agitation (Richardson et al., 1995a). Background noise also can include sounds from human activities. Masking of natural sounds can result when human activities produce high levels of background noise. Conversely, if the background level of underwater noise is high (e.g., on a day with strong wind and high waves), an anthropogenic noise source will not be detectable as far away as would be possible under quieter conditions and will itself be masked.

Although some degree of masking is inevitable when high levels of manmade broadband sounds are introduced into the sea, marine mammals have evolved systems and behavior that function to reduce the impacts of masking. Structured signals, such as the echolocation click sequences of small toothed whales, may be readily detected even in the presence of strong background noise because their frequency content and temporal features usually differ strongly from those of the background noise (Au and Moore, 1988, 1990). The components of background noise that are similar in frequency to the sound signal in question primarily Start Printed Page 68982determine the degree of masking of that signal.

Redundancy and context can also facilitate detection of weak signals. These phenomena may help marine mammals detect weak sounds in the presence of natural or manmade noise. Most masking studies in marine mammals present the test signal and the masking noise from the same direction. The sound localization abilities of marine mammals suggest that, if signal and noise come from different directions, masking would not be as severe as the usual types of masking studies might suggest (Richardson et al., 1995a). The dominant background noise may be highly directional if it comes from a particular anthropogenic source such as a ship or industrial site. Directional hearing may significantly reduce the masking effects of these noises by improving the effective signal-to-noise ratio. In the cases of high-frequency hearing by the bottlenose dolphin, beluga whale, and killer whale, empirical evidence confirms that masking depends strongly on the relative directions of arrival of sound signals and the masking noise (Penner et al., 1986; Dubrovskiy, 1990; Bain et al., 1993; Bain and Dahlheim, 1994). Toothed whales, and probably other marine mammals as well, have additional capabilities besides directional hearing that can facilitate detection of sounds in the presence of background noise. There is evidence that some toothed whales can shift the dominant frequencies of their echolocation signals from a frequency range with a lot of ambient noise toward frequencies with less noise (Au et al., 1974, 1985; Moore and Pawloski, 1990; Thomas and Turl, 1990; Romanenko and Kitain, 1992; Lesage et al., 1999). A few marine mammal species are known to increase the source levels or alter the frequency of their calls in the presence of elevated sound levels (Dahlheim, 1987; Au, 1993; Lesage et al., 1993, 1999; Terhune, 1999; Foote et al., 2004; Parks et al., 2007, 2009; Di Iorio and Clark, 2009; Holt et al., 2009).

These data demonstrating adaptations for reduced masking pertain mainly to the very high frequency echolocation signals of toothed whales. There is less information about the existence of corresponding mechanisms at moderate or low frequencies or in other types of marine mammals. For example, Zaitseva et al. (1980) found that, for the bottlenose dolphin, the angular separation between a sound source and a masking noise source had little effect on the degree of masking when the sound frequency was 18 kHz, in contrast to the pronounced effect at higher frequencies. Directional hearing has been demonstrated at frequencies as low as 0.5-2 kHz in several marine mammals, including killer whales (Richardson et al., 1995a). This ability may be useful in reducing masking at these frequencies. In summary, high levels of noise generated by anthropogenic activities may act to mask the detection of weaker biologically important sounds by some marine mammals. This masking may be more prominent for lower frequencies. For higher frequencies, such as that used in echolocation by toothed whales, several mechanisms are available that may allow them to reduce the effects of such masking.

Masking effects of underwater sounds from Shell's proposed activities on marine mammal calls and other natural sounds are expected to be limited. For example, beluga whales primarily use high-frequency sounds to communicate and locate prey; therefore, masking by low-frequency sounds associated with drilling activities is not expected to occur (Gales, 1982, as cited in Shell, 2009). If the distance between communicating whales does not exceed their distance from the drilling activity, the likelihood of potential impacts from masking would be low (Gales, 1982, as cited in Shell, 2009). At distances greater than 660-1,300 ft (200-400 m), recorded sounds from drilling activities did not affect behavior of beluga whales, even though the sound energy level and frequency were such that it could be heard several kilometers away (Richardson et al., 1995b). This exposure resulted in whales being deflected from the sound energy and changing behavior. These minor changes are not expected to affect the beluga whale population (Richardson et al., 1991; Richard et al., 1998). Brewer et al. (1993) observed belugas within 2.3 mi (3.7 km) of the drilling unit Kulluk during drilling; however, the authors do not describe any behaviors that may have been exhibited by those animals. Please refer to the Arctic Multiple-Sale Draft Environmental Impact Statement (USDOI MMS, 2008), available on the Internet at: http://www.mms.gov/​alaska/​ref/​EIS%20EA/​ArcticMultiSale_​209/​_DEIS.htm, for more detailed information.

There is evidence of other marine mammal species continuing to call in the presence of industrial activity. Annual acoustical monitoring near BP's Northstar production facility during the fall bowhead migration westward through the Beaufort Sea has recorded thousands of calls each year (for examples, see Richardson et al., 2007; Aerts and Richardson, 2008). Construction, maintenance, and operational activities have been occurring from this facility for over 10 years. To compensate and reduce masking, some mysticetes may alter the frequencies of their communication sounds (Richardson et al., 1995a; Parks et al., 2007). Masking processes in baleen whales are not amenable to laboratory study, and no direct measurements on hearing sensitivity are available for these species. It is not currently possible to determine with precision the potential consequences of temporary or local background noise levels. However, Parks et al. (2007) found that right whales (a species closely related to the bowhead whale) altered their vocalizations, possibly in response to background noise levels. For species that can hear over a relatively broad frequency range, as is presumed to be the case for mysticetes, a narrow band source may only cause partial masking. Richardson et al. (1995a) note that a bowhead whale 12.4 mi (20 km) from a human sound source, such as that produced during oil and gas industry activities, might hear strong calls from other whales within approximately 12.4 mi (20 km), and a whale 3.1 mi (5 km) from the source might hear strong calls from whales within approximately 3.1 mi (5 km). Additionally, masking is more likely to occur closer to a sound source, and distant anthropogenic sound is less likely to mask short-distance acoustic communication (Richardson et al., 1995a).

Although some masking by marine mammal species in the area may occur, the extent of the masking interference will depend on the spatial relationship of the animal and Shell's activity. Almost all energy in the sounds emitted by drilling and other operational activities is at low frequencies, predominantly below 250 Hz with another peak centered around 1,000 Hz. Most energy in the sounds from the vessels and aircraft to be used during this project is below 1 kHz (Moore et al., 1984; Greene and Moore, 1995; Blackwell et al., 2004b; Blackwell and Greene, 2006). These frequencies are mainly used by mysticetes but not by odontocetes. Therefore, masking effects would potentially be more pronounced in the bowhead and gray whales that might occur in the proposed project area. If, as described later in this document, certain species avoid the proposed drilling locations, impacts from masking are anticipated to be low.

(3) Behavioral Disturbance Reactions

Behavioral responses to sound are highly variable and context-specific. Start Printed Page 68983Many different variables can influence an animal's perception of and response to (in both nature and magnitude) an acoustic event. An animal's prior experience with a sound or sound source affects whether it is less likely (habituation) or more likely (sensitization) to respond to certain sounds in the future (animals can also be innately pre-disposed to respond to certain sounds in certain ways; Southall et al., 2007). Related to the sound itself, the perceived nearness of the sound, bearing of the sound (approaching vs. retreating), similarity of a sound to biologically relevant sounds in the animal's environment (i.e., calls of predators, prey, or conspecifics), and familiarity of the sound may affect the way an animal responds to the sound (Southall et al., 2007). Individuals (of different age, gender, reproductive status, etc.) among most populations will have variable hearing capabilities and differing behavioral sensitivities to sounds that will be affected by prior conditioning, experience, and current activities of those individuals. Often, specific acoustic features of the sound and contextual variables (i.e., proximity, duration, or recurrence of the sound or the current behavior that the marine mammal is engaged in or its prior experience), as well as entirely separate factors such as the physical presence of a nearby vessel, may be more relevant to the animal's response than the received level alone.

Exposure of marine mammals to sound sources can result in (but is not limited to) no response or any of the following observable responses: Increased alertness; orientation or attraction to a sound source; vocal modifications; cessation of feeding; cessation of social interaction; alteration of movement or diving behavior; avoidance; habitat abandonment (temporary or permanent); and, in severe cases, panic, flight, stampede, or stranding, potentially resulting in death (Southall et al., 2007). On a related note, many animals perform vital functions, such as feeding, resting, traveling, and socializing, on a diel cycle (24-hr cycle). Behavioral reactions to noise exposure (such as disruption of critical life functions, displacement, or avoidance of important habitat) are more likely to be significant if they last more than one diel cycle or recur on subsequent days (Southall et al., 2007). Consequently, a behavioral response lasting less than one day and not recurring on subsequent days is not considered particularly severe unless it could directly affect reproduction or survival (Southall et al., 2007).

Detailed studies regarding responses to anthropogenic sound have been conducted on humpback, gray, and bowhead whales and ringed seals. Less detailed data are available for some other species of baleen whales, sperm whales, small toothed whales, and sea otters. The following sub-sections provide examples of behavioral responses that provide an idea of the variability in behavioral responses that would be expected given the different sensitivities of marine mammal species to sound.

Baleen Whales—Richardson et al. (1995b) reported changes in surfacing and respiration behavior and the occurrence of turns during surfacing in bowhead whales exposed to playback of underwater sound from drilling activities. These behavioral effects were localized and occurred at distances up to 1.2-2.5 mi (2-4 km).

Some bowheads appeared to divert from their migratory path after exposure to projected icebreaker sounds. Other bowheads however, tolerated projected icebreaker sound at levels 20 dB and more above ambient sound levels. The source level of the projected sound however, was much less than that of an actual icebreaker, and reaction distances to actual icebreaking may be much greater than those reported here for projected sounds.

Brewer et al. (1993) and Hall et al. (1994) reported numerous sightings of marine mammals including bowhead whales in the vicinity of offshore drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea. One bowhead whale sighting was reported within approximately 1,312 ft (400 m) of a drilling vessel although most other bowhead sightings were at much greater distances. Few bowheads were recorded near industrial activities by aerial observers. After controlling for spatial autocorrelation in aerial survey data from Hall et al. (1994) using a Mantel test, Schick and Urban (2000) found that the variable describing straight line distance between the rig and bowhead whale sightings was not significant but that a variable describing threshold distances between sightings and the rig was significant. Thus, although the aerial survey results suggested substantial avoidance of the operations by bowhead whales, observations by vessel-based observers indicate that at least some bowheads may have been closer to industrial activities than was suggested by results of aerial observations.

Richardson et al. (2008) reported a slight change in the distribution of bowhead whale calls in response to operational sounds on BP's Northstar Island. The southern edge of the call distribution ranged from 0.47 to 1.46 mi (0.76 to 2.35 km) farther offshore, apparently in response to industrial sound levels. This result however, was only achieved after intensive statistical analyses, and it is not clear that this represented a biologically significant effect.

Patenaude et al. (2002) reported fewer behavioral responses to aircraft overflights by bowhead compared to beluga whales. Behaviors classified as reactions consisted of short surfacings, immediate dives or turns, changes in behavior state, vigorous swimming, and breaching. Most bowhead reaction resulted from exposure to helicopter activity and little response to fixed-wing aircraft was observed. Most reactions occurred when the helicopter was at altitudes ≤ 492 ft (150 m) and lateral distances ≤ 820 ft (250 m; Nowacek et al., 2007).

During their study, Patenaude et al. (2002) observed one bowhead whale cow-calf pair during four passes totaling 2.8 hours of the helicopter and two pairs during Twin Otter overflights. All of the helicopter passes were at altitudes of 49-98 ft (15-30 m). The mother dove both times she was at the surface, and the calf dove once out of the four times it was at the surface. For the cow-calf pair sightings during Twin Otter overflights, the authors did not note any behaviors specific to those pairs. Rather, the reactions of the cow-calf pairs were lumped with the reactions of other groups that did not consist of calves.

Richardson et al. (1995b) and Moore and Clarke (2002) reviewed a few studies that observed responses of gray whales to aircraft. Cow-calf pairs were quite sensitive to a turboprop survey flown at 1,000 ft (305 m) altitude on the Alaskan summering grounds. In that survey, adults were seen swimming over the calf, or the calf swam under the adult (Ljungblad et al., 1983, cited in Richardson et al., 1995b and Moore and Clarke, 2002). However, when the same aircraft circled for more than 10 minutes at 1,050 ft (320 m) altitude over a group of mating gray whales, no reactions were observed (Ljungblad et al., 1987, cited in Moore and Clarke, 2002). Malme et al. (1984, cited in Richardson et al., 1995b and Moore and Clarke, 2002) conducted playback experiments on migrating gray whales. They exposed the animals to underwater noise recorded from a Bell 212 helicopter (estimated altitude=328 ft [100 m]), at an average of three simulated passes per minute. The authors observed that whales changed their swimming course and sometimes slowed down in response to the playback sound but proceeded to migrate past the Start Printed Page 68984transducer. Migrating gray whales did not react overtly to a Bell 212 helicopter at greater than 1,394 ft (425 m) altitude, occasionally reacted when the helicopter was at 1,000-1,198 ft (305-365 m), and usually reacted when it was below 825 ft (250 m; Southwest Research Associates, 1988, cited in Richardson et al., 1995b and Moore and Clarke, 2002). Reactions noted in that study included abrupt turns or dives or both. Green et al. (1992, cited in Richardson et al., 1995b) observed that migrating gray whales rarely exhibited noticeable reactions to a straight-line overflight by a Twin Otter at 197 ft (60 m) altitude. Restrictions on aircraft altitude will be part of the proposed mitigation measures (described in the “Proposed Mitigation” section later in this document) during the proposed drilling activities, and overflights are likely to have little or no disturbance effects on baleen whales. Any disturbance that may occur would likely be temporary and localized.

Southall et al. (2007, Appendix C) reviewed a number of papers describing the responses of marine mammals to non-pulsed sound, such as that produced during exploratory drilling operations. In general, little or no response was observed in animals exposed at received levels from 90-120 dB re 1 µPa (rms). Probability of avoidance and other behavioral effects increased when received levels were from 120-160 dB re 1 µPa (rms). Some of the relevant reviews contained in Southall et al. (2007) are summarized next.

Baker et al. (1982) reported some avoidance by humpback whales to vessel noise when received levels were 110-120 dB (rms) and clear avoidance at 120-140 dB (sound measurements were not provided by Baker but were based on measurements of identical vessels by Miles and Malme, 1983).

Malme et al. (1983, 1984) used playbacks of sounds from helicopter overflight and drilling rigs and platforms to study behavioral effects on migrating gray whales. Received levels exceeding 120 dB induced avoidance reactions. Malme et al. (1984) calculated 10%, 50%, and 90% probabilities of gray whale avoidance reactions at received levels of 110, 120, and 130 dB, respectively. Malme et al. (1986) observed the behavior of feeding gray whales during four experimental playbacks of drilling sounds (50 to 315 Hz; 21-min overall duration and 10% duty cycle; source levels of 156-162 dB). In two cases for received levels of 100-110 dB, no behavioral reaction was observed. However, avoidance behavior was observed in two cases where received levels were 110-120 dB.

Richardson et al. (1990) performed 12 playback experiments in which bowhead whales in the Alaskan Arctic were exposed to drilling sounds. Whales generally did not respond to exposures in the 100 to 130 dB range, although there was some indication of minor behavioral changes in several instances.

McCauley et al. (1996) reported several cases of humpback whales responding to vessels in Hervey Bay, Australia. Results indicated clear avoidance at received levels between 118 to 124 dB in three cases for which response and received levels were observed/measured.

Palka and Hammond (2001) analyzed line transect census data in which the orientation and distance off transect line were reported for large numbers of minke whales. The authors developed a method to account for effects of animal movement in response to sighting platforms. Minor changes in locomotion speed, direction, and/or diving profile were reported at ranges from 1,847 to 2,352 ft (563 to 717 m) at received levels of 110 to 120 dB.

Biassoni et al. (2000) and Miller et al. (2000) reported behavioral observations for humpback whales exposed to a low-frequency sonar stimulus (160- to 330-Hz frequency band; 42-s tonal signal repeated every 6 min; source levels 170 to 200 dB) during playback experiments. Exposure to measured received levels ranging from 120 to 150 dB resulted in variability in humpback singing behavior. Croll et al. (2001) investigated responses of foraging fin and blue whales to the same low frequency active sonar stimulus off southern California. Playbacks and control intervals with no transmission were used to investigate behavior and distribution on time scales of several weeks and spatial scales of tens of kilometers. The general conclusion was that whales remained feeding within a region for which 12 to 30% of exposures exceeded 140 dB.

Frankel and Clark (1998) conducted playback experiments with wintering humpback whales using a single speaker producing a low-frequency “M-sequence” (sine wave with multiple-phase reversals) signal in the 60 to 90 Hz band with output of 172 dB at 1 m. For 11 playbacks, exposures were between 120 and 130 dB re 1 µPa (rms) and included sufficient information regarding individual responses. During eight of the trials, there were no measurable differences in tracks or bearings relative to control conditions, whereas on three occasions, whales either moved slightly away from (n = 1) or towards (n = 2) the playback speaker during exposure. The presence of the source vessel itself had a greater effect than did the M-sequence playback.

Finally, Nowacek et al. (2004) used controlled exposures to demonstrate behavioral reactions of northern right whales to various non-pulse sounds. Playback stimuli included ship noise, social sounds of conspecifics, and a complex, 18-min “alert” sound consisting of repetitions of three different artificial signals. Ten whales were tagged with calibrated instruments that measured received sound characteristics and concurrent animal movements in three dimensions. Five out of six exposed whales reacted strongly to alert signals at measured received levels between 130 and 150 dB (i.e., ceased foraging and swam rapidly to the surface). Two of these individuals were not exposed to ship noise, and the other four were exposed to both stimuli. These whales reacted mildly to conspecific signals. Seven whales, including the four exposed to the alert stimulus, had no measurable response to either ship sounds or actual vessel noise.

Toothed Whales—Most toothed whales have the greatest hearing sensitivity at frequencies much higher than that of baleen whales and may be less responsive to low-frequency sound commonly associated with oil and gas industry exploratory drilling activities. Richardson et al. (1995b) reported that beluga whales did not show any apparent reaction to playback of underwater drilling sounds at distances greater than 656-1,312 ft (200-400 m). Reactions included slowing down, milling, or reversal of course after which the whales continued past the projector, sometimes within 164-328 ft (50-100 m). The authors concluded (based on a small sample size) that the playback of drilling sounds had no biologically significant effects on migration routes of beluga whales migrating through pack ice and along the seaward side of the nearshore lead east of Pt. Barrow in spring.

At least six of 17 groups of beluga whales appeared to alter their migration path in response to underwater playbacks of icebreaker sound (Richardson et al., 1995b). Received levels from the icebreaker playback were estimated at 78-84 dB in the 1/3-octave band centered at 5,000 Hz, or 8-14 dB above ambient. If beluga whales reacted to an actual icebreaker at received levels of 80 dB, reactions would be expected to occur at distances on the order of 6.2 mi (10 km). Finley et al. (1990) also reported beluga avoidance of icebreaker activities in the Canadian High Arctic at distances of Start Printed Page 6898522-31 mi (35-50 km). In addition to avoidance, changes in dive behavior and pod integrity were also noted.

Patenaude et al. (2002) reported that beluga whales appeared to be more responsive to aircraft overflights than bowhead whales. Changes were observed in diving and respiration behavior, and some whales veered away when a helicopter passed at ≤ 820 ft (250 m) lateral distance at altitudes up to 492 ft (150 m). However, some belugas showed no reaction to the helicopter. Belugas appeared to show less response to fixed-wing aircraft than to helicopter overflights.

In reviewing responses of cetaceans with best hearing in mid-frequency ranges, which includes toothed whales, Southall et al. (2007) reported that combined field and laboratory data for mid-frequency cetaceans exposed to non-pulse sounds did not lead to a clear conclusion about received levels coincident with various behavioral responses. In some settings, individuals in the field showed profound (significant) behavioral responses to exposures from 90-120 dB, while others failed to exhibit such responses for exposure to received levels from 120-150 dB. Contextual variables other than exposure received level, and probable species differences, are the likely reasons for this variability. Context, including the fact that captive subjects were often directly reinforced with food for tolerating noise exposure, may also explain why there was great disparity in results from field and laboratory conditions—exposures in captive settings generally exceeded 170 dB before inducing behavioral responses. A summary of some of the relevant material reviewed by Southall et al. (2007) is next.

LGL and Greeneridge (1986) and Finley et al. (1990) documented belugas and narwhals congregated near ice edges reacting to the approach and passage of icebreaking ships. Beluga whales responded to oncoming vessels by (1) Fleeing at speeds of up to 12.4 mi/hr (20 km/hr) from distances of 12.4-50 mi (20-80 km), (2) abandoning normal pod structure, and (3) modifying vocal behavior and/or emitting alarm calls. Narwhals, in contrast, generally demonstrated a “freeze” response, lying motionless or swimming slowly away (as far as 23 mi [37 km] down the ice edge), huddling in groups, and ceasing sound production. There was some evidence of habituation and reduced avoidance 2 to 3 days after onset.

The 1982 season observations by LGL and Greeneridge (1986) involved a single passage of an icebreaker with both ice-based and aerial measurements on June 28, 1982. Four groups of narwhals (n = 9 to 10, 7, 7, and 6) responded when the ship was 4 mi (6.4 km) away (received levels of approximately 100 dB in the 150- to 1,150-Hz band). At a later point, observers sighted belugas moving away from the source at more than 12.4 mi (20 km; received levels of approximately 90 dB in the 150- to 1,150-Hz band). The total number of animals observed fleeing was about 300, suggesting approximately 100 independent groups (of three individuals each). No whales were sighted the following day, but some were sighted on June 30, with ship noise audible at spectrum levels of approximately 55 dB/Hz (up to 4 kHz).

Observations during 1983 (LGL and Greeneridge, 1986) involved two icebreaking ships with aerial survey and ice-based observations during seven sampling periods. Narwhals and belugas generally reacted at received levels ranging from 101 to 121 dB in the 20- to 1,000-Hz band and at a distance of up to 40.4 mi (65 km). Large numbers (100s) of beluga whales moved out of the area at higher received levels. As noise levels from icebreaking operations diminished, a total of 45 narwhals returned to the area and engaged in diving and foraging behavior. During the final sampling period, following an 8-h quiet interval, no reactions were seen from 28 narwhals and 17 belugas (at received levels ranging up to 115 dB).

The final season (1984) reported in LGL and Greeneridge (1986) involved aerial surveys before, during, and after the passage of two icebreaking ships. During operations, no belugas and few narwhals were observed in an area approximately 16.8 mi (27 km) ahead of the vessels, and all whales sighted over 12.4-50 mi (20-80 km) from the ships were swimming strongly away. Additional observations confirmed the spatial extent of avoidance reactions to this sound source in this context.

Buckstaff (2004) reported elevated dolphin whistle rates with received levels from oncoming vessels in the 110 to 120 dB range in Sarasota Bay, Florida. These hearing thresholds were apparently lower than those reported by a researcher listening with towed hydrophones. Morisaka et al. (2005) compared whistles from three populations of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. One population was exposed to vessel noise with spectrum levels of approximately 85 dB/Hz in the 1- to 22-kHz band (broadband received levels approximately 128 dB) as opposed to approximately 65 dB/Hz in the same band (broadband received levels approximately 108 dB) for the other two sites. Dolphin whistles in the noisier environment had lower fundamental frequencies and less frequency modulation, suggesting a shift in sound parameters as a result of increased ambient noise.

Morton and Symonds (2002) used census data on killer whales in British Columbia to evaluate avoidance of non-pulse acoustic harassment devices (AHDs). Avoidance ranges were about 2.5 mi (4 km). Also, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of days “resident” killer whales were sighted during AHD-active periods compared to pre- and post-exposure periods and a nearby control site.

Monteiro-Neto et al. (2004) studied avoidance responses of tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis) to Dukane® Netmark acoustic deterrent devices. In a total of 30 exposure trials, approximately five groups each demonstrated significant avoidance compared to 20 pinger off and 55 no-pinger control trials over two quadrats of about 0.19 mi2 (0.5 km2). Estimated exposure received levels were approximately 115 dB.

Awbrey and Stewart (1983) played back semi-submersible drillship sounds (source level: 163 dB) to belugas in Alaska. They reported avoidance reactions at 984 and 4,921 ft (300 and 1,500 m) and approach by groups at a distance of 2.2 mi (3.5 km; received levels were approximately 110 to 145 dB over these ranges assuming a 15 log R transmission loss). Similarly, Richardson et al. (1990) played back drilling platform sounds (source level: 163 dB) to belugas in Alaska. They conducted aerial observations of eight individuals among approximately 100 spread over an area several hundred meters to several kilometers from the sound source and found no obvious reactions. Moderate changes in movement were noted for three groups swimming within 656 ft (200 m) of the sound projector.

Two studies deal with issues related to changes in marine mammal vocal behavior as a function of variable background noise levels. Foote et al. (2004) found increases in the duration of killer whale calls over the period 1977 to 2003, during which time vessel traffic in Puget Sound, and particularly whale-watching boats around the animals, increased dramatically. Scheifele et al. (2005) demonstrated that belugas in the St. Lawrence River increased the levels of their vocalizations as a function of the background noise level (the “Lombard Effect”).

Several researchers conducting laboratory experiments on hearing and the effects of non-pulse sounds on hearing in mid-frequency cetaceans Start Printed Page 68986have reported concurrent behavioral responses. Nachtigall et al. (2003) reported that noise exposures up to 179 dB and 55-min duration affected the trained behaviors of a bottlenose dolphin participating in a TTS experiment. Finneran and Schlundt (2004) provided a detailed, comprehensive analysis of the behavioral responses of belugas and bottlenose dolphins to 1-s tones (received levels 160 to 202 dB) in the context of TTS experiments. Romano et al. (2004) investigated the physiological responses of a bottlenose dolphin and a beluga exposed to these tonal exposures and demonstrated a decrease in blood cortisol levels during a series of exposures between 130 and 201 dB. Collectively, the laboratory observations suggested the onset of a behavioral response at higher received levels than did field studies. The differences were likely related to the very different conditions and contextual variables between untrained, free-ranging individuals vs. laboratory subjects that were rewarded with food for tolerating noise exposure.

Pinnipeds—Pinnipeds generally seem to be less responsive to exposure to industrial sound than most cetaceans. Pinniped responses to underwater sound from some types of industrial activities such as seismic exploration appear to be temporary and localized (Harris et al., 2001; Reiser et al., 2009).

Blackwell et al. (2004) reported little or no reaction of ringed seals in response to pile-driving activities during construction of a man-made island in the Beaufort Sea. Ringed seals were observed swimming as close as 151 ft (46 m) from the island and may have been habituated to the sounds which were likely audible at distances < 9,842 ft (3,000 m) underwater and 0.3 mi (0.5 km) in air. Moulton et al. (2003) reported that ringed seal densities on ice in the vicinity of a man-made island in the Beaufort Sea did not change significantly before and after construction and drilling activities.

Southall et al. (2007) reviewed literature describing responses of pinnipeds to non-pulsed sound and reported that the limited data suggest exposures between approximately 90 and 140 dB generally do not appear to induce strong behavioral responses in pinnipeds exposed to non-pulse sounds in water; no data exist regarding exposures at higher levels. It is important to note that among these studies, there are some apparent differences in responses between field and laboratory conditions. In contrast to the mid-frequency odontocetes, captive pinnipeds responded more strongly at lower levels than did animals in the field. Again, contextual issues are the likely cause of this difference.

Jacobs and Terhune (2002) observed harbor seal reactions to AHDs (source level in this study was 172 dB) deployed around aquaculture sites. Seals were generally unresponsive to sounds from the AHDs. During two specific events, individuals came within 141 and 144 ft (43 and 44 m) of active AHDs and failed to demonstrate any measurable behavioral response; estimated received levels based on the measures given were approximately 120 to 130 dB.

Costa et al. (2003) measured received noise levels from an Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC) program sound source off northern California using acoustic data loggers placed on translocated elephant seals. Subjects were captured on land, transported to sea, instrumented with archival acoustic tags, and released such that their transit would lead them near an active ATOC source (at 939-m depth; 75-Hz signal with 37.5-Hz bandwidth; 195 dB maximum source level, ramped up from 165 dB over 20 min) on their return to a haul-out site. Received exposure levels of the ATOC source for experimental subjects averaged 128 dB (range 118 to 137) in the 60- to 90-Hz band. None of the instrumented animals terminated dives or radically altered behavior upon exposure, but some statistically significant changes in diving parameters were documented in nine individuals. Translocated northern elephant seals exposed to this particular non-pulse source began to demonstrate subtle behavioral changes at exposure to received levels of approximately 120 to 140 dB.

Kastelein et al. (2006) exposed nine captive harbor seals in an approximately 82 × 98 ft (25 × 30 m) enclosure to non-pulse sounds used in underwater data communication systems (similar to acoustic modems). Test signals were frequency modulated tones, sweeps, and bands of noise with fundamental frequencies between 8 and 16 kHz; 128 to 130 [± 3] dB source levels; 1-to 2-s duration [60-80 percent duty cycle]; or 100 percent duty cycle. They recorded seal positions and the mean number of individual surfacing behaviors during control periods (no exposure), before exposure, and in 15-min experimental sessions (n = 7 exposures for each sound type). Seals generally swam away from each source at received levels of approximately 107 dB, avoiding it by approximately 16 ft (5 m), although they did not haul out of the water or change surfacing behavior. Seal reactions did not appear to wane over repeated exposure (i.e., there was no obvious habituation), and the colony of seals generally returned to baseline conditions following exposure. The seals were not reinforced with food for remaining in the sound field.

Potential effects to pinnipeds from aircraft activity could involve both acoustic and non-acoustic effects. It is uncertain if the seals react to the sound of the helicopter or to its physical presence flying overhead. Typical reactions of hauled out pinnipeds to aircraft that have been observed include looking up at the aircraft, moving on the ice or land, entering a breathing hole or crack in the ice, or entering the water. Ice seals hauled out on the ice have been observed diving into the water when approached by a low-flying aircraft or helicopter (Burns and Harbo, 1972, cited in Richardson et al., 1995a; Burns and Frost, 1979, cited in Richardson et al., 1995a). Richardson et al. (1995a) note that responses can vary based on differences in aircraft type, altitude, and flight pattern. Additionally, a study conducted by Born et al. (1999) found that wind chill was also a factor in level of response of ringed seals hauled out on ice, as well as time of day and relative wind direction.

Blackwell et al. (2004a) observed 12 ringed seals during low-altitude overflights of a Bell 212 helicopter at Northstar in June and July 2000 (9 observations took place concurrent with pipe-driving activities). One seal showed no reaction to the aircraft while the remaining 11 (92%) reacted, either by looking at the helicopter (n=10) or by departing from their basking site (n=1). Blackwell et al. (2004a) concluded that none of the reactions to helicopters were strong or long lasting, and that seals near Northstar in June and July 2000 probably had habituated to industrial sounds and visible activities that had occurred often during the preceding winter and spring. There have been few systematic studies of pinniped reactions to aircraft overflights, and most of the available data concern pinnipeds hauled out on land or ice rather than pinnipeds in the water (Richardson et al., 1995a; Born et al., 1999).

Born et al. (1999) determined that 49% of ringed seals escaped (i.e., left the ice) as a response to a helicopter flying at 492 ft (150 m) altitude. Seals entered the water when the helicopter was 4,101 ft (1,250 m) away if the seal was in front of the helicopter and at 1,640 ft (500 m) away if the seal was to the side of the helicopter. The authors noted that more seals reacted to helicopters than to fixed-wing aircraft. The study concluded that the risk of scaring ringed Start Printed Page 68987seals by small-type helicopters could be substantially reduced if they do not approach closer than 4,921 ft (1,500 m).

Spotted seals hauled out on land in summer are unusually sensitive to aircraft overflights compared to other species. They often rush into the water when an aircraft flies by at altitudes up to 984-2,461 ft (300-750 m). They occasionally react to aircraft flying as high as 4,495 ft (1,370 m) and at lateral distances as far as 1.2 mi (2 km) or more (Frost and Lowry, 1990; Rugh et al., 1997).

(4) Hearing Impairment and Other Physiological Effects

Temporary or permanent hearing impairment is a possibility when marine mammals are exposed to very strong sounds. Non-auditory physiological effects might also occur in marine mammals exposed to strong underwater sound. Possible types of non-auditory physiological effects or injuries that theoretically might occur in mammals close to a strong sound source include stress, neurological effects, bubble formation, and other types of organ or tissue damage. It is possible that some marine mammal species (i.e., beaked whales) may be especially susceptible to injury and/or stranding when exposed to strong pulsed sounds. However, as discussed later in this document, there is no definitive evidence that any of these effects occur even for marine mammals in close proximity to industrial sound sources, and beaked whales do not occur in the proposed activity area. Additional information regarding the possibilities of TTS, permanent threshold shift (PTS), and non-auditory physiological effects, such as stress, is discussed for both exploratory drilling activities and ZVSP surveys in the next subsection (“Potential Effects from ZVSP Activities”).

Potential Effects From ZVSP Activities

(1) Tolerance

Numerous studies have shown that pulsed sounds from airguns are often readily detectable in the water at distances of many kilometers. Weir (2008) observed marine mammal responses to seismic pulses from a 24 airgun array firing a total volume of either 5,085 in3 or 3,147 in3 in Angolan waters between August 2004 and May 2005. Weir recorded a total of 207 sightings of humpback whales (n = 66), sperm whales (n = 124), and Atlantic spotted dolphins (n = 17) and reported that there were no significant differences in encounter rates (sightings/hr) for humpback and sperm whales according to the airgun array's operational status (i.e., active versus silent). For additional information on tolerance of marine mammals to anthropogenic sound, see the previous subsection in this document (“Potential Effects from Exploratory Drilling Activities”).

(2) Masking

As stated earlier in this document, masking is the obscuring of sounds of interest by other sounds, often at similar frequencies. For full details about masking, see the previous subsection in this document (“Potential Effects from Exploratory Drilling Activities”). Some additional information regarding pulsed sounds is provided here.

There is evidence of some marine mammal species continuing to call in the presence of industrial activity. McDonald et al. (1995) heard blue and fin whale calls between seismic pulses in the Pacific. Although there has been one report that sperm whales cease calling when exposed to pulses from a very distant seismic ship (Bowles et al., 1994), a more recent study reported that sperm whales off northern Norway continued calling in the presence of seismic pulses (Madsen et al., 2002). Similar results were also reported during work in the Gulf of Mexico (Tyack et al., 2003). Bowhead whale calls are frequently detected in the presence of seismic pulses, although the numbers of calls detected may sometimes be reduced (Richardson et al., 1986; Greene et al., 1999; Blackwell et al., 2009a). Bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea may decrease their call rates in response to seismic operations, although movement out of the area might also have contributed to the lower call detection rate (Blackwell et al., 2009a,b). Additionally, there is increasing evidence that, at times, there is enough reverberation between airgun pulses such that detection range of calls may be significantly reduced. In contrast, Di Iorio and Clark (2009) found evidence of increased calling by blue whales during operations by a lower-energy seismic source, a sparker.

There is little concern regarding masking due to the brief duration of these pulses and relatively longer silence between airgun shots (9-12 seconds) near the sound source. However, at long distances (over tens of kilometers away) in deep water, due to multipath propagation and reverberation, the durations of airgun pulses can be “stretched” to seconds with long decays (Madsen et al., 2006; Clark and Gagnon, 2006). Therefore it could affect communication signals used by low frequency mysticetes when they occur near the noise band and thus reduce the communication space of animals (e.g., Clark et al., 2009a,b) and cause increased stress levels (e.g., Foote et al., 2004; Holt et al., 2009). Nevertheless, the intensity of the noise is also greatly reduced at long distances. Therefore, masking effects are anticipated to be limited, especially in the case of odontocetes, given that they typically communicate at frequencies higher than those of the airguns.

(3) Behavioral Disturbance Reactions

As was described in more detail in the previous sub-section (“Potential Effects of Exploratory Drilling Activities”), behavioral responses to sound are highly variable and context-specific. Summaries of observed reactions and studies are provided next.

Baleen Whales—Baleen whale responses to pulsed sound (e.g., seismic airguns) have been studied more thoroughly than responses to continuous sound (e.g., drillships). Baleen whales generally tend to avoid operating airguns, but avoidance radii are quite variable. Whales are often reported to show no overt reactions to pulses from large arrays of airguns at distances beyond a few kilometers, even though the airgun pulses remain well above ambient noise levels out to much greater distances (Miller et al., 2005). However, baleen whales exposed to strong noise pulses often react by deviating from their normal migration route (Richardson et al., 1999). Migrating gray and bowhead whales were observed avoiding the sound source by displacing their migration route to varying degrees but within the natural boundaries of the migration corridors (Schick and Urban, 2000; Richardson et al., 1999; Malme et al., 1983). Baleen whale responses to pulsed sound however may depend on the type of activity in which the whales are engaged. Some evidence suggests that feeding bowhead whales may be more tolerant of underwater sound than migrating bowheads (Miller et al., 2005; Lyons et al., 2009; Christie et al., 2010).

Results of studies of gray, bowhead, and humpback whales have determined that received levels of pulses in the 160-170 dB re 1 µPa rms range seem to cause obvious avoidance behavior in a substantial fraction of the animals exposed. In many areas, seismic pulses from large arrays of airguns diminish to those levels at distances ranging from 2.8-9 mi (4.5-14.5 km) from the source. For the much smaller airgun array used during the ZVSP survey (total discharge volume of 760 in3), distances to received levels in the 170-160 dB re 1 μPa rms range are estimated to be 1.44-Start Printed Page 689882.28 mi (2.31-3.67 km). Baleen whales within those distances may show avoidance or other strong disturbance reactions to the airgun array. Subtle behavioral changes sometimes become evident at somewhat lower received levels, and recent studies have shown that some species of baleen whales, notably bowhead and humpback whales, at times show strong avoidance at received levels lower than 160-170 dB re 1 μPa rms. Bowhead whales migrating west across the Alaskan Beaufort Sea in autumn, in particular, are unusually responsive, with avoidance occurring out to distances of 12.4-18.6 mi (20-30 km) from a medium-sized airgun source (Miller et al., 1999; Richardson et al., 1999). However, more recent research on bowhead whales (Miller et al., 2005) corroborates earlier evidence that, during the summer feeding season, bowheads are not as sensitive to seismic sources. In summer, bowheads typically begin to show avoidance reactions at a received level of about 160-170 dB re 1 µPa rms (Richardson et al., 1986; Ljungblad et al., 1988; Miller et al., 2005).

Malme et al. (1986, 1988) studied the responses of feeding eastern gray whales to pulses from a single 100 in3 airgun off St. Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea. They estimated, based on small sample sizes, that 50% of feeding gray whales ceased feeding at an average received pressure level of 173 dB re 1 µPa on an (approximate) rms basis, and that 10% of feeding whales interrupted feeding at received levels of 163 dB. Those findings were generally consistent with the results of experiments conducted on larger numbers of gray whales that were migrating along the California coast and on observations of the distribution of feeding Western Pacific gray whales off Sakhalin Island, Russia, during a seismic survey (Yazvenko et al., 2007). Data on short-term reactions (or lack of reactions) of cetaceans to impulsive noises do not necessarily provide information about long-term effects. While it is not certain whether impulsive noises affect reproductive rate or distribution and habitat use in subsequent days or years, certain species have continued to use areas ensonified by airguns and have continued to increase in number despite successive years of anthropogenic activity in the area. Gray whales continued to migrate annually along the west coast of North America despite intermittent seismic exploration and much ship traffic in that area for decades (Appendix A in Malme et al., 1984). Bowhead whales continued to travel to the eastern Beaufort Sea each summer despite seismic exploration in their summer and autumn range for many years (Richardson et al., 1987). Populations of both gray whales and bowhead whales grew substantially during this time. Bowhead whales have increased by approximately 3.4% per year for the last 10 years in the Beaufort Sea (Allen and Angliss, 2011). In any event, the brief exposures to sound pulses from the proposed airgun source (the airguns will only be fired for a period of 10-14 hours for each of the two wells) are highly unlikely to result in prolonged effects.

Toothed Whales—Few systematic data are available describing reactions of toothed whales to noise pulses. Few studies similar to the more extensive baleen whale/seismic pulse work summarized earlier in this document have been reported for toothed whales. However, systematic work on sperm whales is underway (Tyack et al., 2003), and there is an increasing amount of information about responses of various odontocetes to seismic surveys based on monitoring studies (e.g., Stone, 2003; Smultea et al., 2004; Moulton and Miller, 2005).

Seismic operators and marine mammal observers sometimes see dolphins and other small toothed whales near operating airgun arrays, but, in general, there seems to be a tendency for most delphinids to show some limited avoidance of seismic vessels operating large airgun systems. However, some dolphins seem to be attracted to the seismic vessel and floats, and some ride the bow wave of the seismic vessel even when large arrays of airguns are firing. Nonetheless, there have been indications that small toothed whales sometimes move away or maintain a somewhat greater distance from the vessel when a large array of airguns is operating than when it is silent (e.g., Goold, 1996a,b,c; Calambokidis and Osmek, 1998; Stone, 2003). The beluga may be a species that (at least at times) shows long-distance avoidance of seismic vessels. Aerial surveys during seismic operations in the southeastern Beaufort Sea recorded much lower sighting rates of beluga whales within 6.2-12.4 mi (10-20 km) of an active seismic vessel. These results were consistent with the low number of beluga sightings reported by observers aboard the seismic vessel, suggesting that some belugas might be avoiding the seismic operations at distances of 6.2-12.4 mi (10-20 km) (Miller et al., 2005).

Captive bottlenose dolphins and (of more relevance in this project) beluga whales exhibit changes in behavior when exposed to strong pulsed sounds similar in duration to those typically used in seismic surveys (Finneran et al., 2002, 2005). However, the animals tolerated high received levels of sound (pk-pk level > 200 dB re 1 μPa) before exhibiting aversive behaviors.

Reactions of toothed whales to large arrays of airguns are variable and, at least for delphinids, seem to be confined to a smaller radius than has been observed for mysticetes. However, based on the limited existing evidence, belugas should not be grouped with delphinids in the “less responsive” category.

Pinnipeds—Pinnipeds are not likely to show a strong avoidance reaction to the airgun sources proposed for use. Visual monitoring from seismic vessels has shown only slight (if any) avoidance of airguns by pinnipeds and only slight (if any) changes in behavior. Ringed seals frequently do not avoid the area within a few hundred meters of operating airgun arrays (Harris et al., 2001; Moulton and Lawson, 2002; Miller et al., 2005). Monitoring work in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea during 1996-2001 provided considerable information regarding the behavior of seals exposed to seismic pulses (Harris et al., 2001; Moulton and Lawson, 2002). These seismic projects usually involved arrays of 6 to 16 airguns with total volumes of 560 to 1,500 in3. The combined results suggest that some seals avoid the immediate area around seismic vessels. In most survey years, ringed seal sightings tended to be farther away from the seismic vessel when the airguns were operating than when they were not (Moulton and Lawson, 2002). However, these avoidance movements were relatively small, on the order of 328 ft (100 m) to a few hundreds of meters, and many seals remained within 328-656 ft (100-200 m) of the trackline as the operating airgun array passed by. Seal sighting rates at the water surface were lower during airgun array operations than during no-airgun periods in each survey year except 1997. Similarly, seals are often very tolerant of pulsed sounds from seal-scaring devices (Mate and Harvey, 1987; Jefferson and Curry, 1994; Richardson et al., 1995a). However, initial telemetry work suggests that avoidance and other behavioral reactions by two other species of seals to small airgun sources may at times be stronger than evident to date from visual studies of pinniped reactions to airguns (Thompson et al., 1998). Even if reactions of the species occurring in the present study area are as strong as those evident in the telemetry study, reactions are expected to be confined to relatively small Start Printed Page 68989distances and durations, with no long-term effects on pinniped individuals or populations. Additionally, the airguns are only proposed to be used for a short time during the exploration drilling program (approximately 10-14 hours for each well, for a total of 20-28 hours over the entire open-water season, which lasts for approximately 4 months).

(4) Hearing Impairment and Other Physiological Effects

TTS—TTS is the mildest form of hearing impairment that can occur during exposure to a strong sound (Kryter, 1985). While experiencing TTS, the hearing threshold rises, and a sound must be stronger in order to be heard. At least in terrestrial mammals, TTS can last from minutes or hours to (in cases of strong TTS) days, can be limited to a particular frequency range, and can be in varying degrees (i.e., a loss of a certain number of dBs of sensitivity). For sound exposures at or somewhat above the TTS threshold, hearing sensitivity in both terrestrial and marine mammals recovers rapidly after exposure to the noise ends. Few data on sound levels and durations necessary to elicit mild TTS have been obtained for marine mammals, and none of the published data concern TTS elicited by exposure to multiple pulses of sound.

Marine mammal hearing plays a critical role in communication with conspecifics and in interpretation of environmental cues for purposes such as predator avoidance and prey capture. Depending on the degree (elevation of threshold in dB), duration (i.e., recovery time), and frequency range of TTS and the context in which it is experienced, TTS can have effects on marine mammals ranging from discountable to serious. For example, a marine mammal may be able to readily compensate for a brief, relatively small amount of TTS in a non-critical frequency range that takes place during a time when the animal is traveling through the open ocean, where ambient noise is lower and there are not as many competing sounds present. Alternatively, a larger amount and longer duration of TTS sustained during a time when communication is critical for successful mother/calf interactions could have more serious impacts if it were in the same frequency band as the necessary vocalizations and of a severity that it impeded communication. The fact that animals exposed to levels and durations of sound that would be expected to result in this physiological response would also be expected to have behavioral responses of a comparatively more severe or sustained nature is also notable and potentially of more importance than the simple existence of a TTS.

Researchers have derived TTS information for odontocetes from studies on the bottlenose dolphin and beluga. For the one harbor porpoise tested, the received level of airgun sound that elicited onset of TTS was lower (Lucke et al., 2009). If these results from a single animal are representative, it is inappropriate to assume that onset of TTS occurs at similar received levels in all odontocetes (cf. Southall et al., 2007). Some cetaceans apparently can incur TTS at considerably lower sound exposures than are necessary to elicit TTS in the beluga or bottlenose dolphin.

For baleen whales, there are no data, direct or indirect, on levels or properties of sound that are required to induce TTS. The frequencies to which baleen whales are most sensitive are assumed to be lower than those to which odontocetes are most sensitive, and natural background noise levels at those low frequencies tend to be higher. As a result, auditory thresholds of baleen whales within their frequency band of best hearing are believed to be higher (less sensitive) than are those of odontocetes at their best frequencies (Clark and Ellison, 2004), meaning that baleen whales require sounds to be louder (i.e., higher dB levels) than odontocetes in the frequency ranges at which each group hears the best. From this, it is suspected that received levels causing TTS onset may also be higher in baleen whales (Southall et al., 2007). Since current NMFS practice assumes the same thresholds for the onset of hearing impairment in both odontocetes and mysticetes, NMFS' onset of TTS threshold is likely conservative for mysticetes. For this proposed activity, Shell expects no cases of TTS given the strong likelihood that baleen whales would avoid the airguns before being exposed to levels high enough for TTS to occur. The source levels of the drillship are far lower than those of the airguns.

In pinnipeds, TTS thresholds associated with exposure to brief pulses (single or multiple) of underwater sound have not been measured. However, systematic TTS studies on captive pinnipeds have been conducted (Bowles et al., 1999; Kastak et al., 1999, 2005, 2007; Schusterman et al., 2000; Finneran et al., 2003; Southall et al., 2007). Initial evidence from more prolonged (non-pulse) exposures suggested that some pinnipeds (harbor seals in particular) incur TTS at somewhat lower received levels than do small odontocetes exposed for similar durations (Kastak et al., 1999, 2005; Ketten et al., 2001; cf. Au et al., 2000). The TTS threshold for pulsed sounds has been indirectly estimated as being a sound exposure level (SEL) of approximately 171 dB re 1 μPa2·s (Southall et al., 2007) which would be equivalent to a single pulse with a received level of approximately 181 to 186 dB re 1 μPa (rms), or a series of pulses for which the highest rms values are a few dB lower. Corresponding values for California sea lions and northern elephant seals are likely to be higher (Kastak et al., 2005). For harbor seal, which is closely related to the ringed seal, TTS onset apparently occurs at somewhat lower received energy levels than for odonotocetes. The sound level necessary to cause TTS in pinnipeds depends on exposure duration, as in other mammals; with longer exposure, the level necessary to elicit TTS is reduced (Schusterman et al., 2000; Kastak et al., 2005, 2007). For very short exposures (e.g., to a single sound pulse), the level necessary to cause TTS is very high (Finneran et al., 2003). For pinnipeds exposed to in-air sounds, auditory fatigue has been measured in response to single pulses and to non-pulse noise (Southall et al., 2007), although high exposure levels were required to induce TTS-onset (SEL: 129 dB re: 20 μPa2·s; Bowles et al., unpub. data).

NMFS has established acoustic thresholds that identify the received sound levels above which hearing impairment or other injury could potentially occur, which are 180 and 190 dB re 1 μPa (rms) for cetaceans and pinnipeds, respectively (NMFS 1995, 2000). The established 180- and 190-dB re 1 μPa (rms) criteria are the received levels above which, in the view of a panel of bioacoustics specialists convened by NMFS before additional TTS measurements for marine mammals became available, one could not be certain that there would be no injurious effects, auditory or otherwise, to marine mammals. TTS is considered by NMFS to be a type of Level B (non-injurious) harassment. The 180- and 190-dB levels are shutdown criteria applicable to cetaceans and pinnipeds, respectively, as specified by NMFS (2000) and are used to establish exclusion zones (EZs), as appropriate. Additionally, based on the summary provided here and the fact that modeling indicates the back-propagated source level for the Kulluk to be 185 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m (Greene, 1987) and for the Discoverer to be between 177 and 185 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m (Austin and Warner, 2010), TTS is not expected to occur in any marine mammal species Start Printed Page 68990that may occur in the proposed drilling area since the source level will not reach levels thought to induce even mild TTS. While the source level of the airgun is higher than the 190-dB threshold level, an animal would have to be in very close proximity to be exposed to such levels. Additionally, the 180- and 190-dB radii for the airgun are 0.8 mi (1.24 km) and 0.3 mi (524 m), respectively, from the source. Because of the short duration that the airguns will be used (no more than 20-28 hours throughout the entire open-water season) and mitigation and monitoring measures described later in this document, hearing impairment is not anticipated.

PTS—When PTS occurs, there is physical damage to the sound receptors in the ear. In some cases, there can be total or partial deafness, whereas in other cases, the animal has an impaired ability to hear sounds in specific frequency ranges (Kryter, 1985).

There is no specific evidence that exposure to underwater industrial sound associated with oil exploration can cause PTS in any marine mammal (see Southall et al., 2007). However, given the possibility that mammals might incur TTS, there has been further speculation about the possibility that some individuals occurring very close to such activities might incur PTS (e.g., Richardson et al., 1995, p. 372 ff; Gedamke et al., 2008). Single or occasional occurrences of mild TTS are not indicative of permanent auditory damage in terrestrial mammals. Relationships between TTS and PTS thresholds have not been studied in marine mammals but are assumed to be similar to those in humans and other terrestrial mammals (Southall et al., 2007; Le Prell, in press). PTS might occur at a received sound level at least several decibels above that inducing mild TTS. Based on data from terrestrial mammals, a precautionary assumption is that the PTS threshold for impulse sounds (such as airgun pulses as received close to the source) is at least 6 dB higher than the TTS threshold on a peak-pressure basis and probably greater than 6 dB (Southall et al., 2007).

It is highly unlikely that marine mammals could receive sounds strong enough (and over a sufficient duration) to cause PTS during the proposed exploratory drilling program. As mentioned previously in this document, the source levels of the drillship are not considered strong enough to cause even slight TTS. Given the higher level of sound necessary to cause PTS, it is even less likely that PTS could occur. In fact, based on the modeled source levels for the drillship, the levels immediately adjacent to the drillship may not be sufficient to induce PTS, even if the animals remain in the immediate vicinity of the activity. The modeled source levels from the Kulluk and Discoverer suggest that marine mammals located immediately adjacent to a drillship would likely not be exposed to received sound levels of a magnitude strong enough to induce PTS, even if the animals remain in the immediate vicinity of the proposed activity location for a prolonged period of time. Because the source levels do not reach the threshold of 190 dB currently used for pinnipeds and is at the 180 dB threshold currently used for cetaceans, it is highly unlikely that any type of hearing impairment, temporary or permanent, would occur as a result of the exploration drilling activities. Additionally, Southall et al. (2007) proposed that the thresholds for injury of marine mammals exposed to “discrete” noise events (either single or multiple exposures over a 24-hr period) are higher than the 180- and 190-dB re 1 μPa (rms) in-water threshold currently used by NMFS. Table 1 in this document summarizes the SPL and SEL levels thought to cause auditory injury to cetaceans and pinnipeds in-water. For more information, please refer to Southall et al. (2007).

Table 1—Proposed Injury Criteria for Cetaceans and Pinnipeds Exposed to “Discrete” Noise Events (Either Single Pulses, Multiple Pulses, or Non-Pulses Within a 24-hr Period; Southall et al., 2007)

Single pulsesMultiple pulsesNon-pulses
Low-frequency cetaceans
Sound pressure level230 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat)230 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat)230 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat).
Sound exposure level198 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mlf)198 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mlf)215 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mlf).
Mid-frequency cetaceans
Sound pressure level230 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat)230 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat)230 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat).
Sound exposure level198 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mlf)198 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mlf)215 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mlf).
High-frequency cetaceans
Sound pressure level230 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat)230 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat)230 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat).
Sound exposure level198 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mlf)198 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mlf)215 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mlf).
Pinnipeds (in water)
Sound pressure level218 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat)218 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat)218 dB re 1 μPa (peak) (flat).
Sound exposure level186 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mpw)186 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mpw)203 dB re 1 μPa 2·s (Mpw).

Non-auditory Physiological Effects—Non-auditory physiological effects or injuries that theoretically might occur in marine mammals exposed to strong underwater sound include stress, neurological effects, bubble formation, and other types of organ or tissue damage (Cox et al., 2006; Southall et al., 2007). Studies examining any such effects are limited. If any such effects do occur, they probably would be limited to unusual situations when animals might be exposed at close range for unusually long periods. It is doubtful that any single marine mammal would be exposed to strong sounds for sufficiently long that significant physiological stress would develop.

Classic stress responses begin when an animal's central nervous system perceives a potential threat to its homeostasis. That perception triggers stress responses regardless of whether a stimulus actually threatens the animal; the mere perception of a threat is sufficient to trigger a stress response (Moberg, 2000; Sapolsky et al., 2005; Start Printed Page 68991Seyle, 1950). Once an animal's central nervous system perceives a threat, it mounts a biological response or defense that consists of a combination of the four general biological defense responses: Behavioral responses; autonomic nervous system responses; neuroendocrine responses; or immune responses.

In the case of many stressors, an animal's first and most economical (in terms of biotic costs) response is behavioral avoidance of the potential stressor or avoidance of continued exposure to a stressor. An animal's second line of defense to stressors involves the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system and the classical “fight or flight” response, which includes the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal system, the exocrine glands, and the adrenal medulla to produce changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and gastrointestinal activity that humans commonly associate with “stress.” These responses have a relatively short duration and may or may not have significant long-term effects on an animal's welfare.

An animal's third line of defense to stressors involves its neuroendocrine or sympathetic nervous systems; the system that has received the most study has been the hypothalmus-pituitary-adrenal system (also known as the HPA axis in mammals or the hypothalamus-pituitary-interrenal axis in fish and some reptiles). Unlike stress responses associated with the autonomic nervous system, virtually all neuroendocrine functions that are affected by stress—including immune competence, reproduction, metabolism, and behavior—are regulated by pituitary hormones. Stress-induced changes in the secretion of pituitary hormones have been implicated in failed reproduction (Moberg, 1987; Rivier, 1995), altered metabolism (Elasser et al., 2000), reduced immune competence (Blecha, 2000), and behavioral disturbance. Increases in the circulation of glucocorticosteroids (cortisol, corticosterone, and aldosterone in marine mammals; see Romano et al., 2004) have been equated with stress for many years.

The primary distinction between stress (which is adaptive and does not normally place an animal at risk) and distress is the biotic cost of the response. During a stress response, an animal uses glycogen stores that can be quickly replenished once the stress is alleviated. In such circumstances, the cost of the stress response would not pose a risk to the animal's welfare. However, when an animal does not have sufficient energy reserves to satisfy the energetic costs of a stress response, energy resources must be diverted from other biotic functions, which impair those functions that experience the diversion. For example, when mounting a stress response diverts energy away from growth in young animals, those animals may experience stunted growth. When mounting a stress response diverts energy from a fetus, an animal's reproductive success and fitness will suffer. In these cases, the animals will have entered a pre-pathological or pathological state which is called “distress” (sensu Seyle, 1950) or “allostatic loading” (sensu McEwen and Wingfield, 2003). This pathological state will last until the animal replenishes its biotic reserves sufficient to restore normal function. Note that these examples involved a long-term (days or weeks) stress response exposure to stimuli.

Relationships between these physiological mechanisms, animal behavior, and the costs of stress responses have also been documented fairly well through controlled experiment; because this physiology exists in every vertebrate that has been studied, it is not surprising that stress responses and their costs have been documented in both laboratory and free-living animals (for examples see, Holberton et al., 1996; Hood et al., 1998; Jessop et al., 2003; Krausman et al., 2004; Lankford et al., 2005; Reneerkens et al., 2002; Thompson and Hamer, 2000). Although no information has been collected on the physiological responses of marine mammals to anthropogenic sound exposure, studies of other marine animals and terrestrial animals would lead us to expect some marine mammals to experience physiological stress responses and, perhaps, physiological responses that would be classified as “distress” upon exposure to anthropogenic sounds.

For example, Jansen (1998) reported on the relationship between acoustic exposures and physiological responses that are indicative of stress responses in humans (e.g., elevated respiration and increased heart rates). Jones (1998) reported on reductions in human performance when faced with acute, repetitive exposures to acoustic disturbance. Trimper et al. (1998) reported on the physiological stress responses of osprey to low-level aircraft noise while Krausman et al. (2004) reported on the auditory and physiology stress responses of endangered Sonoran pronghorn to military overflights. Smith et al. (2004a, 2004b) identified noise-induced physiological transient stress responses in hearing-specialist fish (i.e., goldfish) that accompanied short- and long-term hearing losses. Welch and Welch (1970) reported physiological and behavioral stress responses that accompanied damage to the inner ears of fish and several mammals.

Hearing is one of the primary senses marine mammals use to gather information about their environment and communicate with conspecifics. Although empirical information on the relationship between sensory impairment (TTS, PTS, and acoustic masking) on marine mammals remains limited, it seems reasonable to assume that reducing an animal's ability to gather information about its environment and to communicate with other members of its species would be stressful for animals that use hearing as their primary sensory mechanism. Therefore, we assume that acoustic exposures sufficient to trigger onset PTS or TTS would be accompanied by physiological stress responses because terrestrial animals exhibit those responses under similar conditions (NRC, 2003). More importantly, marine mammals might experience stress responses at received levels lower than those necessary to trigger onset TTS. Based on empirical studies of the time required to recover from stress responses (Moberg, 2000), NMFS also assumes that stress responses could persist beyond the time interval required for animals to recover from TTS and might result in pathological and pre-pathological states that would be as significant as behavioral responses to TTS. However, as stated previously in this document, the source levels of the drillships are not loud enough to induce PTS or likely even TTS.

Resonance effects (Gentry, 2002) and direct noise-induced bubble formations (Crum et al., 2005) are implausible in the case of exposure to an impulsive broadband source like an airgun array. If seismic surveys disrupt diving patterns of deep-diving species, this might result in bubble formation and a form of the bends, as speculated to occur in beaked whales exposed to sonar. However, there is no specific evidence of this upon exposure to airgun pulses. Additionally, no beaked whale species occur in the proposed exploration drilling area.

In general, very little is known about the potential for strong, anthropogenic underwater sounds to cause non-auditory physical effects in marine mammals. Such effects, if they occur at all, would presumably be limited to short distances and to activities that extend over a prolonged period. The available data do not allow identification of a specific exposure level above which non-auditory effects Start Printed Page 68992can be expected (Southall et al., 2007) or any meaningful quantitative predictions of the numbers (if any) of marine mammals that might be affected in those ways. The low levels of continuous sound that will be produced by the drillship are not expected to cause such effects. Additionally, marine mammals that show behavioral avoidance of the proposed activities, including most baleen whales, some odontocetes (including belugas), and some pinnipeds, are especially unlikely to incur auditory impairment or other physical effects.

Stranding and Mortality

Marine mammals close to underwater detonations of high explosives can be killed or severely injured, and the auditory organs are especially susceptible to injury (Ketten et al., 1993; Ketten, 1995). However, explosives are no longer used for marine waters for commercial seismic surveys; they have been replaced entirely by airguns or related non-explosive pulse generators. Underwater sound from drilling, support activities, and airgun arrays is less energetic and has slower rise times, and there is no proof that they can cause serious injury, death, or stranding, even in the case of large airgun arrays. However, the association of mass strandings of beaked whales with naval exercises involving mid-frequency active sonar, and, in one case, a Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (L-DEO) seismic survey (Malakoff, 2002; Cox et al., 2006), has raised the possibility that beaked whales exposed to strong pulsed sounds may be especially susceptible to injury and/or behavioral reactions that can lead to stranding (e.g., Hildebrand, 2005; Southall et al., 2007).

Specific sound-related processes that lead to strandings and mortality are not well documented, but may include:

(1) Swimming in avoidance of a sound into shallow water;

(2) A change in behavior (such as a change in diving behavior) that might contribute to tissue damage, gas bubble formation, hypoxia, cardiac arrhythmia, hypertensive hemorrhage or other forms of trauma;

(3) A physiological change, such as a vestibular response leading to a behavioral change or stress-induced hemorrhagic diathesis, leading in turn to tissue damage; and

(4) Tissue damage directly from sound exposure, such as through acoustically-mediated bubble formation and growth or acoustic resonance of tissues.

Some of these mechanisms are unlikely to apply in the case of impulse sounds. However, there are indications that gas-bubble disease (analogous to “the bends”), induced in supersaturated tissue by a behavioral response to acoustic exposure, could be a pathologic mechanism for the strandings and mortality of some deep-diving cetaceans exposed to sonar. However, the evidence for this remains circumstantial and is associated with exposure to naval mid-frequency sonar, not seismic surveys or exploratory drilling programs (Cox et al., 2006; Southall et al., 2007).

Both seismic pulses and continuous drillship sounds are quite different from mid-frequency sonar signals, and some mechanisms by which sonar sounds have been hypothesized to affect beaked whales are unlikely to apply to airgun pulses or drillships. Sounds produced by airgun arrays are broadband impulses with most of the energy below 1 kHz, and the low-energy continuous sounds produced by drillships have most of the energy between 20 and 1,000 Hz. Additionally, the non-impulsive, continuous sounds produced by the drillship proposed to be used by Shell do not have rapid rise times. Rise time is the fluctuation in sound levels of the source. The type of sound that would be produced during the proposed drilling program will be constant and will not exhibit any sudden fluctuations or changes. Typical military mid-frequency sonar emits non-impulse sounds at frequencies of 2-10 kHz, generally with a relatively narrow bandwidth at any one time. A further difference between them is that naval exercises can involve sound sources on more than one vessel. Thus, it is not appropriate to assume that there is a direct connection between the effects of military sonar and oil and gas industry operations on marine mammals. However, evidence that sonar signals can, in special circumstances, lead (at least indirectly) to physical damage and mortality (e.g., Balcomb and Claridge, 2001; NOAA and USN, 2001; Jepson et al., 2003; Fernández et al., 2004, 2005; Hildebrand, 2005; Cox et al., 2006) suggests that caution is warranted when dealing with exposure of marine mammals to any high-intensity “pulsed” sound.

There is no conclusive evidence of cetacean strandings or deaths at sea as a result of exposure to seismic surveys, but a few cases of strandings in the general area where a seismic survey was ongoing have led to speculation concerning a possible link between seismic surveys and strandings. Suggestions that there was a link between seismic surveys and strandings of humpback whales in Brazil (Engel et al., 2004) were not well founded (IAGC, 2004; IWC, 2007). In September 2002, there was a stranding of two Cuvier's beaked whales in the Gulf of California, Mexico, when the L-DEO vessel R/V Maurice Ewing was operating a 20 airgun (8,490 in3) array in the general area. The link between the stranding and the seismic surveys was inconclusive and not based on any physical evidence (Hogarth, 2002; Yoder, 2002). Nonetheless, the Gulf of California incident, plus the beaked whale strandings near naval exercises involving use of mid-frequency sonar, suggests a need for caution in conducting seismic surveys in areas occupied by beaked whales until more is known about effects of seismic surveys on those species (Hildebrand, 2005). No injuries of beaked whales are anticipated during the proposed exploratory drilling program because none occur in the proposed area.

Exploratory Drilling Program and Potential for Oil Spill

As noted above, the specified activity involves the drilling of exploratory wells and associated activities in the Beaufort Sea during the 2012 open-water season. The impacts to marine mammals that are reasonably expected to occur will be acoustic in nature. In response to previous IHA applications submitted by Shell, various entities have asserted that NMFS cannot authorize the take of marine mammals incidental to exploratory drilling under an IHA. Instead, they contend that incidental take can be allowed only with a letter of authorization (LOA) issued under five-year regulations because of the potential that an oil spill will cause serious injury or mortality.

There are two avenues for authorizing incidental take of marine mammals under the MMPA. NMFS may, depending on the nature of the anticipated take, authorize the take of marine mammals incidental to a specified activity through regulations and LOAs or annual IHAs. See 16 U.S.C. 1371(a)(5)(A) and (D). In general, regulations (accompanied by LOAs) may be issued for any type of take (e.g., Level B harassment (behavioral disturbance), Level A harassment (injury), serious injury, or mortality), whereas IHAs are limited to activities that result only in harassment (e.g., behavioral disturbance or injury). Following the 1994 MMPA Amendments, NMFS promulgated implementing regulations governing the issuance of IHAs in Arctic waters. See 60 FR 28379 (May 31, 1995) and 61 FR 15884 (April 10, 1996). NMFS stated in the preamble of the proposed rulemaking that the scope of IHAs would be limited to “* * * those authorizations for harassment involving incidental harassment that may involve non-serious injury.See 60 FR 28380 Start Printed Page 68993(May 31, 1995; emphasis added); 50 CFR 216.107(a). (“[e]xcept for activities that have the potential to result in serious injury or mortality, which must be authorized under 216.105, incidental harassment authorizations may be issued, * * * to allowed activities that may result in only the incidental harassment of a small number of marine mammals.”). NMFS explained further that applications would be reviewed to determine whether the activity would result in more than harassment and if so, the agency would either (1) Attempt to negate the potential for serious injury through mitigation requirements, or (2) deny the incidental harassment authorization and require the applicant to apply for incidental take regulations. See id. at 28380-81.

NMFS' determination of whether the type of incidental take authorization requested is appropriate occurs shortly after the applicant submits an application for an incidental take authorization. The agency evaluates the proposed action and all information contained in the application to determine whether it is adequate and complete and whether the type of taking requested is appropriate. See 50 CFR 216.104; see also 60 FR 28380 (May 31, 1995). Among other things, NMFS considers the specific activity or class of activities that can reasonably be expected to result in incidental take; the type of incidental take authorization that is being requested; and the anticipated impact of the activity upon the species or stock and its habitat. See id. at 216.104(a). (emphasis added). Any application that is determined to be incomplete or inappropriate for the type of taking requested will be returned to the applicant with an explanation of why the application is being returned. See id. Finally, NMFS evaluates the best available science to determine whether a proposed activity is reasonably expected or likely to result in serious injury or mortality.

NMFS evaluated Shell's incidental take application for its proposed 2012 drilling activities in light of the foregoing criteria and has concluded that Shell's request for an IHA is warranted. Shell submitted information with its IHA Application indicating that an oil spill (large or very large oil spill) is highly unlikely and thus not reasonably expected to occur during the course of exploration drilling or ZVSP surveys. See Camden Bay IHA Application, pp. 3 and Attachment E— Analysis of the Probability of an “Unspecified Activity” and Its Impacts: Oil Spill. In addition, Shell's 2012 Exploration Plan, which was conditionally approved by the Department of the Interior, indicates there is a “very low likelihood of a large oil spill event”. See Shell Offshore, Inc.'s Revised Outer Continental Shelf Lease Exploration Plan, Camden Bay, Beaufort Sea, Alaska (May 2011), at p. 8-1; see also, Appendix F to Shell's Revised Outer Continental Shelf Lease Exploration Plan, at p. 4-174; see also, Beaufort Sea Planning Area Environmental Assessment for Shell Offshore, Inc.'s 2012 Revised Outer Continental Shelf Lease Exploration Plan (August 2011).

The likelihood of a large or very large (i.e. ≥1,000 barrels or ≥150,000 barrels, respectively) oil spill occurring during Shell's proposed program has been estimated to be low. A total of 35 exploration wells have been drilled between 1982 and 2003 in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and there have been no blowouts. In addition, no blowouts have occurred from the approximately 98 exploration wells drilled within the Alaskan OCS (MMS, 2007a; BOEMRE, 2011). Attachment E in Shell's IHA Application contains information regarding the probability of an oil spill occurring during the proposed program and the potential impacts should one occur. Based on modeling conducted by Bercha (2008), the predicted frequency of an exploration well oil spill in waters similar to those in Camden Bay, Beaufort Sea, Alaska, is 0.000612 per well for a blowout sized between 10,000 barrels (bbl) to 149,000 bbl and 0.000354 per well for a blowout greater than 150,000 bbl. Please refer to Shell's application for additional information on the model and predicted frequencies (see ADDRESSES).

Shell has implemented several design standards and practices to reduce the already low probability of an oil spill occurring as part of its operations. The wells proposed to be drilled in the Arctic are exploratory and will not be converted to production wells; thus, production casing will not be installed, and the well will be permanently plugged and abandoned once exploration drilling is complete. Shell has also developed and will implement the following plans and protocols: Shell's Critical Operations Curtailment Plan; IMP; Well Control Plan; and Fuel Transfer Plan. Many of these safety measures are required by the Department of the Interior's interim final rule implementing certain measures to improve the safety of oil and gas exploration and development on the Outer Continental Shelf in light of the Deepwater Horizon event (see 75 FR 63346, October 14, 2010). Operationally, Shell has committed to the following to help prevent an oil spill from occurring in the Beaufort Sea:

  • Shell's Blow Out Preventer (BOP) was inspected and tested by an independent third party specialist;
  • Further inspection and testing of the BOP have been performed to ensure the reliability of the BOP and that all functions will be performed as necessary, including shearing the drill pipe;
  • Subsea BOP hydrostatic tests will be increased from once every 14 days to once every 7 days;
  • A second set of blind/shear rams will be installed in the BOP stack;
  • Full string casings will typically not be installed through high pressure zones;
  • Liners will be installed and cemented, which allows for installation of a liner top packer;
  • Testing of liners prior to installing a tieback string of casing back to the wellhead;
  • Utilizing a two-barrier policy; and
  • Testing of all casing hangers to ensure that they have two independent, validated barriers at all times.

NMFS has considered Shell's proposed action and has concluded that there is no reasonable likelihood of serious injury or mortality from the 2012 Camden Bay exploration drilling program. NMFS has consistently interpreted the term “potential,” as used in 50 CFR 216.107(a), to only include impacts that have more than a discountable probability of occurring, that is, impacts must be reasonably expected to occur. Hence, NMFS has regularly issued IHAs in cases where it found that the potential for serious injury or mortality was “highly unlikely” (See 73 FR 40512, 40514, July 15, 2008; 73 FR 45969, 45971, August 7, 2008; 73 FR 46774, 46778, August 11, 2008; 73 FR 66106, 66109, November 6, 2008; 74 FR 55368, 55371, October 27, 2009).

Interpreting “potential” to include impacts with any probability of occurring (i.e., speculative or extremely low probability events) would nearly preclude the issuance of IHAs in every instance. For example, NMFS would be unable to issue an IHA whenever vessels were involved in the marine activity since there is always some, albeit remote, possibility that a vessel could strike and seriously injure or kill a marine mammal. This would be inconsistent with the dual-permitting scheme Congress created and undesirable from a policy perspective, as limited agency resources would be used to issue regulations that provide no additional benefit to marine mammals beyond what is proposed in this IHA.Start Printed Page 68994

Despite concluding that the risk of serious injury or mortality from an oil spill in this case is extremely remote, NMFS has nonetheless evaluated the potential effects of an oil spill on marine mammals. While an oil spill is not a component of Shell's specified activity, potential impacts on marine mammals from an oil spill are discussed in more detail below and will be addressed further in the Environmental Assessment.

Potential Effects of Oil on Cetaceans

The specific effects an oil spill would have on bowhead, gray, or beluga whales or harbor porpoise are not well known. While mortality is unlikely, exposure to spilled oil could lead to skin irritation, baleen fouling (which might reduce feeding efficiency), respiratory distress from inhalation of hydrocarbon vapors, consumption of some contaminated prey items, and temporary displacement from contaminated feeding areas. Geraci and St. Aubin (1990) summarize effects of oil on marine mammals, and Bratton et al. (1993) provides a synthesis of knowledge of oil effects on bowhead whales. The number of whales that might be contacted by a spill would depend on the size, timing, and duration of the spill and where the oil is in relation to the whales. Whales may not avoid oil spills, and some have been observed feeding within oil slicks (Goodale et al., 1981). These topics are discussed in more detail next.

In the case of an oil spill occurring during migration periods, disturbance of the migrating cetaceans from cleanup activities may have more of an impact than the oil itself. Human activity associated with cleanup efforts could deflect whales away from the path of the oil. However, noise created from cleanup activities likely will be short term and localized. In fact, whale avoidance of clean-up activities may benefit whales by displacing them from the oil spill area.

There is no direct evidence that oil spills, including the much studied Santa Barbara Channel and Exxon Valdez spills, have caused any deaths of cetaceans (Geraci, 1990; Brownell, 1971; Harvey and Dahlheim, 1994). It is suspected that some individually identified killer whales that disappeared from Prince William Sound during the time of the Exxon Valdez spill were casualties of that spill. However, no clear cause and effect relationship between the spill and the disappearance could be established (Dahlheim and Matkin, 1994). The AT-1 pod of transient killer whales that sometimes inhabits Prince William Sound has continued to decline after the Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS). Matkin et al. (2008) tracked the AB resident pod and the AT-1 transient group of killer whales from 1984 to 2005. The results of their photographic surveillance indicate a much higher than usual mortality rate for both populations the year following the spill (33% for AB Pod and 41% for AT-1 Group) and lower than average rates of increase in the 16 years after the spill (annual increase of about 1.6% for AB Pod compared to an annual increase of about 3.2% for other Alaska killer whale pods). In killer whale pods, mortality rates are usually higher for non-reproductive animals and very low for reproductive animals and adolescents (Olesiuk et al., 1990, 2005; Matkin et al., 2005). No effects on humpback whales in Prince William Sound were evident after the EVOS (von Ziegesar et al., 1994). There was some temporary displacement of humpback whales out of Prince William Sound, but this could have been caused by oil contamination, boat and aircraft disturbance, displacement of food sources, or other causes.

Migrating gray whales were apparently not greatly affected by the Santa Barbara spill of 1969. There appeared to be no relationship between the spill and mortality of marine mammals. The higher than usual counts of dead marine mammals recorded after the spill represented increased survey effort and therefore cannot be conclusively linked to the spill itself (Brownell, 1971; Geraci, 1990). The conclusion was that whales were either able to detect the oil and avoid it or were unaffected by it (Geraci, 1990).

(1) Oiling of External Surfaces

Whales rely on a layer of blubber for insulation, so oil would have little if any effect on thermoregulation by whales. Effects of oiling on cetacean skin appear to be minor and of little significance to the animal's health (Geraci, 1990). Histological data and ultrastructural studies by Geraci and St. Aubin (1990) showed that exposures of skin to crude oil for up to 45 minutes in four species of toothed whales had no effect. They switched to gasoline and applied the sponge up to 75 minutes. This produced transient damage to epidermal cells in whales. Subtle changes were evident only at the cell level. In each case, the skin damage healed within a week. They concluded that a cetacean's skin is an effective barrier to the noxious substances in petroleum. These substances normally damage skin by getting between cells and dissolving protective lipids. In cetacean skin, however, tight intercellular bridges, vital surface cells, and the extraordinary thickness of the epidermis impeded the damage. The authors could not detect a change in lipid concentration between and within cells after exposing skin from a white-sided dolphin to gasoline for 16 hours in vitro.

Bratton et al. (1993) synthesized studies on the potential effects of contaminants on bowhead whales. They concluded that no published data proved oil fouling of the skin of any free-living whales, and concluded that bowhead whales contacting fresh or weathered petroleum are unlikely to suffer harm. Although oil is unlikely to adhere to smooth skin, it may stick to rough areas on the surface (Henk and Mullan, 1997). Haldiman et al. (1985) found the epidermal layer to be as much as seven to eight times thicker than that found on most whales. They also found that little or no crude oil adhered to preserved bowhead skin that was dipped into oil up to three times, as long as a water film stayed on the skin's surface. Oil adhered in small patches to the surface and vibrissae (stiff, hairlike structures), once it made enough contact with the skin. The amount of oil sticking to the surrounding skin and epidermal depression appeared to be in proportion to the number of exposures and the roughness of the skin's surface. It can be assumed that if oil contacted the eyes, effects would be similar to those observed in ringed seals; continued exposure of the eyes to oil could cause permanent damage (St. Aubin, 1990).

(2) Ingestion

Whales could ingest oil if their food is contaminated, or oil could also be absorbed through the respiratory tract. Some of the ingested oil is voided in vomit or feces but some is absorbed and could cause toxic effects (Geraci, 1990). When returned to clean water, contaminated animals can depurate this internal oil (Engelhardt, 1978, 1982). Oil ingestion can decrease food assimilation of prey eaten (St. Aubin, 1988). Cetaceans may swallow some oil-contaminated prey, but it likely would be only a small part of their food. It is not known if whales would leave a feeding area where prey was abundant following a spill. Some zooplankton eaten by bowheads and gray whales consume oil particles and bioaccumulation can result. Tissue studies by Geraci and St. Aubin (1990) revealed low levels of naphthalene in the livers and blubber of baleen whales. This result suggests that prey have low concentrations in their tissues, or that Start Printed Page 68995baleen whales may be able to metabolize and excrete certain petroleum hydrocarbons. Whales exposed to an oil spill are unlikely to ingest enough oil to cause serious internal damage (Geraci and St. Aubin, 1980, 1982) and this kind of damage has not been reported (Geraci, 1990).

(3) Fouling of Baleen

Baleen itself is not damaged by exposure to oil and is resistant to effects of oil (St. Aubin et al., 1984). Crude oil could coat the baleen and reduce filtration efficiency; however, effects may be temporary (Braithwaite, 1983; St. Aubin et al., 1984). If baleen is coated in oil for long periods, it could cause the animal to be unable to feed, which could lead to malnutrition or even death. Most of the oil that would coat the baleen is removed after 30 min, and less than 5% would remain after 24 hr (Bratton et al., 1993). Effects of oiling of the baleen on feeding efficiency appear to be minor (Geraci, 1990). However, a study conducted by Lambertsen et al. (2005) concluded that their results highlight the uncertainty about how rapidly oil would depurate at the near zero temperatures in arctic waters and whether baleen function would be restored after oiling.

(4) Avoidance

Some cetaceans can detect oil and sometimes avoid it, but others enter and swim through slicks without apparent effects (Geraci, 1990; Harvey and Dahlheim, 1994). Bottlenose dolphins apparently could detect and avoid slicks and mousse but did not avoid light sheens on the surface (Smultea and Wursig, 1995). After the Regal Sword spill in 1979, various species of baleen and toothed whales were observed swimming and feeding in areas containing spilled oil southeast of Cape Cod, MA (Goodale et al., 1981). For months following EVOS, there were numerous observations of gray whales, harbor porpoises, Dall's porpoises, and killer whales swimming through light-to-heavy crude-oil sheens (Harvey and Dalheim, 1994, cited in Matkin et al., 2008). However, if some of the animals avoid the area because of the oil, then the effects of the oiling would be less severe on those individuals.

(5) Factors Affecting the Severity of Effects

Effects of oil on whales in open water are likely to be minimal, but there could be effects on whales where both the oil and the whales are at least partly confined in leads or at ice edges (Geraci, 1990). In spring, bowhead and beluga whales migrate through leads in the ice. At this time, the migration can be concentrated in narrow corridors defined by the leads, thereby creating a greater risk to animals caught in the spring lead system should oil enter the leads. This situation would only occur if there were an oil spill late in the season and Shell could not complete cleanup efforts prior to ice covering the area. The oil would likely then be trapped in the ice until it began to thaw in the spring.

In fall, the migration route of bowheads can be close to shore (Blackwell et al., 2009c). If fall migrants were moving through leads in the pack ice or were concentrated in nearshore waters, some bowhead whales might not be able to avoid oil slicks and could be subject to prolonged contamination. However, the autumn migration past Camden Bay extends over several weeks, and some of the whales travel along routes north of the area, thereby reducing the number of whales that could approach patches of spilled oil. Additionally, vessel activity associated with spill cleanup efforts may deflect whales traveling near Camden Bay farther offshore, thereby reducing the likelihood of contact with spilled oil. Also, during years when movements of oil and whales might be partially confined by ice, the bowhead migration corridor tends to be farther offshore (Treacy, 1997; LGL and Greeneridge, 1996a; Moore, 2000).

Bowhead and beluga whales overwinter in the Bering Sea (mainly from November to March). In the summer, the majority of the bowhead whales are found in the Canadian Beaufort Sea, although some have recently been observed in the U.S. Beaufort and Chukchi Seas during the summer months (June to August). Data from the Barrow-based boat surveys in 2009 (George and Sheffield, 2009) showed that bowheads were observed almost continuously in the waters near Barrow, including feeding groups in the Chukchi Sea at the beginning of July. The majority of belugas in the Beaufort stock migrate into the Beaufort Sea in April or May, although some whales may pass Point Barrow as early as late March and as late as July (Braham et al., 1984; Ljungblad et al., 1984; Richardson et al., 1995a). Therefore, a spill in summer would not be expected to have major impacts on these species. Additionally, while gray whales have commonly been sighted near Point Barrow, they are much less frequently found in the Camden Bay area. Therefore, an oil spill is not expected to have major impacts to gray whales.

Potential Effects of Oil on Pinnipeds

Ringed, bearded, and spotted seals are present in open-water areas during summer and early autumn. Externally oiled phocid seals often survive and become clean, but heavily oiled seal pups and adults may die, depending on the extent of oiling and characteristics of the oil. Prolonged exposure could occur if fuel or crude oil was spilled in or reached nearshore waters, was spilled in a lead used by seals, or was spilled under the ice when seals have limited mobility (NMFS, 2000). Adult seals may suffer some temporary adverse effects, such as eye and skin irritation, with possible infection (MMS, 1996). Such effects may increase stress, which could contribute to the death of some individuals. Ringed seals may ingest oil-contaminated foods, but there is little evidence that oiled seals will ingest enough oil to cause lethal internal effects. There is a likelihood that newborn seal pups, if contacted by oil, would die from oiling through loss of insulation and resulting hypothermia. These potential effects are addressed in more detail in subsequent paragraphs.

Reports of the effects of oil spills have shown that some mortality of seals may have occurred as a result of oil fouling; however, large scale mortality had not been observed prior to the EVOS (St. Aubin, 1990). Effects of oil on marine mammals were not well studied at most spills because of lack of baseline data and/or the brevity of the post-spill surveys. The largest documented impact of a spill, prior to EVOS, was on young seals in January in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (St. Aubin, 1990). Brownell and Le Boeuf (1971) found no marked effects of oil from the Santa Barbara oil spill on California sea lions or on the mortality rates of newborn pups.

Intensive and long-term studies were conducted after the EVOS in Alaska. There may have been a long-term decline of 36% in numbers of molting harbor seals at oiled haul-out sites in Prince William Sound following EVOS (Frost et al., 1994a). However, in a reanalysis of those data and additional years of surveys, along with an examination of assumptions and biases associated with the original data, Hoover-Miller et al. (2001) concluded that the EVOS effect had been overestimated. The decline in attendance at some oiled sites was more likely a continuation of the general decline in harbor seal abundance in Prince William Sound documented since 1984 (Frost et al., 1999) rather than a result of EVOS. The results from Hoover-Miller et al. (2001) indicate that the effects of EVOS were largely Start Printed Page 68996indistinguishable from natural decline by 1992. However, while Frost et al. (2004) concluded that there was no evidence that seals were displaced from oiled sites, they did find that aerial counts indicated 26% fewer pups were produced at oiled locations in 1989 than would have been expected without the oil spill. Harbor seal pup mortality at oiled beaches was 23% to 26%, which may have been higher than natural mortality, although no baseline data for pup mortality existed prior to EVOS (Frost et al., 1994a). There was no conclusive evidence of spill effects on Steller sea lions (Calkins et al., 1994). Oil did not persist on sea lions themselves (as it did on harbor seals), nor did it persist on sea lion haul-out sites and rookeries (Calkins et al., 1994). Sea lion rookeries and haul out sites, unlike those used by harbor seals, have steep sides and are subject to high wave energy (Calkins et al., 1994).

(1) Oiling of External Surfaces

Adult seals rely on a layer of blubber for insulation, and oiling of the external surface does not appear to have adverse thermoregulatory effects (Kooyman et al., 1976, 1977; St. Aubin, 1990). Contact with oil on the external surfaces can potentially cause increased stress and irritation of the eyes of ringed seals (Geraci and Smith, 1976; St. Aubin, 1990). These effects seemed to be temporary and reversible, but continued exposure of eyes to oil could cause permanent damage (St. Aubin, 1990). Corneal ulcers and abrasions, conjunctivitis, and swollen nictitating membranes were observed in captive ringed seals placed in crude oil-covered water (Geraci and Smith, 1976) and in seals in the Antarctic after an oil spill (Lillie, 1954).

Newborn seal pups rely on their fur for insulation. Newborn ringed seal pups in lairs on the ice could be contaminated through contact with oiled mothers. There is the potential that newborn ringed seal pups that were contaminated with oil could die from hypothermia.

(2) Ingestion

Marine mammals can ingest oil if their food is contaminated. Oil can also be absorbed through the respiratory tract (Geraci and Smith, 1976; Engelhardt et al., 1977). Some of the ingested oil is voided in vomit or feces but some is absorbed and could cause toxic effects (Engelhardt, 1981). When returned to clean water, contaminated animals can depurate this internal oil (Engelhardt, 1978, 1982, 1985). In addition, seals exposed to an oil spill are unlikely to ingest enough oil to cause serious internal damage (Geraci and St. Aubin, 1980, 1982).

(3) Avoidance and Behavioral Effects

Although seals may have the capability to detect and avoid oil, they apparently do so only to a limited extent (St. Aubin, 1990). Seals may abandon the area of an oil spill because of human disturbance associated with cleanup efforts, but they are most likely to remain in the area of the spill. One notable behavioral reaction to oiling is that oiled seals are reluctant to enter the water, even when intense cleanup activities are conducted nearby (St. Aubin, 1990; Frost et al., 1994b, 2004).

(4) Factors Affecting the Severity of Effects

Seals that are under natural stress, such as lack of food or a heavy infestation by parasites, could potentially die because of the additional stress of oiling (Geraci and Smith, 1976; St. Aubin, 1990; Spraker et al., 1994). Female seals that are nursing young would be under natural stress, as would molting seals. In both cases, the seals would have reduced food stores and may be less resistant to effects of oil than seals that are not under some type of natural stress. Seals that are not under natural stress (e.g., fasting, molting) would be more likely to survive oiling.

In general, seals do not exhibit large behavioral or physiological reactions to limited surface oiling or incidental exposure to contaminated food or vapors (St. Aubin, 1990; Williams et al., 1994). Effects could be severe if seals surface in heavy oil slicks in leads or if oil accumulates near haul-out sites (St. Aubin, 1990). An oil spill in open water is less likely to impact seals.

The potential effects to marine mammals described in this section of the document do not take into consideration the proposed monitoring and mitigation measures described later in this document (see the “Proposed Mitigation” and “Proposed Monitoring and Reporting” sections).

Anticipated Effects on Marine Mammal Habitat

The primary potential impacts to marine mammals and other marine species are associated with elevated sound levels produced by the exploratory drilling program (i.e. the drillship and the airguns). However, other potential impacts are also possible to the surrounding habitat from physical disturbance and an oil spill (should one occur). This section describes the potential impacts to marine mammal habitat from the specified activity. Because the marine mammals in the area feed on fish and/or invertebrates there is also information on the species typically preyed upon by the marine mammals in the area.

Common Marine Mammal Prey in the Project Area

All eight of the marine mammal species that may occur in the proposed project area prey on either marine fish or invertebrates. The ringed seal feeds on fish and a variety of benthic species, including crabs and shrimp. Bearded seals feed mainly on benthic organisms, primarily crabs, shrimp, and clams. Spotted seals feed on pelagic and demersal fish, as well as shrimp and cephalopods. They are known to feed on a variety of fish including herring, capelin, sand lance, Arctic cod, saffron cod, and sculpins. Ribbon seals feed primarily on pelagic fish and invertebrates, such as shrimp, crabs, squid, octopus, cod, sculpin, pollack, and capelin. Juveniles feed mostly on krill and shrimp.

Bowhead whales feed in the eastern Beaufort Sea during summer and early autumn but continue feeding to varying degrees while on their migration through the central and western Beaufort Sea in the late summer and fall (Richardson and Thomson [eds.], 2002). Aerial surveys in recent years have sighted bowhead whales feeding in Camden Bay on their westward migration through the Beaufort Sea. When feeding in relatively shallow areas, bowheads feed throughout the water column. However, feeding is concentrated at depths where zooplankton is concentrated (Wursig et al., 1984, 1989; Richardson [ed.], 1987; Griffiths et al., 2002). Lowry and Sheffield (2002) found that copepods and euphausiids were the most common prey found in stomach samples from bowhead whales harvested in the Kaktovik area from 1979 to 2000. Areas to the east of Barter Island (which is approximately 60 mi [96.6 km] east of Shell's proposed drill sites in Camden Bay) appear to be used regularly for feeding as bowhead whales migrate slowly westward across the Beaufort Sea (Thomson and Richardson, 1987; Richardson and Thomson [eds.], 2002). However, in some years, sizable groups of bowhead whales have been seen feeding as far west as the waters just east of Point Barrow (which is more than 250 mi [402 km] west of Shell's proposed drill sites in Camden Bay) near the Plover Islands (Braham et al., 1984; Ljungblad et al., 1985; Landino et al., 1994). The situation in September-October 1997 was unusual in that bowheads fed widely across the Alaskan Start Printed Page 68997Beaufort Sea, including higher numbers in the area east of Barrow than reported in any previous year (S. Treacy and D. Hansen, MMS, pers. comm.).

Beluga whales feed on a variety of fish, shrimp, squid and octopus (Burns and Seaman, 1985). Very few beluga whales occur near Northstar; their main migration route is much further offshore. Like several of the other species in the area, harbor porpoise feed on demersal and benthic species, mainly schooling fish and cephalopods. Harbor porpoise are also not commonly found in Camden Bay.

Gray whales are primarily bottom feeders, and benthic amphipods and isopods form the majority of their summer diet, at least in the main summering areas west of Alaska (Oliver et al., 1983; Oliver and Slattery, 1985). Farther south, gray whales have also been observed feeding around kelp beds, presumably on mysid crustaceans, and on pelagic prey such as small schooling fish and crab larvae (Hatler and Darling, 1974).

Two kinds of fish inhabit marine waters in the study area: (1) True marine fish that spend all of their lives in salt water, and (2) anadromous species that reproduce in fresh water and spend parts of their life cycles in salt water.

Most arctic marine fish species are small, benthic forms that do not feed high in the water column. The majority of these species are circumpolar and are found in habitats ranging from deep offshore water to water as shallow as 16.4-33 ft (5-10 m; Fechhelm et al., 1995). The most important pelagic species, and the only abundant pelagic species, is the Arctic cod. The Arctic cod is a major vector for the transfer of energy from lower to higher trophic levels (Bradstreet et al., 1986). In summer, Arctic cod can form very large schools in both nearshore and offshore waters (Craig et al., 1982; Bradstreet et al., 1986). Locations and areas frequented by large schools of Arctic cod cannot be predicted but can be almost anywhere. The Arctic cod is a major food source for beluga whales, ringed seals, and numerous species of seabirds (Frost and Lowry, 1984; Bradstreet et al., 1986).

Anadromous Dolly Varden char and some species of whitefish winter in rivers and lakes, migrate to the sea in spring and summer, and return to fresh water in autumn. Anadromous fish form the basis of subsistence, commercial, and small regional sport fisheries. Dolly Varden char migrate to the sea from May through mid-June (Johnson, 1980) and spend about 1.5-2.5 months there (Craig, 1989). They return to rivers beginning in late July or early August with the peak return migration occurring between mid-August and early September (Johnson, 1980). At sea, most anadromous corregonids (whitefish) remain in nearshore waters within several kilometers of shore (Craig, 1984, 1989). They are often termed “amphidromous” fish in that they make repeated annual migrations into marine waters to feed, returning each fall to overwinter in fresh water.

Benthic organisms are defined as bottom dwelling creatures. Infaunal organisms are benthic organisms that live within the substrate and are often sedentary or sessile (bivalves, polychaetes). Epibenthic organisms live on or near the bottom surface sediments and are mobile (amphipods, isopods, mysids, and some polychaetes). Epifauna, which live attached to hard substrates, are rare in the Beaufort Sea because hard substrates are scarce there. A small community of epifauna, the Boulder Patch, occurs in Stefansson Sound.

Many of the nearshore benthic marine invertebrates of the Arctic are circumpolar and are found over a wide range of water depths (Carey et al., 1975). Species identified include polychaetes (Spio filicornis, Chaetozone setosa, Eteone longa), bivalves (Cryrtodaria kurriana, Nucula tenuis, Liocyma fluctuosa), an isopod (Saduria entomon), and amphipods (Pontoporeia femorata, P. affinis).

Nearshore benthic fauna have been studied in lagoons west of Camden Bay and near the mouth of the Colville River (Kinney et al., 1971, 1972; Crane and Cooney, 1975). The waters of Simpson Lagoon, Harrison Bay, and the nearshore region support a number of infaunal species including crustaceans, mollusks, and polychaetes. In areas influenced by river discharge, seasonal changes in salinity can greatly influence the distribution and abundance of benthic organisms. Large fluctuations in salinity and temperature that occur over a very short time period, or on a seasonal basis, allow only very adaptable, opportunistic species to survive (Alexander et al., 1974). Since shorefast ice is present for many months, the distribution and abundance of most species depends on annual (or more frequent) recolonization from deeper offshore waters (Woodward Clyde Consultants, 1995). Due to ice scouring, particularly in water depths of less than 8 ft (2.4 m), infaunal communities tend to be patchily distributed. Diversity increases with water depth until the shear zone is reached at 49-82 ft (15-25 m; Carey, 1978). Biodiversity then declines due to ice gouging between the landfast ice and the polar pack ice (Woodward Clyde Consultants, 1995).

Potential Impacts From Seafloor Disturbance on Marine Mammal Habitat

There is a possibility of some seafloor disturbance or temporary increased turbidity in the seabed sediments during anchoring and excavation of the mudline cellars (MLCs). The amount and duration of disturbed or turbid conditions will depend on sediment material and consolidation of specific activity.

The Kulluk would be anchored using a 12-point anchor system held in place with 12, 15 metric ton Stevpris anchors, and the Discoverer would be stabilized and held in place with a system of eight 7,000 kg Stevpris anchors during operations. The anchors from either drilling vessel are designed to embed into the seafloor. Prior to setting, the anchors will penetrate the seafloor and drag two or three times their length. Both the anchor and anchor chain will disturb sediments and create an “anchor scar” which is a depression in the seafloor caused by the anchor embedding. The anchor scar is a depression with ridges of displaced sediment, and the area of disturbance will often be greater than the size of the anchor itself because the anchor is dragged along the seafloor until it takes hold and sets.

For the Kulluk, each Stevpris anchor may impact an area of 2,928 ft2 (272 m2), whereas each Stevpris anchor from the Discoverer may impact an area of 2,027 ft2 (188 m2) of the seafloor. Minimum impact estimates of the seafloor from each well or mooring with the 12 anchors of the Kulluk is 35,136 ft2 (3,264 m2) or with the eight anchors of the Discoverer is 16,216 ft2 (1,507 m2). This estimate assumes that the anchors are set only once. Shell plans to pre-set anchors at each drill site for whichever drillship is used for drilling. Unless moved by an outside force such as sea current, anchors should only need to be set once per drill site. (Shell proposes to drill at two sites in Camden Bay during the 2012 open-water season.) Additionally, based on the vast size of the Beaufort Sea, the area of disturbance is not anticipated to adversely affect marine mammal use of the area.

Once the drillship ends operation, the anchors will be retrieved. Over time, the anchor scars will be filled through natural movement of sediment. The duration of the scars depends upon the energy of the system, water depth, ice scour, and sediment type. Anchor scars were visible under low energy conditions in the North Sea for 5-10 years after retrieval. Scars typically do Start Printed Page 68998not form or persist in sandy mud or sand sediments but may last for 9 years in hard clays (Centaur Associates Inc., 1984). The surficial Holocene soils at the Sivulliq and Torpedo prospects consist primarily of soft to stiff silts and clays with low to medium plasticity. The fine sand present in contact with underlying silts and clays is variable, as the sand tends to infill old gouges. Local depositional processes will strongly affect the range of properties for Holocene soils. The energy regime plus possible effects of ice gouge in the Beaufort Sea suggest that anchor scars would be refilled faster than in the North Sea.

Excavation of each MLC by the Kulluk will displace about 24,579 ft3 (696 m3) of seafloor sediments and directly disturb approximately 452 ft2 (42m2) of seafloor. Excavation of each MLC by the Discoverer will displace about 17,128 ft3 (485 m3) of seafloor sediments and directly disturb approximately 314 ft2 (29 m2) of seafloor. The MLC excavation amounts range in volume because the MLC bits for the Kulluk and Discoverer differ in size and hence excavate different diameter MLCs. Material will be excavated from the MLCs using a large diameter drillbit. Pressurized air and water (no drilling mud used) will be used to assist in the removal of the excavated materials from the MLC. Some of the excavated sediments will be displaced to adjacent seafloor areas and some will be removed via the air lift system and discharged on the seafloor away from the MLC. These excavated materials will also have some indirect effects as they are deposited on the seafloor in the vicinity of the MLCs. Direct and indirect effects would include slight changes in seafloor relief and sediment consistency.

Vessel mooring and MLC construction would result in increased suspended sediment in the water column that could result in lethal effects on some zooplankton (food source for baleen whales). However, compared to the overall population of zooplankton and the localized nature of effects, any mortality that may occur would not be considered significant. Due to fast regeneration periods of zooplankton, populations are expected to recover quickly.

Impacts on fish resulting from suspended sediments would be dependent upon the life stage of the fish (e.g., eggs, larvae, juveniles, or adults), the concentration of the suspended sediments, the type of sediment, and the duration of exposure (IMG Golder, 2004). Eggs and larvae have been found to exhibit greater sensitivity to suspended sediments (Wilber and Clarke, 2001) and other stresses, which is thought to be related to their relative lack of motility (Auld and Schubel, 1978). Sedimentation could affect fish by causing egg morbidity of demersal fish feeding near or on the ocean floor (Wilber and Clarke, 2001). Surficial membranes are especially susceptible to abrasion (Cairns and Scheier, 1968). However, most of the abundant Beaufort Sea fish species with demersal eggs spawn under the ice in the winter well before MLC excavation would occur. Exposure of pelagic eggs would be much shorter as they move with ocean currents (Wilber and Clarke, 2001).

Suspended sediments, resulting from vessel mooring and MLC excavation, are not expected to result in permanent damage to habitats used by the marine mammal species in the proposed project area or on the food sources that they utilize. Rather, NMFS considers that such impacts will be temporary in nature and concentrated in the areas directly surrounding vessel mooring and MLC excavation activities—areas which are very small relative to the overall Beaufort Sea region.

Potential Impacts From Sound Generation

With regard to fish as a prey source for odontocetes and seals, fish are known to hear and react to sounds and to use sound to communicate (Tavolga et al., 1981) and possibly avoid predators (Wilson and Dill, 2002). Experiments have shown that fish can sense both the strength and direction of sound (Hawkins, 1981). Primary factors determining whether a fish can sense a sound signal, and potentially react to it, are the frequency of the signal and the strength of the signal in relation to the natural background noise level.

Fishes produce sounds that are associated with behaviors that include territoriality, mate search, courtship, and aggression. It has also been speculated that sound production may provide the means for long distance communication and communication under poor underwater visibility conditions (Zelick et al., 1999), although the fact that fish communicate at low-frequency sound levels where the masking effects of ambient noise are naturally highest suggests that very long distance communication would rarely be possible. Fishes have evolved a diversity of sound generating organs and acoustic signals of various temporal and spectral contents. Fish sounds vary in structure, depending on the mechanism used to produce them (Hawkins, 1993). Generally, fish sounds are predominantly composed of low frequencies (less than 3 kHz).

Since objects in the water scatter sound, fish are able to detect these objects through monitoring the ambient noise. Therefore, fish are probably able to detect prey, predators,conspecifics, and physical features by listening to environmental sounds (Hawkins, 1981). There are two sensory systems that enable fish to monitor the vibration-based information of their surroundings. The two sensory systems, the inner ear and the lateral line, constitute the acoustico-lateralis system.

Although the hearing sensitivities of very few fish species have been studied to date, it is becoming obvious that the intra- and inter-specific variability is considerable (Coombs, 1981). Nedwell et al. (2004) compiled and published available fish audiogram information. A noninvasive electrophysiological recording method known as auditory brainstem response is now commonly used in the production of fish audiograms (Yan, 2004). Generally, most fish have their best hearing in the low-frequency range (i.e., less than 1 kHz). Even though some fish are able to detect sounds in the ultrasonic frequency range, the thresholds at these higher frequencies tend to be considerably higher than those at the lower end of the auditory frequency range.

Literature relating to the impacts of sound on marine fish species can be divided into the following categories: (1) Pathological effects; (2) physiological effects; and (3) behavioral effects. Pathological effects include lethal and sub-lethal physical damage to fish; physiological effects include primary and secondary stress responses; and behavioral effects include changes in exhibited behaviors of fish. Behavioral changes might be a direct reaction to a detected sound or a result of the anthropogenic sound masking natural sounds that the fish normally detect and to which they respond. The three types of effects are often interrelated in complex ways. For example, some physiological and behavioral effects could potentially lead to the ultimate pathological effect of mortality. Hastings and Popper (2005) reviewed what is known about the effects of sound on fishes and identified studies needed to address areas of uncertainty relative to measurement of sound and the responses of fishes. Popper et al. (2003/2004) also published a paper that reviews the effects of anthropogenic sound on the behavior and physiology of fishes.

Potential effects of exposure to continuous sound on marine fish include TTS, physical damage to the ear region, physiological stress responses, and behavioral responses such as startle Start Printed Page 68999response, alarm response, avoidance, and perhaps lack of response due to masking of acoustic cues. Most of these effects appear to be either temporary or intermittent and therefore probably do not significantly impact the fish at a population level. The studies that resulted in physical damage to the fish ears used noise exposure levels and durations that were far more extreme than would be encountered under conditions similar to those expected during Shell's proposed exploratory drilling activities.

The level of sound at which a fish will react or alter its behavior is usually well above the detection level. Fish have been found to react to sounds when the sound level increased to about 20 dB above the detection level of 120 dB (Ona, 1988); however, the response threshold can depend on the time of year and the fish's physiological condition (Engas et al., 1993). In general, fish react more strongly to pulses of sound rather than a continuous signal (Blaxter et al., 1981), such as the type of sound that will be produced by the drillship, and a quicker alarm response is elicited when the sound signal intensity rises rapidly compared to sound rising more slowly to the same level.

Investigations of fish behavior in relation to vessel noise (Olsen et al., 1983; Ona, 1988; Ona and Godo, 1990) have shown that fish react when the sound from the engines and propeller exceeds a certain level. Avoidance reactions have been observed in fish such as cod and herring when vessels approached close enough that received sound levels are 110 dB to 130 dB (Nakken, 1992; Olsen, 1979; Ona and Godo, 1990; Ona and Toresen, 1988). However, other researchers have found that fish such as polar cod, herring, and capeline are often attracted to vessels (apparently by the noise) and swim toward the vessel (Rostad et al., 2006). Typical sound source levels of vessel noise in the audible range for fish are 150 dB to 170 dB (Richardson et al., 1995a). (Based on models, the 160 dB radius for the Discoverer would extend approximately 33 ft [10 m] and the 160 dB radius for the Kulluk would extend approximately 180 ft [55 m]; therefore, fish would need to be in close proximity to the drillship for the noise to be audible). In calm weather, ambient noise levels in audible parts of the spectrum lie between 60 dB to 100 dB.

Sound will also occur in the marine environment from the various support vessels. Reported source levels for vessels during ice management have ranged from 175 dB to 185 dB (Brewer et al., 1993, Hall et al., 1994). However, ice management or icebreaking activities are not expected to be necessary throughout the entire drilling season, so impacts from that activity would occur less frequently than sound from the drillship. Sound pressures generated by drilling vessels during active drilling operations have been measured during past exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Sounds generated by drilling and ice management/icebreaking are generally low frequency and within the frequency range detectable by most fish.

Shell also proposes to conduct seismic surveys with an airgun array for a short period of time during the drilling season (a total of approximately 20-28 hours over the course of the entire proposed drilling program). Airguns produce impulsive sounds as opposed to continuous sounds at the source. Short, sharp sounds can cause overt or subtle changes in fish behavior. Chapman and Hawkins (1969) tested the reactions of whiting (hake) in the field to an airgun. When the airgun was fired, the fish dove from 82 to 180 ft (25 to 55 m) depth and formed a compact layer. The whiting dove when received sound levels were higher than 178 dB re 1 µPa (Pearson et al., 1992).

Pearson et al. (1992) conducted a controlled experiment to determine effects of strong noise pulses on several species of rockfish off the California coast. They used an airgun with a source level of 223 dB re 1 µPa. They noted:

  • Startle responses at received levels of 200-205 dB re 1 µPa and above for two sensitive species, but not for two other species exposed to levels up to 207 dB;
  • Alarm responses at 177-180 dB for the two sensitive species, and at 186 to 199 dB for other species;
  • An overall threshold for the above behavioral response at about 180 dB;
  • An extrapolated threshold of about 161 dB for subtle changes in the behavior of rockfish; and
  • A return to pre-exposure behaviors within the 20-60 minute exposure period.

In summary, fish often react to sounds, especially strong and/or intermittent sounds of low frequency. Sound pulses at received levels of 160 dB re 1 µPa may cause subtle changes in behavior. Pulses at levels of 180 dB may cause noticeable changes in behavior (Chapman and Hawkins, 1969; Pearson et al., 1992; Skalski et al., 1992). It also appears that fish often habituate to repeated strong sounds rather rapidly, on time scales of minutes to an hour. However, the habituation does not endure, and resumption of the strong sound source may again elicit disturbance responses from the same fish. Underwater sound levels from the drillship and other vessels produce sounds lower than the response threshold reported by Pearson et al. (1992), and are not likely to result in major effects to fish near the proposed drill sites.

Based on a sound level of approximately 140 dB, there may be some avoidance by fish of the area near the drillship while drilling, around ice management vessels in transit and during ice management, and around other support and supply vessels when underway. Any reactions by fish to these sounds will last only minutes (Mitson and Knudsen, 2003; Ona et al., 2007) longer than the vessel is operating at that location or the drillship is drilling. Any potential reactions by fish would be limited to a relatively small area within about 0.21 mi (0.34 km) of the drillship during drilling (JASCO, 2007). Avoidance by some fish or fish species could occur within portions of this area. No important spawning habitats are known to occur at or near the drilling locations.

Some of the fish species found in the Arctic are prey sources for odontocetes and pinnipeds. A reaction by fish to sounds produced by Shell's proposed operations would only be relevant to marine mammals if it caused concentrations of fish to vacate the area. Pressure changes of sufficient magnitude to cause that type of reaction would probably occur only very close to the sound source, if any would occur at all due to the low energy sounds produced by the majority of equipment proposed for use. Impacts on fish behavior are predicted to be inconsequential. Thus, feeding odontocetes and pinnipeds would not be adversely affected by this minimal loss or scattering, if any, of reduced prey abundance.

Some mysticetes, including bowhead whales, feed on concentrations of zooplankton. Some feeding bowhead whales may occur in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea in July and August, and others feed intermittently during their westward migration in September and October (Richardson and Thomson [eds.], 2002; Lowry et al., 2004). Reactions of zooplankton to sound are, for the most part, not known. Their ability to move significant distances is limited or nil, depending on the type of zooplankton. Behavior of zooplankters is not expected to be affected by the exploratory drilling activities. These animals have exoskeletons and no air bladders. Many crustaceans can make sounds, and some crustacea and other Start Printed Page 69000invertebrates have some type of sound receptor. A reaction by zooplankton to sounds produced by the exploratory drilling program would only be relevant to whales if it caused concentrations of zooplankton to scatter. Pressure changes of sufficient magnitude to cause that type of reaction would probably occur only very close to the sound source, if any would occur at all due to the low energy sounds produced by the drillship. Impacts on zooplankton behavior are predicted to be inconsequential. Thus, feeding mysticetes would not be adversely affected by this minimal loss or scattering, if any, of reduced zooplankton abundance.

Aerial surveys in recent years have sighted bowhead whales feeding in Camden Bay on their westward migration through the Beaufort Sea. Individuals feeding in the Camden Bay area at the beginning of the migration (i.e., approximately late August or early September) are not expected to be impacted by Shell's proposed drilling program, primarily because of Shell's proposal to suspend operations and depart the area on August 25 and not return until the close of the Kaktovik and Nuiqsut (Cross Island) hunts, which typically ends around mid- to late September (see the “Plan of Cooperation (POC)” subsection later in this document for more details). If other individual bowheads stop to feed in the Camden Bay area after Shell resumes drilling operations in mid- to late September, they may potentially be exposed to sounds from the drillship or the airguns. However, injury to the bowhead whales is not anticipated, as the source level of the drillship is not loud enough to cause even mild TTS, as discussed earlier in this document, and mitigation measures are proposed to reduce even further the low risk of hearing impairment from the airguns. As mentioned earlier in this document, some bowhead whales have demonstrated avoidance behavior in areas of industrial sound (e.g., Richardson et al., 1999) and some have continued to feed even in the presence of industrial activities (Richardson, 2004). However, Camden Bay is not the only feeding location for bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea. Also, as discussed previously, drilling operations are not expected to adversely affect bowhead whale prey species or preclude bowhead whales from obtaining sufficient food resources along their traditional migratory path.

Potential Impacts From Drill Cuttings

Discharging drill cuttings or other liquid waste streams generated by the drilling vessel could potentially affect marine mammal habitat. Toxins could persist in the water column, which could have an impact on marine mammal prey species. However, despite a considerable amount of investment in research of exposures of marine mammals to organochlorines or other toxins, there have been no marine mammal deaths in the wild that can be conclusively linked to the direct exposure to such substances (O'Shea, 1999).

For the Camden Bay proposed exploration drilling program, Shell has committed to not discharge various waste streams during routine drilling operations. Shell has agreed to not discharge any of the following liquid waste streams that are generated by the drilling vessel: treated sanitary waste (black water); domestic waste (gray water); bilge water; or ballast water. Shell will not discharge drilling mud or cuttings that are generated below the depth at which the 20-in. (51-cm) diameter casing is set in each well. The mud and cuttings collected will be transferred to an OSV then to the deck or waste barge. Either barge will hold collected mud, cuttings, and wastewater for transport and disposal at an approved and licensed onshore facility.

Shell proposes that cuttings generated while drilling the MLC, the 36- and 26-in. (91- and 66-cm) hole sections (all drilled with seawater and viscous sweeps only) plus cement discharged while cementing the 30- and 20-in. (76- and 51-cm) casing strings will be discharged on the surface of the seafloor under provisions of an approved National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) General Permit (GP) administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The most recent NPDES GP expired on June 26, 2011. The EPA is currently processing two separate requests for NPDES exploration GPs in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The NPDES GP establishes discharge limits for drilling fluids (at the end of a discharge pipe) to a minimum 96-hr LC50 of 30,000 parts per million. Both modeling and field studies have shown that discharged drilling fluids are diluted rapidly in receiving waters (Ayers et al., 1980a,b; Brandsma et al., 1980; NRC, 1983; O'Reilly et al., 1989; Nedwed et al., 2004; Smith et al., 2004; Neff, 2005). The dilution rate is strongly affected by the discharge rate; the NPDES GP limits the discharge of cuttings and fluids to 750 bbl/hr. For example, the EPA modeled hypothetical 750 bbl/hr discharges of drilling fluids in water depths of 66 ft (20 m) in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and predicted a minimum dilution of 1,326:1 at 330 ft (100 m).

Modeling of similar discharges offshore of Sakhalin Island predicted a 1,000-fold dilution within 10 minutes and 330 ft (100 m) of the discharge. In a field study (O'Reilly et al., 1989) of a drilling waste discharge offshore of California, a 270 bbl discharge of drilling fluids was found to be diluted 183-fold at 33 ft (10 m) and 1,049-fold at 330 ft (100 m). Neff (2005) concluded that concentrations of discharged drilling fluids drop to levels that would have no effect within about two minutes of discharge and within 16 ft (5 m) of the discharge location.

Based on the fact that Shell plans to store the drilling muds and other liquid waste streams and transport them to a site onshore, no impacts to marine mammal habitat or marine mammal prey species are anticipated from such an activity.

Potential Impacts From Drillship Presence

The Kulluk is 266 ft (81 m) in diameter, and the Discoverer is 514 ft (156.7 m) long. If an animal's swim path is directly perpendicular to the drillship, the animal will need to swim around the ship in order to pass through the area. The diameter of the Kulluk or the length of the Discoverer (approximately one and a half football fields) is not significant enough to cause a large-scale diversion from the animals' normal swim and migratory paths. Additionally, the eastward spring bowhead whale migration will not be affected by the proposed exploratory drilling program because the migration will occur prior to Shell's arrival in the Beaufort Sea. The westward fall bowhead whale migration begins in late August/early September and lasts through October. As discussed throughout this document, Shell plans to suspend all operations on August 25, move the drillship and all support vessels out of the area to a location north and west of the well sites, and will not resume drilling activities until the close of the Kaktovik and Nuiqsut (Cross Island) bowhead subsistence hunts. This will reduce the amount of time that the Kulluk or Discoverer may impede the bowheads' normal swim and migratory paths as they move through Camden Bay. Moreover, any deflection of bowhead whales or other marine mammal species due to the physical presence of the drillship or its support vessels would be very minor. The drillship's physical footprint is small relative to the size of the geographic region it will occupy and will likely not cause marine mammals to deflect Start Printed Page 69001greatly from their typical migratory route. Also, even if animals may deflect because of the presence of the drillship, the Beaufort Sea's migratory corridor is much larger in size than the length of the drillship (many dozens of miles vs. less than two football fields), and animals would have other means of passage around the drillship. While there are other vessels that will be on location to support the drillship, most of those vessels will remain within a few kilometers of the drillship (with the exception of the ice management vessels which will remain approximately 25 mi [40 km] upwind of the drillship when not in use). In sum, the physical presence of the drillship is not likely to cause a significant deflection to migrating marine mammals.

Potential Impacts From an Oil Spill

Arctic cod and other fishes are a principal food item for beluga whales and seals in the Beaufort Sea. Anadromous fish are more sensitive to oil when in the marine environment than when in the fresh water environment (Moles et al., 1979). Generally, arctic fish are more sensitive to oil than are temperate species (Rice et al., 1983). However, fish in the open sea are unlikely to be affected by an oil spill. Fish in shallow nearshore waters could sustain heavy mortality if an oil slick were to remain in the area for several days or longer. Fish concentrations in shallow nearshore areas that are used as feeding habitat for seals and whales could be unavailable as prey. Because the animals are mobile, effects would be minor during the ice-free period when whales and seals could go to unaffected areas to feed.

Effects of oil on zooplankton as food for bowhead whales were discussed by Richardson ([ed.] 1987). Zooplankton populations in the open sea are unlikely to be depleted by the effects of an oil spill. Oil concentrations in water under a slick are low and unlikely to have anything but very minor effects on zooplankton. Zooplankton populations in near surface waters could be depleted; however, concentrations of zooplankton in near-surface waters generally are low compared to those in deeper water (Bradstreet et al., 1987; Griffiths et al., 2002).

Some bowheads feed in shallow nearshore waters (Bradstreet et al., 1987; Richardson and Thomson [eds.], 2002). Wave action in nearshore waters could cause high concentrations of oil to be found throughout the water column. Oil slicks in nearshore feeding areas could contaminate food and render the site unusable as a feeding area. Additionally, gray whales do not commonly feed in the Beaufort Sea and are rarely seen near the proposed drill sites in Camden Bay.

Effects of oil spills on zooplankton as food for seals would be similar to those described above for bowhead whales. During the ice-free period, effects on seal feeding would be minor.

Bearded seals consume benthic animals. Wave action in nearshore waters could cause oil to reach the bottom through adherence to suspended sediments (Sanders et al., 1990). There could be mortality of benthic animals and elimination of some benthic feeding habitat. During the ice-free period, effects on seal feeding would be minor. During the ice-free period, seals and whales could find alternate feeding habitats.

Depending on the timing of a spill, planktonic larval forms of organisms in arctic kelp communities such as annelids, mollusks, and crustaceans may be affected by floating oil. The contact may occur anywhere near the surface of the water column (MMS, 1996). Due to their wide distribution, large numbers, and rapid rate of regeneration, the recovery of marine invertebrate populations is expected to occur soon after the surface oil passes. Spill response activities are not likely to disturb the prey items of whales or seals sufficiently to cause more than minor effects. Spill response activities could cause marine mammals to avoid the disturbed habitat that is being cleaned. However, by causing avoidance, animals would avoid impacts from the oil itself. Additionally, the likelihood of an oil spill is expected to be very low, as discussed earlier in this document.

Potential Impacts From Ice Management/Icebreaking Activities

Ice management activities include the physical pushing or moving of ice to create more open-water in the proposed drilling area and to prevent ice floes from striking the drillship. Icebreaking activities include the physical breaking of ice. Shell does not intend to conduct icebreaking activities. However, should there be a need for icebreaking, it would only be performed in order to safely move the drillship and other vessels off location and to end operations for the season. Ringed, bearded, spotted, and ribbon seals (along with the walrus) are dependent on sea ice for at least part of their life history. Sea ice is important for life functions such as resting, breeding, and molting. These species are dependent on two different types of ice: pack ice and landfast ice. Should ice management/icebreaking activities be necessary during the proposed drilling program, Shell would only manage pack ice in either early to mid-July or mid- to late October. Landfast ice would not be present during Shell's proposed operations.

The ringed seal is the most common pinniped species in the proposed project area. While ringed seals use ice year-round, they do not construct lairs for pupping until late winter/early spring on the landfast ice. Therefore, since Shell plans to conclude drilling on October 31, Shell's activities would not impact ringed seal lairs or habitat needed for breeding and pupping in the Camden Bay area. Ringed seals can be found on the pack ice surface in the late spring and early summer in the Beaufort Sea, the latter part of which may overlap with the start of Shell's proposed drilling activities. If an ice floe is pushed into one that contains hauled out seals, the animals may become startled and enter the water when the two ice floes collide. Bearded seals breed in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, as the Beaufort Sea provides less suitable habitat for the species. Spotted seals are even less common in the Camden Bay area. This species does not breed in the Beaufort Sea. Additionally, ribbon seals are not known to breed in the Beaufort Sea. Therefore, ice used by bearded, spotted, and ribbon seals needed for life functions such as breeding and molting would not be impacted as a result of Shell's drilling program since these life functions do not occur in the proposed project area. For ringed seals, ice management/icebreaking would occur during a time when life functions such as breeding, pupping, and molting do not occur in the proposed activity area. Additionally, these life functions normally occur on landfast ice, which will not be impacted by Shell's activity.

Proposed Mitigation

In order to issue an incidental take authorization (ITA) under Sections 101(a)(5)(A) and (D) of the MMPA, NMFS must, where applicable, set forth the permissible methods of taking pursuant to such activity, and other means of effecting the least practicable impact on such species or stock and its habitat, paying particular attention to rookeries, mating grounds, and areas of similar significance, and on the availability of such species or stock for taking for certain subsistence uses (where relevant). This section summarizes the contents of Shell's Marine Mammal Monitoring and Mitigation Plan (4MP). Later in this document in the “Proposed Incidental Harassment Authorization” section, NMFS lays out the proposed conditions Start Printed Page 69002for review, as they would appear in the final IHA (if issued).

Mitigation Measures Proposed by Shell

Shell submitted a 4MP as part of its application (Attachment C; see ADDRESSES). Shell's planned offshore drilling program incorporates both design features and operational procedures for minimizing potential impacts on marine mammals and on subsistence hunts. The design features and operational procedures have been described in the IHA and LOA applications submitted to NMFS and USFWS, respectively, and are summarized here. Survey design features include:

  • Timing and locating drilling and support activities to avoid interference with the annual fall bowhead whale hunts from Kaktovik, Nuiqsut (Cross Island), and Barrow;
  • Identifying transit routes and timing to avoid other subsistence use areas and communicating with coastal communities before operating in or passing through these areas; and
  • Conducting pre-season sound propagation modeling to establish the appropriate exclusion and behavioral radii.

Shell indicates that the potential disturbance of marine mammals during operations will be minimized further through the implementation of several ship-based mitigation measures, which include establishing and monitoring safety and disturbance zones and shutting down activities for a portion of the open-water season.

Exclusion radii for marine mammals around sound sources are customarily defined as the distances within which received sound levels are greater than or equal to 180 dB re 1 μPa (rms) for cetaceans and greater than or equal to 190 dB re 1 μPa (rms) for pinnipeds. These exclusion criteria are based on an assumption that sounds at lower received levels will not injure these animals or impair their hearing abilities, but that higher received levels might have such effects. It should be understood that marine mammals inside these exclusion zones will not necessarily be injured, as the received sound thresholds which determine these zones were established prior to the current understanding that significantly higher levels of sound would be required before injury could occur (see Southall et al., 2007). With respect to Level B harassment, NMFS' practice has been to apply the 120 dB re 1 μPa (rms) received level threshold for underwater continuous sound levels and the 160 dB re 1 μPa (rms) received level threshold for underwater impulsive sound levels.

Shell proposes to monitor the various radii in order to implement any mitigation measures that may be necessary. Initial radii for the sound levels produced by the Kulluk and Discoverer, the icebreaker, and the airguns have been modeled. Measurements taken by Greene (1987a) indicated a broadband source level of 185.5 dB re 1 μPa rms for the Kulluk. Measurements taken by Austin and Warner (2010) indicated broadband source levels between 177 and 185 dB re 1 μPa rms for the Discoverer. Measurements of the icebreaking supply ship Robert Lemeur pushing and breaking ice during exploration drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea in 1986 resulted in an estimated broadband source level of 193 dB re 1 μPa rms (Greene, 1987a; Richardson et al., 1995a). Based on a similar airgun array used in the shallow waters of the Beaufort Sea in 2008 by BP, the source level of the airgun is predicted to be 241.4 dB re 1 μPa rms. Once on location in Camden Bay, Shell will conduct sound source verification (SSV) tests to establish safety zones for the previously mentioned sound level criteria. The objectives of the SSV tests are: (1) To quantify the absolute sound levels produced by drilling and to monitor their variations with time, distance, and direction from the drillship; and (2) to measure the sound levels produced by vessels operating in support of drilling operations, which include crew change vessels, tugs, ice-management vessels, and spill response vessels. The methodology for conducting the SSV tests is fully described in Shell's 4MP (see ADDRESSES). Please refer to that document for further details. Upon completion of the SSV tests, the new radii will be established and monitored, and mitigation measures will be implemented in accordance with Shell's 4MP.

Based on the best available scientific literature, the source levels noted earlier in this document and in Shell's 4MP for the drillships are not high enough to cause a temporary reduction in hearing sensitivity or permanent hearing damage to marine mammals. Consequently, Shell believes that mitigation as described for seismic activities including ramp ups, power downs, and shutdowns should not be necessary for drilling activities. NMFS has also determined that these types of mitigation measures, traditionally required for seismic survey operations, are not practical or necessary for this proposed drilling activity. Seismic airgun arrays can be turned on slowly (i.e., only turning on one or some guns at a time) and powered down quickly. The types of sound sources used for exploratory drilling have different properties and are unable to be “powered down” like airgun arrays or shutdown instantaneously without posing other risks to operational and human safety. However, Shell plans to use Protected Species Observers (PSOs, formerly referred to as marine mammal observers) onboard the drillship and the various support vessels to monitor marine mammals and their responses to industry activities and to initiate mitigation measures should in-field measurements of the operations indicate that such measures are necessary. Additional details on the PSO program are described in the “Proposed Monitoring and Reporting” section found later in this document. Also, for the ZVSP activities, Shell proposes to implement standard mitigation procedures, such as ramp ups, power downs, and shutdowns.

A ramp up of an airgun array provides a gradual increase in sound levels and involves a step-wise increase in the number and total volume of airguns firing until the full volume is achieved. The purpose of a ramp up (or “soft start”) is to “warn” cetaceans and pinnipeds in the vicinity of the airguns and to provide the time for them to leave the area and thus avoid any potential injury or impairment of their hearing abilities.

During the proposed ZVSP surveys, Shell will ramp up the airgun arrays slowly. Full ramp ups (i.e., from a cold start when no airguns have been firing) will begin by firing a single airgun in the array. A full ramp up will not begin until there has been a minimum of 30 minutes of observation of the 180-dB and 190-dB exclusion zones for cetaceans and pinnipeds, respectively, by PSOs to assure that no marine mammals are present. The entire exclusion zone must be visible during the 30-minutes lead-in to a full ramp up. If the entire exclusion zone is not visible, then ramp up from a cold start cannot begin. If a marine mammal(s) is sighted within the exclusion zone during the 30-minutes watch prior to ramp up, ramp up will be delayed until the marine mammal(s) is sighted outside of the applicable exclusion zone or the animal(s) is not sighted for at least 15 minutes for small odontocetes and pinnipeds or 30 minutes for baleen whales.

A power down is the immediate reduction in the number of operating energy sources from all firing to some smaller number. A shutdown is the immediate cessation of firing of all energy sources. The arrays will be Start Printed Page 69003immediately powered down whenever a marine mammal is sighted approaching close to or within the applicable exclusion zone of the full arrays but is outside the applicable exclusion zone of the single source. If a marine mammal is sighted within the applicable exclusion zone of the single energy source, the entire array will be shutdown (i.e., no sources firing). The same 15 and 30 minute sighting times described for ramp up also apply to starting the airguns again after either a power down or shutdown.

Additional mitigation measures proposed by Shell include: (1) Reducing speed and/or changing course if a marine mammal is sighted from a vessel in transit (NMFS has proposed a specific distance in the next subsection); (2) resuming full activity (e.g., full support vessel speed) only after marine mammals are confirmed to be outside the safety zone; (3) implementing flight restrictions prohibiting aircraft from flying below 1,500 ft (457 m) altitude (except during takeoffs and landings or in emergency situations); and (4) keeping vessels anchored when approached by marine mammals to avoid the potential for avoidance reactions by such animals.

Shell has also proposed additional mitigation measures to ensure no unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of affected species or stocks for taking for subsistence uses. Those measures are described in the “Impact on Availability of Affected Species or Stock for Taking for Subsistence Uses” section found later in this document.

Additional Mitigation Measures Proposed by NMFS

In addition to the mitigation measures proposed in Shell's IHA application, NMFS proposes the following measures (which apply to vessel operations) be included in the IHA, if issued, in order to ensure the least practicable impact on the affected species or stocks. NMFS proposes to require Shell to avoid multiple changes in direction or speed when within 300 yards (274 m) of whales. Additionally, NMFS proposes to require Shell to reduce speed in inclement weather.

Oil Spill Contingency Plan

In accordance with BOEM regulations, Shell has developed an Oil Discharge Prevention and Contingency Plan (ODPCP) for its Camden Bay exploration drilling program. A copy of this document can be found on the Internet at: http://www.alaska.boemre.gov/​fo/​ODPCPs/​2010_​BF_​rev1.pdf. Additionally, in its Plan of Cooperation (POC), Shell has agreed to several mitigation measures in order to reduce impacts during the response efforts in the unlikely event of an oil spill. Those measures are detailed in the “Plan of Cooperation (POC)” section found later in this document. The ODPCP is currently under review by the Department of the Interior and other agencies. A final decision on the adequacy of the ODPCP is expected prior to the start of Shell's 2012 Beaufort Sea drilling program.

NMFS has carefully evaluated Shell's proposed mitigation measures and considered a range of other measures in the context of ensuring that NMFS prescribes the means of effecting the least practicable impact on the affected marine mammal species and stocks and their habitat. Our evaluation of potential measures included consideration of the following factors in relation to one another:

  • The manner in which, and the degree to which, the successful implementation of the measure is expected to minimize adverse impacts to marine mammals;
  • The proven or likely efficacy of the specific measure to minimize adverse impacts as planned; and
  • The practicability of the measure for applicant implementation.

Proposed measures to ensure availability of such species or stock for taking for certain subsistence uses is discussed later in this document (see “Impact on Availability of Affected Species or Stock for Taking for Subsistence Uses” section).

Proposed Monitoring and Reporting

In order to issue an ITA for an activity, Section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA states that NMFS must, where applicable, set forth “requirements pertaining to the monitoring and reporting of such taking”. The MMPA implementing regulations at 50 CFR 216.104 (a)(13) indicate that requests for ITAs must include the suggested means of accomplishing the necessary monitoring and reporting that will result in increased knowledge of the species and of the level of taking or impacts on populations of marine mammals that are expected to be present in the proposed action area.

Monitoring Measures Proposed by Shell

The monitoring plan proposed by Shell can be found in the 4MP (Attachment C of Shell's application; see ADDRESSES). The plan may be modified or supplemented based on comments or new information received from the public during the public comment period or from the peer review panel (see the “Monitoring Plan Peer Review” section later in this document). A summary of the primary components of the plan follows. Later in this document in the “Proposed Incidental Harassment Authorization” section, NMFS lays out the proposed monitoring and reporting conditions, as well as the mitigation conditions, for review, as they would appear in the final IHA (if issued).

(1) Vessel-Based PSOs

Vessel-based monitoring for marine mammals will be done by trained PSOs throughout the period of drilling operations on all vessels. PSOs will monitor the occurrence and behavior of marine mammals near the drillship during all daylight periods during operation and during most daylight periods when drilling operations are not occurring. PSO duties will include watching for and identifying marine mammals, recording their numbers, distances, and reactions to the drilling operations. A sufficient number of PSOs will be required onboard each vessel to meet the following criteria: (1) 100% monitoring coverage during all periods of drilling operations in daylight; (2) maximum of 4 consecutive hours on watch per PSO; and (3) maximum of 12 hours of watch time per day per PSO. Shell anticipates that there will be provision for crew rotation at least every 3-6 weeks to avoid observer fatigue.

Biologist-observers will have previous marine mammal observation experience, and field crew leaders will be highly experienced with previous vessel-based marine mammal monitoring projects. Resumes for those individuals will be provided to NMFS so that NMFS can review and accept their qualifications. Inupiat observers will be experienced in the region, familiar with the marine mammals of the area, and complete a NMFS approved observer training course designed to familiarize individuals with monitoring and data collection procedures. A handbook, adapted for the specifics of the planned Shell drilling program, will be prepared and distributed beforehand to all PSOs.

PSOs will watch for marine mammals from the best available vantage point on the drillship and support vessels. PSOs will scan systematically with the unaided eye and 7 × 50 reticle binoculars, supplemented with 20 × 60 image-stabilized Zeiss Binoculars or Fujinon 25 × 150 “Big-eye” binoculars and night-vision equipment when needed. Personnel on the bridge will assist the PSOs in watching for marine mammals. New or inexperienced PSOs will be paired with an experienced PSO or experienced field biologist so that the Start Printed Page 69004quality of marine mammal observations and data recording is kept consistent.

Information to be recorded by PSOs will include the same types of information that were recorded during recent monitoring programs associated with industry activity in the Arctic (e.g., Ireland et al., 2009). The recording will include information about the animal sighted, environmental and operational information, and the position of other vessels in the vicinity of the sighting. The ship's position, speed of support vessels, and water temperature, water depth, sea state, ice cover, visibility, and sun glare will also be recorded at the start and end of each observation watch, every 30 minutes during a watch, and whenever there is a change in any of those variables.

Distances to nearby marine mammals will be estimated with binoculars (Fujinon 7 × 50 binoculars) containing a reticle to measure the vertical angle of the line of sight to the animal relative to the horizon. PSOs may use a laser rangefinder to test and improve their abilities for visually estimating distances to objects in the water. However, previous experience showed that a Class 1 eye-safe device was not able to measure distances to seals more than about 230 ft (70 m) away. The device was very useful in improving the distance estimation abilities of the observers at distances up to about 1968 ft (600 m)—the maximum range at which the device could measure distances to highly reflective objects such as other vessels. Humans observing objects of more-or-less known size via a standard observation protocol, in this case from a standard height above water, quickly become able to estimate distances within about ±20% when given immediate feedback about actual distances during training.

(2) Aerial Survey Program

Shell proposes to conduct an aerial survey program in support of the drilling program in the Beaufort Sea during the summer and fall of 2012. Shell's objectives for this program include:

(A) To advise operating vessels as to the presence of marine mammals (primarily cetaceans) in the general area of operation;

(B) To collect and report data on the distribution, numbers, movement and behavior of marine mammals near the drilling operations with special emphasis on migrating bowhead whales;

(C) To support regulatory reporting related to the estimation of impacts of drilling operations on marine mammals;

(D) To investigate potential deflection of bowhead whales during migration by documenting how far east of drilling operations a deflection may occur and where whales return to normal migration patterns west of the operations; and

(E) To monitor the accessibility of bowhead whales to Inupiat hunters.

Aerial survey flights will begin 5 to 7 days before operations at the exploration well sites get underway. Surveys will be flown daily throughout drilling operations, weather and flight conditions permitting, and continue for 5 to 7 days after all activities at the site have ended.

The aerial survey procedures will be generally consistent with those used during earlier industry studies (Davis et al., 1985; Johnson et al., 1986; Evans et al., 1987; Miller et al., 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002; Patterson, 2007). This will facilitate comparison and pooling of data where appropriate. However, the specific survey grids will be tailored to Shell's operations. During the 2012 drilling season, Shell will coordinate and cooperate with the aerial surveys conducted by BOEMRE/NMFS and any other groups conducting surveys in the same region.

For marine mammal monitoring flights, aircraft will be flown at approximately 120 knots (138 mph) ground speed and usually at an altitude of 1,000 ft (305 m). Surveys in the Beaufort Sea are directed at bowhead whales, and an altitude of 900-1,000 ft (274-305 m) is the lowest survey altitude that can normally be flown without concern about potential aircraft disturbance. Aerial surveys at an altitude of 1,000 ft (305 m) do not provide much information about seals but are suitable for both bowhead and beluga whales. The need for a 900-1000+ (374-305 m) ft cloud ceiling will limit the dates and times when surveys can be flown.

Two primary observers will be seated at bubble windows on either side of the aircraft, and a third observer will observe part time and record data the rest of the time. All observers need bubble windows to facilitate downward viewing. For each marine mammal sighting, the observer will dictate the species, number, size/age/sex class when determinable, activity, heading, swimming speed category (if traveling), sighting cue, ice conditions (type and percentage), and inclinometer reading to the marine mammal into a digital recorder. The inclinometer reading will be taken when the animal's location is 90° to the side of the aircraft track, allowing calculation of lateral distance from the aircraft trackline.

Transect information, sighting data and environmental data will be entered into a GPS-linked computer by the third observer and simultaneously recorded on digital voice recorders for backup and validation. At the start of each transect, the observer recording data will record the transect start time and position, ceiling height (ft), cloud cover (in 10ths), wind speed (knots), wind direction (°T) and outside air temperature (°C). In addition, each observer will record the time, visibility (subjectively classified as excellent, good, moderately impaired, seriously impaired or impossible), sea state (Beaufort wind force), ice cover (in 10ths) and sun glare (none, moderate, severe) at the start and end of each transect, and at 2 min intervals along the transect. The data logger will automatically record time and aircraft position (latitude and longitude) for sightings and transect waypoints, and at pre-selected intervals along the transects. Ice observations during aerial surveys will be recorded and satellite imagery may be used, where available, during post-season analysis to determine ice conditions adjacent to the survey area. These are standard practices for surveys of this type and are necessary in order to interpret factors responsible for variations in sighting rates.

During the late summer and fall, the bowhead whale is the primary species of concern, but belugas and gray whales are also present. To address concerns regarding deflection of bowheads at greater distances, the survey pattern around drilling operations has been designed to document whale distribution from about 25 mi (40 km) east of the drilling operations to about 37 mi (60 km) west of operations (see Figure 1 of Shell's 4MP).

Bowhead whale movements during the late summer/autumn are generally from east to west, and transects should be designed to intercept rather than parallel whale movements. The transect lines in the grid will be oriented north-south, equally spaced at 5 mi (8 km) and randomly shifted in the east-west direction for each survey by no more than the transect spacing. The survey grid will total about 808 mi (1,300 km) in length, requiring approximately 6 hours to survey at a speed of 120 knots (138 mph), plus ferry time. Exact lengths and durations will vary somewhat depending on the position of the drilling operation and thus of the grid, the sequence in which lines are flown (often affected by weather), and the number of refueling/rest stops.

Weather permitting, transects making up the grid in the Beaufort Sea will be flown in sequence from west to east. This decreases difficulties associated Start Printed Page 69005with double counting of whales that are (predominantly) migrating westward. The survey sequence around the drilling operation is designed to monitor the distribution of whales around the drilling operation.

Shell's 4MP provides an explanation about the importance of statistical power in the sampling design and how the aerial survey data will be analyzed. Please refer to the 4MP for that information (see ADDRESSES).

(3) Acoustic Monitoring

Shell will conduct SSV tests to establish the isopleths for the applicable exclusion radii, mostly to be employed during the ZVSP surveys. In addition, Shell proposes to use acoustic recorders to study bowhead deflections.

Drilling Sound Measurements—Drilling sounds are expected to vary significantly with time due to variations in the level of operations and the different types of equipment used at different times onboard the Kulluk or Discoverer. The objectives of these measurements are:

(1) To quantify the absolute sound levels produced by drilling and to monitor their variations with time, distance, and direction from the drilling vessel;

(2) to measure the sound levels produced by vessels operating in support of exploration drilling operations. These vessels will include crew change vessels, tugs, icebreakers, and OSRVs; and

(3) to measure the sound levels produced by an end-of-hole ZVSP survey, using a stationary sound source.

The Kulluk or Discoverer, support vessels, and ZVSP sound measurements will be performed using one of two methods, both of which involve real-time monitoring. The first method would involve use of bottom-founded hydrophones cabled back to the Kulluk or Discoverer (see Figure 2 in Shell's 4MP). These hydrophones would be positioned between 1,640 ft (500 m) and 3,281 ft (1,000 m) from the Kulluk or Discoverer, depending on the final positions of the anchors used to hold the Kulluk or Discoverer in place. Hydrophone cables would be fed to real-time digitization systems onboard. In addition to the cabled system, a separate set of bottom-founded hydrophones (see Figure 3 in Shell's 4MP) may be deployed at various distances from the exploration drilling operation for storage of acoustic data to be retrieved and processed at a later date.

As an alternative to the cabled hydrophone system (and possible inclusion of separate bottom-founded hydrophones), the second (or alternative) monitoring method would involve a radio buoy approach deploying four sparbuoys 4-5 mi (6-8 km) from the Kulluk or Discoverer. Additional hydrophones may be deployed closer to the Kulluk or Discoverer, if necessary, to better determine sound source levels. Monitoring personnel and recording/receiving equipment would be onboard one of the support vessels with 24-hr monitoring capacity. The system would allow for collection and processing of real-time data similar to that provided by the cabled system but from a wider range of locations.

Sound level monitoring with either method will occur on a continuous basis throughout all exploration drilling activities. Both types of systems will be set to record digital acoustic data at a sample rate of 32 kHz, providing useful acoustic bandwidth to at least 15 kHz. These systems are capable of measuring absolute broadband sound levels between 90 and 180 dB re 1 µPa. The long duration recordings will capture many different operations performed from the drillship. Retrieval of these systems will occur following completion of the exploration drilling activities.

These recorders will provide a capability to examine sound levels produced by different drilling activities and practices. This system will not have the capability to locate calling marine mammals and will indicate only relative proximity. The system will be evaluated during operations for its potential to improve PSO observations through notification of PSOs on vessel and aircraft of high levels of call detections and their general locations.

The deployment of drilling sound monitoring equipment will occur as soon as possible once the drillship is on site. Activity logs of exploration drilling operations and nearby vessel activities will be maintained to correlate with these acoustic measurements. This equipment will also be used to take measurements of the support vessels and airguns. Additional details can be found in Shell's 4MP.

Shell plans to deploy arrays of acoustic recorders in the Beaufort Sea in 2012, similar to that which was done in 2007 through 2010 using Directional Autonomous Seafloor Acoustic Recorders (DASARs). These directional acoustic systems permit localization of bowhead whale and other marine mammal vocalizations. The purpose of the array will be to further understand, define, and document sound characteristics and propagation resulting from vessel-based drilling operations that may have the potential to cause deflections of bowhead whales from their migratory pathway. Of particular interest will be the east-west extent of deflection, if any (i.e., how far east of a sound source do bowheads begin to deflect and how far to the west beyond the sound source does deflection persist). Of additional interest will be the extent of offshore (or towards shore) deflection that might occur.

In previous work around seismic and drillship operations in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea, the primary method for studying this question has been aerial surveys. Acoustic localization methods will provide supplementary information for addressing the whale deflection question. Compared to aerial surveys, acoustic methods have the advantage of providing a vastly larger number of whale detections, and can operate day or night, independent of visibility, and to some degree independent of ice conditions and sea state—all of which prevent or impair aerial surveys. However, acoustic methods depend on the animals to call, and to some extent, assume that calling rate is unaffected by exposure to industrial noise. Bowheads call frequently in fall, but there is some evidence that their calling rate may be reduced upon exposure to industrial sounds, complicating interpretation. The combined use of acoustic and aerial survey methods will provide a suite of information that should be useful in assessing the potential effects of drilling operations on migrating bowhead whales.

Using passive acoustics with directional autonomous recorders, the locations of calling whales will be observed for a 6- to 10-week continuous monitoring period at five coastal sites (subject to favorable ice and weather conditions). Essential to achieving this objective is the continuous measurement of sound levels near the drillship.

Shell plans to conduct the whale migration monitoring using the passive acoustics techniques developed and used successfully since 2001 for monitoring the migration past Northstar production island northwest of Prudhoe Bay and from Kaktovik to Harrison Bay during the 2007 through 2011 migrations. Those techniques involve using DASARs to measure the arrival angles of bowhead calls at known locations, then triangulating to locate the calling whale.

In attempting to assess the responses of bowhead whales to the planned industrial operations, it will be essential to monitor whale locations at sites both near and far from industry activities. Shell plans to monitor at five sites along the Alaskan Beaufort coast as shown in Start Printed Page 69006Figure 9 of Shell's 4MP. The eastern-most site (#5 in Figure 9 of the 4MP) will be just east of Kaktovik (approximately 62 mi [100 km] west of the Sivulliq drilling area) and the western-most site (#1 in Figure 10 of the 4MP) will be in the vicinity of Harrison Bay (approximately 109 mi [175 km] west of Sivulliq) . Site 2 will be located west of Prudhoe Bay (approximately 68 mi [110 km] west of Sivulliq). Site 4 will be approximately 6.2 mi (10 km) east of the Sivulliq drilling area, and site 3 will be approximately 15.5 mi (25 km) west of Sivulliq. These five sites will provide information on possible migration deflection well in advance of whales encountering an industry operation and on “recovery” after passing such operations should a deflection occur.

The proposed geometry of DASARs at each site is comprised of seven DASARs oriented in a north-south pattern so that five equilateral triangles with 4.3-mi (7-km) element spacing is achieved. DASARs will be installed at planned locations using a GPS. However, each DASAR's orientation once it settles on the bottom is unknown and must be determined to know how to reference the call angles measured to the whales. Also, the internal clocks used to sample the acoustic data typically drift slightly, but linearly, by an amount up to a few seconds after 6 weeks of autonomous operation. Knowing the time differences within a second or two between DASARs is essential for identifying identical whale calls received on two or more DASARs. Bowhead migration begins in late August with the whales moving westward from their feeding sites in the Canadian Beaufort Sea. It continues through September and well into October. However, because of the drilling schedule, Shell will attempt to install the 21 DASARs at three sites (3, 4 and 5) in early August. The remaining 14 DASARs will be installed at sites 1 and 2 in late August. Thus, Shell proposes to be monitoring for whale calls from before August 15 until sometime before October 15.

At the end of the season, the fourth DASAR in each array will be refurbished, recalibrated, and redeployed to collect data through the winter. The other DASARs in the arrays will be recovered. The redeployed DASARs will be programmed to record 35 min every 3 hours with a disk capacity of 10 months at that recording rate. This should be ample space to allow over-wintering from approximately mid-October 2012, through mid-July 2013.

Additional details on methodology and data analysis for the three types of monitoring described here (i.e., vessel-based, aerial, and acoustic) can be found in the 4MP in Shell's application (see ADDRESSES).

Monitoring Plan Peer Review

The MMPA requires that monitoring plans be independently peer reviewed “where the proposed activity may affect the availability of a species or stock for taking for subsistence uses” (16 U.S.C. 1371(a)(5)(D)(ii)(III)). Regarding this requirement, NMFS' implementing regulations state, “Upon receipt of a complete monitoring plan, and at its discretion, [NMFS] will either submit the plan to members of a peer review panel for review or within 60 days of receipt of the proposed monitoring plan, schedule a workshop to review the plan” (50 CFR 216.108(d)).

NMFS has established an independent peer review panel to review Shell's 4MP for Exploration Drilling of Selected Lease Areas in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea in 2012. The panel is scheduled to meet in early January 2012, and will provide comments to NMFS shortly after they meet. After completion of the peer review, NMFS will consider all recommendations made by the panel, incorporate appropriate changes into the monitoring requirements of the IHA (if issued), and publish the panel's findings and recommendations in the final IHA notice of issuance or denial document.

Reporting Measures

(1) SSV Report

A report on the preliminary results of the acoustic verification measurements, including as a minimum the measured 190-, 180-, 160-, and 120-dB (rms) radii of the drillship, support vessels, and airgun array will be submitted within 120 hr after collection and analysis of those measurements at the start of the field season or in the case of the airgun once that part of the program is implemented. This report will specify the distances of the exclusion zones that were adopted for the exploratory drilling program. Prior to completion of these measurements, Shell will use the radii outlined in their application and elsewhere in this document.

(2) Technical Reports

The results of Shell's 2012 Camden Bay exploratory drilling monitoring program (i.e., vessel-based, aerial, and acoustic) will be presented in the “90-day” and Final Technical reports, as required by NMFS under the proposed IHA. Shell proposes that the Technical Reports will include: (1) Summaries of monitoring effort (e.g., total hours, total distances, and marine mammal distribution through study period, accounting for sea state and other factors affecting visibility and detectability of marine mammals); (2) analyses of the effects of various factors influencing detectability of marine mammals (e.g., sea state, number of observers, and fog/glare); (3) species composition, occurrence, and distribution of marine mammal sightings, including date, water depth, numbers, age/size/gender categories (if determinable), group sizes, and ice cover; (4) sighting rates of marine mammals during periods with and without drilling activities (and other variables that could affect detectability); (5) initial sighting distances versus drilling state; (6) closest point of approach versus drilling state; (7) observed behaviors and types of movements versus drilling state; (8) numbers of sightings/individuals seen versus drilling state; (9) distribution around the drillship and support vessels versus drilling state; and (10) estimates of take by harassment. This information will be reported for both the vessel-based and aerial monitoring.

Analysis of all acoustic data will be prioritized to address the primary questions, which are to: (a) Determine when, where, and what species of animals are acoustically detected on each DASAR; (b) analyze data as a whole to determine offshore bowhead distributions as a function of time; (c) quantify spatial and temporal variability in the ambient noise; and (d) measure received levels of drillship activities. The bowhead detection data will be used to develop spatial and temporal animal distributions. Statistical analyses will be used to test for changes in animal detections and distributions as a function of different variables (e.g., time of day, time of season, environmental conditions, ambient noise, vessel type, operation conditions).

The initial technical report is due to NMFS within 90 days of the completion of Shell's Beaufort Sea exploratory drilling program. The “90-day” report will be subject to review and comment by NMFS. Any recommendations made by NMFS must be addressed in the final report prior to acceptance by NMFS.

(3) Comprehensive Report

Following the 2012 drilling season, a comprehensive report describing the vessel-based, aerial, and acoustic monitoring programs will be prepared. The comprehensive report will describe the methods, results, conclusions and limitations of each of the individual data sets in detail. The report will also integrate (to the extent possible) the studies into a broad based assessment of Start Printed Page 69007industry activities, and other activities that occur in the Beaufort and/or Chukchi seas, and their impacts on marine mammals during 2012. The report will help to establish long-term data sets that can assist with the evaluation of changes in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea ecosystems. The report will attempt to provide a regional synthesis of available data on industry activity in offshore areas of northern Alaska that may influence marine mammal density, distribution and behavior.

(4) Notification of Injured or Dead Marine Mammals

Shell will be required to notify NMFS' Office of Protected Resources and NMFS' Stranding Network of any sighting of an injured or dead marine mammal. Based on different circumstances, Shell may or may not be required to stop operations upon such a sighting. Shell will provide NMFS with the species or description of the animal(s), the condition of the animal(s) (including carcass condition if the animal is dead), location, time of first discovery, observed behaviors (if alive), and photo or video (if available). The specific language for what Shell must do upon sighting a dead or injured marine mammal can be found in the “Proposed Incidental Harassment Authorization” section of this document.

Estimated Take by Incidental Harassment

Except with respect to certain activities not pertinent here, 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]. Only take by Level B behavioral harassment is anticipated as a result of the proposed drilling program. Noise propagation from the drillship, associated support vessels (including during icebreaking if needed), and the airgun array are expected to harass, through behavioral disturbance, affected marine mammals species or stocks. Additional disturbance to marine mammals may result from aircraft overflights and visual disturbance of the drillship or support vessels. However, based on the flight paths and altitude, impacts from aircraft operations are anticipated to be localized and minimal in nature.

The full suite of potential impacts to marine mammals from various industrial activities was described in detail in the “Potential Effects of the Specified Activity on Marine Mammals” section found earlier in this document. The potential effects of sound from the proposed exploratory drilling program might include one or more of the following: tolerance; masking of natural sounds; behavioral disturbance; non-auditory physical effects; and, at least in theory, temporary or permanent hearing impairment (Richardson et al., 1995a). As discussed earlier in this document, NMFS estimates that Shell's activities will most likely result in behavioral disturbance, including avoidance of the ensonified area or changes in speed, direction, and/or diving profile of one or more marine mammals. For reasons discussed previously in this document, hearing impairment (TTS and PTS) is highly unlikely to occur based on the fact that most of the equipment to be used during Shell's proposed drilling program does not have source levels high enough to elicit even mild TTS and/or the fact that certain species are expected to avoid the ensonified areas close to the operations. Additionally, non-auditory physiological effects are anticipated to be minor, if any would occur at all. Finally, based on the proposed mitigation and monitoring measures described earlier in this document and the fact that the back-propagated source levels for the drillships proposed to be used are estimated to be between 177 and 185 dB re 1 μPa (rms), no injury or mortality of marine mammals is anticipated as a result of Shell's proposed exploratory drilling program.

For continuous sounds, such as those produced by drilling operations and during icebreaking activities, NMFS uses a received level of 120-dB (rms) to indicate the onset of Level B harassment. For impulsive sounds, such as those produced by the airgun array during the ZVSP surveys, NMFS uses a received level of 160-dB (rms) to indicate the onset of Level B harassment. Shell provided calculations for the 120-dB isopleths produced by both the Kulluk and the Discoverer and by the icebreaker during icebreaking activities and then used those isopleths to estimate takes by harassment. Additionally, Shell provided calculations for the 160-dB isopleth produced by the airgun array and then used that isopleth to estimate takes by harassment. Shell provides a full description of the methodology used to estimate takes by harassment in its IHA application (see ADDRESSES), which is also provided in the following sections.

Shell has requested authorization to take bowhead, gray, and beluga whales, harbor porpoise, and ringed, spotted, bearded, and ribbon seals incidental to exploration drilling, ice management/icebreaking, and ZVSP activities. Additionally, Shell provided exposure estimates and requested takes of narwhal. However, as stated previously in this document, sightings of this species are rare, and the likelihood of occurrence of narwhals in the proposed drilling area is minimal. Therefore, NMFS has not proposed to authorize take for narwhals.

Basis for Estimating “Take by Harassment”

“Take by Harassment” is described in this section and was calculated in Shell's application by multiplying the expected densities of marine mammals that may occur near the exploratory drilling operations by the area of water likely to be exposed to continuous, non-pulse sounds ≥120 dB re 1 μPa (rms) during drillship operations or icebreaking activities and impulse sounds ≥160 dB re 1 μPa (rms) created by seismic airguns during ZVSP activities. The single exception to this method is for the estimation of exposures of bowhead whales during the fall migration where more detailed data were available, allowing an alternate approach, described below, to be used. NMFS evaluated and critiqued the methods provided in Shell's application and determined that they were appropriate. This section describes the estimated densities of marine mammals that may occur in the project area. The area of water that may be ensonified to the above sound levels is described further in the “Estimated Area Exposed to Sounds >120 dB or >160 dB re 1 μPa rms” subsection.

Marine mammal densities near the operation are likely to vary by season and habitat. However, sufficient published data allowing the estimation of separate densities during summer (July and August) and fall (September and October) are only available for beluga and bowhead whales. As noted above, exposures of bowhead whales during the fall are not calculated using densities (see below). Therefore, summer and fall densities have been estimated for beluga whales, and a summer density has been estimated for bowhead whales. Densities of all other species have been estimated to represent the duration of both seasons.

Marine mammal densities are also likely to vary by habitat type. In the Alaskan Beaufort Sea, where the Start Printed Page 69008continental shelf break is relatively close to shore, marine mammal habitat is often defined by water depth. Bowhead and beluga occurrence within nearshore (0-131 ft, 0-40 m), outer continental shelf (131-656 ft, 40-200 m), slope (656-6,562 ft, 200-2000 m), basin (>6,562 ft, 2000 m), or similarly defined habitats have been described previously (Moore et al., 2000; Richardson and Thomson, 2002). The presence of most other species has generally only been described relative to the entire continental shelf zone (0-656 ft, 0-200 m) or beyond. Sounds produced by the drilling vessel and the seismic airguns are expected to drop below 120 dB and 160 dB, respectively, within the nearshore zone (0-131 ft, 0-40 m, water depth) while sounds produced by ice management/icebreaking activities, if they are necessary, are likely to also be present in the outer continental shelf (131-656 ft, 40-200 m).

In addition to water depth, densities of marine mammals are likely to vary with the presence or absence of sea ice (see later for descriptions by species). At times during either summer or fall, pack-ice may be present in some of the area around the drilling operation. However, the retreat of sea ice in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea has been substantial in recent years, so Shell has assumed that only 33% of the area exposed to sounds ≥120 dB or ≥160 dB by the proposed activities will be in ice margin habitat. Therefore, ice-margin densities of marine mammals in both seasons have been multiplied by 33% of the area exposed to sounds by the drilling vessel and ZVSP activities, while open-water (nearshore) densities have been multiplied by the remaining 67% of the area.

To provide some allowance for the uncertainties, “maximum estimates” as well as “average estimates” of the numbers of marine mammals potentially affected have been derived. For a few marine mammal species, several density estimates were available, and in those cases the mean and maximum estimates were determined from the survey data. In other cases, no applicable estimate (or perhaps a single estimate) was available, so correction factors were used to arrive at “average” and “maximum” estimates. These are described in detail in the following subsections. NMFS has determined that the average density data of marine mammal populations will be used to calculate estimated take numbers because these numbers are based on surveys and monitoring of marine mammals in the vicinity of the proposed project area. Table 6-12 in Shell's application indicates that the “average estimate” for gray whales, harbor porpoise, and ribbon seal is zero. Therefore, to account for the fact that these species listed as being potentially taken by harassment in this document may occur in Shell's proposed drilling sites during active operations, NMFS either used the “maximum estimates” or made an estimate based on typical group size for a particular species.

Detectability bias, quantified in part by f (0), is associated with diminishing sightability with increasing lateral distance from the trackline. Availability bias [g (0)] refers to the fact that there is <100% probability of sighting an animal that is present along the survey trackline. Some sources of densities used below included these correction factors in their reported densities. In other cases the best available correction factors were applied to reported results when they had not been included in the reported data (e.g., Moore et al., 2000).

(1) Cetaceans

As noted above, the densities of beluga and bowhead whales present in the Beaufort Sea are expected to vary by season and location. During the early and mid-summer, most belugas and bowheads are found in the Canadian Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf or adjacent areas. Low numbers are found in the eastern Alaskan Beaufort Sea. Belugas begin to move across the Alaskan Beaufort Sea in August, and bowheads do so toward the end of August.

Beluga Whales—Summer beluga density estimates were derived from survey data in Moore et al. (2000). During the summer, beluga whales are most likely to be encountered in offshore waters of the eastern Alaskan Beaufort Sea or areas with pack ice. The summer beluga whale nearshore density (Table 6-1 in Shell's application and Table 2 here) was based on 7,447 mi (11,985 km) of on-transect effort and nine associated sightings that occurred in water ≤164 ft (50 m) in Moore et al. (2000). A mean group size of 1.63, a f (0) value of 2.841, and a g (0) value of 0.58 from Harwood et al. (1996) were also used in the calculation. Moore et al. (2000) found that belugas were equally likely to occur in heavy ice conditions as open-water or very light ice conditions in summer in the Beaufort Sea, so the same density was used for both nearshore and ice-margin estimates (Table 6-1 in Shell's application and Table 2 here). The fall beluga whale nearshore density was calculated by using 8,808 mi (14,175 km) of on-transect effort and seven associated sightings that occurred in Bowhead Whale Aerial Survey Program (BWASP) survey blocks 1, 4, and 5 in 2006-2009 (Clarke et al., 2011a,b; pers. comm. J. Clarke and M. Ferguson, 2011). A mean group size of 2.9 (CV = 1.9), calculated from those 7 reported sightings, along with the same f (0) and g (0) values from Harwood et al. (1996), were used in the density calculation. Moore et al. (2000) found that during the fall in the Beaufort Sea belugas occurred in moderate to heavy ice at higher rates than in light ice, so ice-margin densities were estimated to be twice the nearshore densities. Based on the CV of group size maximum estimates in both season and habitats were estimated as four times the average estimates. “Takes by harassment” of beluga whales during the fall in the Beaufort Sea were not calculated in the same manner as described for bowhead whales because of the relatively lower expected densities of beluga whales in nearshore habitat near the exploration drilling program and the lack of detailed data on the likely timing and rate of migration through the area.

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Bowhead Whales—Eastward migrating bowhead whales were recorded during industry aerial surveys of the continental shelf near Camden Bay in 2008 until July 12 (Christie et al., 2010). No bowhead sightings were recorded again, despite continued flights until August 19. Aerial surveys by industry operators did not begin until late August of 2006 and 2007, but in both years bowheads were also recorded in the region before the end of August (Lyons et al., 2009). The late August sightings were likely of bowheads beginning their fall migration, so the densities calculated from those surveys were not used to estimate summer densities in this region. The three surveys in July 2008, resulted in density estimates of 0.0038, 0.0277, and 0.0072 bowhead whales/mi2 (0.0099, 0.0717, and 0.0186 whales/km2), respectively (Christie et al., 2010). The estimate of 0.0072 bowhead whales/mi2 (0.0186 whales/km2) was used as the average summer nearshore density, and the estimate of 0.0277 bowhead whales/mi2 (0.0717 whales/km2) was used as the maximum (see Table 6-1 in Shell's application and Table 2 here). Sea ice was not present during these surveys. Moore et al. (2000) reported that bowhead whales in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea were distributed uniformly relative to sea ice, so the same nearshore densities were used for ice-margin habitat.

During the fall, most bowhead whales will be migrating west past the exploration drilling program, so it is less accurate to assume that the number of individuals present in the area from one day to the next will be static. However, feeding, resting, and milling behaviors are not entirely uncommon at this time and location. In order to incorporate the movement of whales past the planned operations, and because the necessary data are available, Shell developed an alternate method of calculating the number of individual bowheads exposed to sounds produced by the exploration drilling program from the method used to calculate the number of exposures for bowheads in summer and the other marine mammal species for the entire season. The method is founded on estimates of the proportion of the population that would pass within the 120 dB or 160 dB zones on a given day in the fall during the exploration drilling or ZVSP surveys.

Based on data in Richardson and Thomson (2002), the number of whales expected to pass each day after conclusion of the bowhead subsistence hunts (assumed to be September 15 for purposes of these calculations) was estimated as a proportion of the estimated 2012 bowhead whale population. The number of whales passing each day was based on the 10-day moving average presented by Richardson and Thomson (2002; Appendix 9.1). Richardson and Thomson (2002) also calculated the proportion of animals within water depth bins (<66 ft [20 m], 66-131 ft [20-40 m], 131-656 ft [40-200 m], >656 ft [200 m]). Using this information, Shell multiplied the total number of whales expected to pass the exploration drilling program each day by the proportion of whales that would be in each depth category to estimate how many individuals would be within each depth bin on a given day. The proportion of each depth bin falling within the ≥120 dB zone was then multiplied by the number of whales within the respective bins to estimate the total number of individuals that would be exposed on each day of exploration drilling or program activity, if they showed no avoidance of the operations. Based on the fact that most bowhead whales will be engaged in the fall migration at this time, NMFS determined that this method was appropriate for estimating the number of individual bowhead whales that may be exposed to drilling sounds after September 15.

Exploration drilling will be suspended on August 25 prior to the start of the bowhead subsistence hunts at Kaktovik and Nuiqsut (Cross Island) and will be resumed when the hunts are concluded. After the completion of the subsistence hunts (for purposes of these calculations this was assumed to be September 15), exploration drilling activity would resume and continue as late as October 31. Therefore, the daily calculations described above were repeated for all days from September 15 to October 31, and the results were summed to estimate the total number of bowhead whales that might be exposed to either continuous sounds ≥120 dB rms from exploration drilling or icebreaking activities and impulsive sounds ≥160 dB rms from ZVSP surveys during the migration period in the Beaufort Sea.

The 2012 bowhead whale population size would be approximately 15,232 individuals based on a 2001 population of 10,545 (Zeh and Punt, 2005) and a continued annual growth rate of 3.4% (Allen and Angliss, 2011). The estimated population size of 15,232 was therefore used by Shell as the foundation of the calculations of exposures during the migration period. The estimate of the proportion of the population passing the exploration drilling operation on each day is based on a 10-day moving average, and the calculations have been made over a substantial length of time, so it would take significant variation in the timing Start Printed Page 69010or nature of the migration to substantially deviate from the estimate calculated in this manner. Nonetheless, if a large portion of the migration were to be delayed or otherwise distributed closer to the area of the exploration drilling operations, more than the estimated number of whales could be exposed. Therefore, a maximum estimate of 2 times the average estimate has been calculated, although it is unlikely that a substantial enough variation in the migration timing and location would cause such an increase in the number of whales present near the operations. If the hunts at Kaktovik and Cross Island (Nuiqsut) end later than September 15, then the number of exposures calculated by Shell would be an overestimate, as Shell would still need to end active operations by October 31 because of the increased chance of additional ice covering the drill sites later in the season.

Gray Whales—For gray whales, densities are likely to vary somewhat by season, but differences are not expected to be great enough to require estimation of separate densities for the two seasons. Gray whales are not expected to be present in large numbers in the Beaufort Sea during the fall but small numbers may be encountered during the summer. They are most likely to be present in nearshore waters. Since this species occurs infrequently in the Beaufort Sea, little to no data are available for the calculation of densities. Minimal densities have therefore been assigned for calculation purpose and to allow for chance encounters (see Table 6-2 in Shell's application and Table 3 here). This table includes density estimates for additional cetacean species; however, for reasons mentioned earlier in this document are not considered for authorization by NMFS.

(2) Pinnipeds

Extensive surveys of ringed and bearded seals have been conducted in the Beaufort Sea, but most surveys have been conducted over the landfast ice, and few seal surveys have occurred in open-water or in the pack ice. Kingsley (1986) conducted ringed seal surveys of the offshore pack ice in the central and eastern Beaufort Sea during late spring (late June). These surveys provide the most relevant information on densities of ringed seals in the ice margin zone of the Beaufort Sea. The density estimate in Kingsley (1986) was used as the average density of ringed seals that may be encountered in the ice margin (Table 6-2 in Shell's application and Table 3 here). The average ringed seal density in the nearshore zone of the Alaskan Beaufort Sea was estimated from results of ship-based surveys at times without seismic operations reported by Moulton and Lawson (2002; Table 6-2 in Shell's application and Table 3 here).

Densities of bearded seals were estimated by multiplying the ringed seal densities by 0.051 based on the proportion of bearded seals to ringed seals reported in Stirling et al. (1982; Table 6-2 in Shell's application and Table 3 here). Spotted seal densities in the nearshore zone were estimated by summing the ringed seal and bearded seal densities and multiplying the result by 0.015 based on the proportion of spotted seals to ringed plus bearded seals reported in Moulton and Lawson (2002; Table 6-2 in Shell's application and Table 3 here). Minimal values were assigned as densities in the ice-margin zones (Table 6-2 in Shell's application and Table 3 here). This table also includes density estimates for ribbon seals; however, due to their rarity in the area, this species is not considered for authorization by NMFS.

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Estimated Area Exposed to Sounds >120 dB or >160 dB re 1 μPa rms

(1) Estimated Area Exposed to Continuous Sounds ≥120 dB rms From the Drillship

Shell proposes that exploration drilling in Camden Bay would be conducted from either the Kulluk or the Discoverer but not both. The two vessels are likely to introduce somewhat different levels of sound into the water during exploration drilling activities. Descriptions of the expected source levels and propagation distances from the two vessels are provided in this section. These distances and associated ensonified areas are then used in the following section to calculate separate estimates of potential exposures.

Sounds from the Kulluk were measured in the Beaufort Sea in 1986 and reported by Greene (1987a). The back propagated broadband source level from the measurements (185.5 dB re 1 μPa • m rms; calculated from the reported 1/3-octave band levels), which included sounds from a support vessel operating nearby, were used to model sound propagation at the Sivulliq prospect near Camden Bay. The model estimated that sounds would decrease to 120 dB rms at approximately 8.25 mi (13.27 km) from the Kulluk (JASCO 2007; see Table 6-3 in Shell's application and Table 4 here). As a precautionary approach, Shell multiplied that distance by 1.5, and the resulting radius of 12.37 mi (19.91 km) was used to estimate the total area that may be exposed to continuous sounds ≥120 dB re 1 μPa rms by the Kulluk at each drill site. Assuming one well site will be drilled in each season (summer and fall), the total area of water ensonified to ≥120 dB rms in each season would be 481 mi2 (1,245 km2).

Sounds from the Discoverer have not previously been measured in the Arctic. However, measurements of sounds produced by the Discoverer were made in the South China Sea in 2009 (Austin and Warner, 2010). The results of those measurements were used to model the sound propagation from the Discoverer (including a nearby support vessel) at planned exploration drilling locations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas (Warner and Hannay, 2011). Broadband source levels of sounds produced by the Discoverer varied by activity and direction from the ship but were generally between 177 and 185 dB re 1 μPa • m rms (Austin and Warner, 2010). Propagation modeling at the Sivulliq and Torpedo prospects yielded somewhat different results, with sounds expected to propagate shorter distances at the Sivulliq site (Warner and Hannay, 2011). As a precautionary approach, Shell used the larger distance to which sounds ≥120 dB (2.06 mi [3.32 km]) are expected to propagate at the Torpedo site to estimate the area of water potentially exposed at both locations. The estimated (2.06 mi [3.32 km]) distance was multiplied by 1.5 (= 3.09 mi [4.98 km]) as a further precautionary measure before calculating the total area that may be exposed to continuous sounds ≥120 dB re 1 μPa rms by the Discoverer at each drill site (see Table 6-3 in Shell's application and Table 4 here). Assuming one well would be drilled in each season (summer and fall), the total area of water ensonified to ≥120 dB rms in each season would be 30 mi2 (78 km2). The 160-dB radii for the Kulluk and the Discoverer were estimated to be approximately 180 ft (55 m) and 33 ft (10 m), respectively. Again, because source levels for the two drillships were measured to be between 177 and 185 dB, the 180 and 190-dB radii were not needed.

The acoustic propagation model used to estimate the sound propagation from both vessels in Camden Bay is JASCO's Marine Operations Noise Model (MONM). MONM computes received sound levels in rms units when source levels are specified also in those units. MONM treats sound propagation in range-varying acoustic environments through a wide-angled parabolic equation solution to the acoustic wave equation. The specific parabolic equation code in MONM is based on the Naval Research Laboratory's Range-dependent Acoustic Model. This code has been extensively benchmarked for accuracy and is widely employed in the underwater acoustics community (Collins, 1993).

For analysis of the potential effects on migrating bowhead whales Shell calculated the total distance perpendicular to the east-west migration corridor ensonified to ≥120 dB rms in order to determine the number of migrating whales passing the activities that might be exposed to that sound level. For the Kulluk, that distance is 2 × 12.4 mi (19.9 km) (the estimated radius of the 120 dB rms zone), or 24.7 mi (39.8 km) (i.e. 12.4 mi [19.9 km] north and 12.4 mi [19.9 km] south of the drill site); for the Discoverer, that distance is 2 × 3.09 mi, or 6.19 mi, (4.98 km or 9.96 km). At the two Sivulliq sites (G and N, which are located close together and positioned similarly relative to the 131 and 656 ft [40 and 200 m] bathymetric contours), the 24.7 mi (39.8 km) distance from the Kulluk covers all of the 23 mi (37 km) wide 0-131 ft (0-40 m) water depth category, and approximately 11% of the 22.1 mi (35.5 km) wide 131-656 ft (40-200 m) water depth category. The 9.96 km distance from the Discoverer covers 27% of the 0-131 ft (0-40 m) category and none of the 131-656 ft (40-200 m) category at the Sivulliq sites.

The two drill sites on the Torpedo prospect (designated as H and J) are not as close together as the Sivulliq sites, but their position relative to the 131 ft (40 m) and 656 ft (200 m) bathymetric contours are similar. For simplicity, Shell provided and used only the slightly greater estimates resulting from Start Printed Page 69012calculations at the Torpedo “H” site to represent activities at either of the two Torpedo sites. At the Torpedo “H” site, the 24.7 mi (39.8 km) distance from the Kulluk covers approximately 74% of the 37 km wide 0-131 ft (0-40 m) water depth category and approximately 35% of the 22.1 mi (35.5 km) wide 131-656 ft (40-200 m) water depth category. The 6.19 mi (9.96 km) distance from the Discoverer covers 27% of the 0-131 ft (0-40 m) category and none of the 131-656 ft (40-200 m) category at either of the Torpedo sites.

As described in the “Basis for Estimating `Take by Harassment' ” subsection, the percentages of water depth categories described in the previous two paragraphs were multiplied by the estimated proportion of the whales passing within those categories on each day to estimate the number of bowheads that may be exposed to sounds ≥120 dB if they showed no avoidance of the exploration drilling operations.

(2) Estimated Area Exposed to Continuous Sounds ≥120 dB rms From Ice

Management/Icebreaking Activities

Measurements of the icebreaking supply ship Robert Lemeur pushing and breaking ice during exploration drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea in 1986 resulted in an estimated broadband source level of 193 dB re 1 μPa • m (Greene, 1987a; Richardson et al., 1995a). Measurements of the icebreaking sounds were made at five different distances and those were used to generate a propagation loss equation [RL=141.4 - 1.65R - 10Log(R) where R is range in kilometers (Greene, 1987a); converting R to meters results in the following equation: R = 171.4 - 10log(R) - 0.00165R]. Using that equation, the estimated distance to the 120 dB threshold for continuous sounds from icebreaking is 4.74 mi (7.63 km). Since the measurements of the Robert Lemeur were taken in the Beaufort Sea under presumably similar conditions as would be encountered in 2012, an inflation factor of 1.25 was selected to arrive at a precautionary 120 dB distance of 5.9 mi (9.5 km) for icebreaking sounds (see Table 6-3 in Shell's application and Table 4 here).

If ice is present, ice management/icebreaking activities may be necessary in early July and towards the end of operations in late October, but it is not expected to be needed throughout the proposed exploration drilling season. Icebreaking activities would likely occur in a 40° arc up to 3.1 mi (5 km) upwind of the Kulluk or Discoverer (see Figure 1-3 and Attachment B in Shell's application for additional details). This activity area plus a 5.9 mi (9.5 km) buffer around it results in an estimated total area of 162 mi2 (420 km2) that may be exposed to sounds ≥120 dB from ice management/icebreaking activities in each season. Icebreaking is not expected to occur during the bowhead migration since it is only anticipated to be needed either in early July or late October, so additional take estimates during the migration period have not been calculated.

(3) Estimated Area Exposed to Impulsive Sounds ≥160 dB rms From Airguns

Shell proposes to use the ITAGA eight-airgun array for the ZVSP surveys in 2012, which consists of four 150-in3 airguns and four 40-in3 airguns for a total discharge volume of 760 in3. The ≥160 dB re 1 μPa rms radius for this source was estimated from measurements of a similar seismic source used during the 2008 BP Liberty seismic survey (Aerts et al., 2008). The BP liberty source was also an eight-airgun array but had a slightly larger total volume of 880 in3. Because the number of airguns is the same, and the difference in total volume only results in an estimated 0.4 dB decrease in the source level of the ZVSP source, the 100th percentile propagation model from the measurements of the BP Liberty source is almost directly applicable. However, the BP Liberty source was towed at a depth of 5.9 ft (1.8 m), while Shell's ZVSP source would be lowered to a target depth of 13 ft (4 m) (from 10-23 ft [3-7 m]). The deeper depth of the ZVSP source has the potential to increase the source strength by as much as 6 dB. Thus, the constant term in the propagation equation from the BP Liberty source was increased from 235.4 to 241.4 while the remainder of the equation (-18*LogR—0.0047*R) was left unchanged. NMFS reviewed the use of this equation and the similarities between the 2008 BP Liberty project and Shell's proposed drilling sites and determined that it is appropriate to base the sound isopleths on those results. This equation results in the following estimated distances to maximum received levels: 190 dB = 0.33 mi (524 m); 180 dB = 0.77 mi (1,240 m); 160 dB = 2.28 mi (3,670 m); 120 dB = 6.52 mi (10,500 m). The ≥160 dB distance was multiplied by 1.5 (see Table 6-3 in Shell's application and Table 4 here) for use in estimating the area ensonified to ≥160 dB rms around the drilling vessel during ZVSP activities. Therefore, the total area of water potentially exposed to received sound levels ≥160 dB rms by ZVSP operations at one exploration well sites during each season is estimated to be 73.7 mi 2 (190.8 km 2).

For analysis of potential effects on migrating bowhead whales, the ≥120 dB distance for exploration drilling activities was used on all days during the bowhead migration as described previously. This is a precautionary approach in the case of the Kulluk since the ≥160 dB zone for the relatively brief ZVSP surveys is expected to be less than the ≥120 dB distance from the Kulluk. If the Discoverer were to be used, the slightly greater distance to the ≥160 dB threshold from the ZVSP airguns than the ≥120 dB distance from the Discoverer (see Table 6-3 in Shell's application and Table 3 here) would result in only 3% more of the 0-131 ft (0-40 m) depth category being ensonified on up to 2 days. This would result in an estimated increase of approximately 10 bowhead whales compared to the estimates shown in (see Table 6-7 in Shell's application).

Shell intends to conduct sound propagation measurements on the Kulluk or Discoverer (whichever is used) and the airgun source in 2012 once they are on location near Camden Bay. The results of those measurements would then be used during the season to implement mitigation measures.

Potential Number of “Takes by Harassment”

Although a marine mammal may be exposed to drilling or icebreaking sounds ≥120 dB (rms) or airgun sounds ≥160 dB (rms), this does not mean that it will actually exhibit a disruption of behavioral patterns in response to the sound source. Rather, the estimates provided here are simply the best estimates of the number of animals that potentially could have a behavioral modification due to the noise. However, not all animals react to sounds at this low level, and many will not show strong reactions (and in some cases any reaction) until sounds are much stronger. There are several variables that determine whether or not an individual animal will exhibit a response to the sound, such as the age of the animal, previous exposure to this type of anthropogenic sound, habituation, etc.

Numbers of marine mammals that might be present and potentially disturbed (i.e., Level B harassment) are estimated below based on available data about mammal distribution and densities at different locations and times of the year as described previously. Exposure estimates have been calculated based on the use of either the Kulluk or Discoverer operating in Camden Bay beginning in July, as well Start Printed Page 69013as ice management/icebreaking activities, if needed, and minimal airgun usage (see estimates below). Shell will not conduct any activities associated with the exploration drilling program in Camden Bay during the 2012 Kaktovik and Nuiqsut (Cross Island) fall bowhead whale subsistence harvests. Shell will suspend exploration activities on August 25, prior to the beginning of the hunts, will resume activities in Camden Bay after conclusion of the subsistence harvests, and complete exploration activities on or about October 31, 2012. Actual drilling may occur on approximately 78 days in Camden Bay (which includes the 20-28 hours total needed for airgun operations), approximately half of which would occur before and after the fall bowhead subsistence hunts.

The number of different individuals of each species potentially exposed to received levels of continuous sound ≥120 dB re 1 μPa (rms) or to pulsed sounds ≥160 dB re 1 μPa (rms) within each season and habitat zone was estimated by multiplying:

  • The anticipated area to be ensonified to the specified level in the time period and habitat zone to which a density applies, by
  • The expected species density.

The estimate for bowhead whales during the migration period was calculated differently as described previously. The numbers of exposures were then summed for each species across the seasons and habitat zones.

At times during either summer (July-August) or fall (September-October), pack-ice may be present in some of the area around the exploration drilling operation. However, the retreat of sea ice in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea has been substantial in recent years, so Shell assumed that only 33% of the area exposed to sounds ≥120 dB or ≥160 dB by the exploration drilling program and ZVSP activities will be in ice-margin habitat. Therefore, ice-margin densities of marine mammals in both seasons have been multiplied by 33% of the area exposed to sounds by the drilling and ZVSP activities, while open-water (nearshore) densities have been multiplied by the remaining 67% of the area. Since any icebreaking activities would only occur in ice-margin habitat, the entire area exposed to sounds ≥120 dB from icebreaking was multiplied by the ice-margin densities.

(1) Cetaceans

Cetacean species potentially exposed to exploration drilling or icebreaking sounds with continuous received levels ≥120 dB rms or airgun sounds ≥160 dB rms may include both mysticetes (bowhead and gray whales) and odontocetes (beluga whale). Separate estimates for beluga and bowhead whales are provided based on whether the Kulluk (see Table 6-4 in Shell's application or Table 5 here) or the Discoverer (see Table 6-5 in Shell's application or Table 6 here) is used as the drilling vessel in 2012. The results presented in those two tables should not be summed, as the operations will only be conducted from one of the drilling vessels. Estimates from icebreaking activities, should these occur, are shown in Table 6-6 in Shell's application or Table 7 here. Estimates of exposure to airgun pulses from ZVSP activities are provided in Table 6-7 and Table 8 here.

If the Kulluk is used, the average estimates of the number of individual belugas and bowheads exposed to continuous sounds ≥120 dB from exploration drilling activities during both summer and fall are 10 and 5,598, respectively (Table 6-4 in Shell's application or Table 5 here). The smaller size of the expected ≥120 dB zone around the Discoverer resulted in an average estimate of 0 and 1,388 beluga and bowhead whales potentially being exposed to sounds ≥120 dB during summer and fall, respectively (Table 6-5 in Shell's application and Table 6 here). Should icebreaking activities occur in both seasons, an additional 4 beluga and 8 bowhead whales may be exposed to continuous received sounds ≥120 dB (Table 6-6 in Shell's application and Table 7 here). Because of the relatively small airgun source and short duration of the ZVSP surveys, they are not expected to contribute substantially to the estimated number of belugas and bowheads exposed by the activities (Table 6-7 in Shell's application and Table 8 here). The estimated exposure of bowheads to these sounds during the migration has already been included in the estimates for the Kulluk (e.g., take of 10 belugas and 5,598 bowheads). The slightly greater distance to the ≥160 dB threshold from the ZVSP airguns than the ≥120 dB distance from the Discoverer would result in only 3% more of the 0-131 ft (0-40 m) depth category being ensonified on up to 2 days. This would result in an estimated increase of approximately 10 bowhead whales from ZVSP activities compared to the estimate shown in (Table 6-5 in Shell's application and Table 6 here).

Few other cetaceans are likely to be present in the area of the planned operations and the very small estimated densities for those species were not large enough for the calculations to result in estimates >1% from the Kulluk (Table 6-8 in Shell's application and Table 9 here), Discoverer (Table 6-9 in Shell's application and Table 10 here), icebreaking activities (Table 6-10 in Shell's application and Table 11 here), or ZVSP activities (Table 6-11 in Shell's application and Table 12 here).

(2) Seals

The ringed seal is the most widespread and abundant pinniped in ice-covered arctic waters, and there appears to be a great deal of year-to-year variation in abundance and distribution of these marine mammals. As a result of their high abundance, ringed seals account for a large number of marine mammals expected to be encountered during the exploration drilling program and hence exposed to sounds with received levels ≥120 dB or ≥160 dB rms. If the Kulluk is used, calculations based on the average density result in an estimate of 798 ringed seals that might be exposed during summer and fall to sounds with received levels ≥120 dB from the exploration drilling program (Table 6-8 in Shell's application and Table 9 here). Should the Discoverer be used, the estimated number of ringed seals exposed to ≥120 dB during summer and fall is 49 (Table 6-9 in Shell's application and Table 10 here). If ice management/icebreaking occurred during both seasons, an additional 211 ringed seals may be exposed to continuous sounds ≥120 dB (Table 6-10 in Shell's application and Table 11 here). The ZVSP activities are estimated to expose 60 ringed seals to pulsed airgun sounds ≥160 dB (Table 6-11 in Shell's application and Table 12 here).

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Two additional seal species are expected to be encountered with lower frequency than ringed seals. Estimates based on average densities of bearded seals and spotted seals are 41 and 6, respectively, during summer and fall if the exploration drilling program is conducted by the Kulluk (Table 6-8 in Shell's application and Table 9 here). If the Discoverer is used, the estimates are reduced to 3 and 0 for bearded and spotted seals, respectively (Table 6-9 in Shell's application and Table 10 here). Should icebreaking occur in both seasons an additional 11 bearded seals may be exposed to continuous sounds with received levels ≥120 dB (Table 6-10 in Shell's application and Table 11 here). Exposures of individuals from either species to sound levels ≥160 dB from the ZVSP activities are expected to be quite low due to the relative small area expected to be exposed to those sounds (Table 6-11 in Shell's application and Table 12 here). Although only sighted on occasion, ribbon seals may occur in the area, so Shell provided estimates for this species as well.

Estimated Take Conclusions

As stated previously, NMFS' practice has been to apply the 120 dB re 1 µPa (rms) received level threshold for underwater continuous sound levels and the 160 dB re 1 µPa (rms) received level threshold for underwater impulsive sound levels to determine whether take by Level B harassment occurs. However, not all animals react to sounds at these low levels, and many Start Printed Page 69018will not show strong reactions (and in some cases any reaction) until sounds are much stronger. Southall et al. (2007) provide a severity scale for ranking observed behavioral responses of both free-ranging marine mammals and laboratory subjects to various types of anthropogenic sound (see Table 4 in Southall et al. (2007)). Tables 15, 17, and 21 in Southall et al. (2007) outline the numbers of low-frequency and mid-frequency cetaceans and pinnipeds in water, respectively, reported as having behavioral responses to non-pulses in 10-dB received level increments. These tables illustrate, especially for low- and mid-frequency cetaceans, that more intense observed behavioral responses did not occur until sounds were higher than 120 dB (rms). Many of the animals had no observable response at all when exposed to anthropogenic continuous sound at levels of 120 dB (rms) or even higher.

Although the 120-dB isopleth for the drillships may seem fairly expansive (i.e., 12.37 mi [19.91 km] for the Kulluk or 4.6 mi [7.4 km] for the Discoverer, which include the 50 percent inflation factor), the zone of ensonification begins to shrink dramatically with each 10-dB increase in received sound level. The 160-dB rms zones for the Kulluk and Discoverer are estimated to extend approximately 180 ft (55 m) and 33 ft (10 m) for the ship, respectively. As stated previously, source levels for the two different drillships are expected to be between 177 and 185 dB (rms). For an animal to be exposed to received levels between 177 and 185 dB, it would have to be within several meters of the vessel, which is unlikely, especially give the fact that certain species are likely to avoid the area (as described earlier in this document).

For impulsive sounds, such as those produced by the airguns, studies reveal that baleen whales show avoidance responses, which would reduce the likelihood of them being exposed to higher received sound levels. The 180-dB zone (0.77 mi [1.24 km]) is one-third the size of the 160-dB zone (2.28 mi [3.67 km], which is the modeled distance before the 1.5 inflation factor is included). In the limited studies that have been conducted on pinniped responses to pulsed sound sources, they seem to be more tolerant and do not exhibit strong behavioral reactions (see Southall et al., 2007).

NMFS is proposing to authorize the average take estimates provided in Table 6-12 of Shell's application and Table 13 here for bowhead whales and bearded, ringed, and spotted seals. The only exceptions to this are for the gray whale, harbor porpoise, and ribbon seal since the average estimate is zero for those species and for the beluga whale to account for group size. Therefore, for the 2012 Beaufort Sea drilling season, NMFS proposes to authorize the take of 38 beluga whales, 5,608 bowhead whales, 15 gray whales, 15 harbor porpoise, 55 bearded seals, 1,069 ringed seals, 7 spotted seals, and 5 ribbon seals. For beluga and gray whales and harbor porpoise, this represents 0.1% of the Beaufort Sea population of approximately 39,258 beluga whales (Allen and Angliss, 2011), 0.08% of the Eastern North Pacific stock of approximately 18,017 gray whales (Allen and Angliss, 2011), and 0.03% of the Bering Sea stock of approximately 48,215 harbor porpoise (Allen and Angliss, 2011). This also represents 36.8% of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead population of 15,232 individuals assuming 3.4% annual population growth from the 2001 estimate of 10,545 animals (Zeh and Punt, 2005). The take estimates presented for bearded, ringed, and spotted seals represent 0.02%, 0.4%, and 0.01% of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort populations for each species, respectively. The take estimate for ribbon seals represents 0.01% of the Alaska stock of this species. These proposed take numbers are based on Shell utilizing the Kulluk. Table 13 here also presents the take numbers and percentages of the population if Shell utilizes the Discoverer instead, which has a smaller 120-dB radius. If the Discoverer is used for drilling operations instead of the Kulluk, the take estimates for bowhead whales and ringed and bearded seals drop substantially.

With the exception of the subsistence mitigation measure of shutting down during the Nuiqsut and Kaktovik fall bowhead whale hunts, these take estimates do not take into account any of the mitigation measures described previously in this document. Additionally, if the fall bowhead hunts end after September 15, and Shell still concludes activities on October 31, then fewer animals will be exposed to drilling sounds, especially bowhead whales, as more of them will have migrated past the area in which they would be exposed to continuous sound levels of 120 dB or greater or impulsive sound levels of 160 dB or greater prior to Shell resuming active operations. These take numbers also do not consider how many of the exposed animals may actually respond or react to the proposed exploration drilling program. Instead, the take estimates are based on the presence of animals, regardless of whether or not they react or respond to the activities.

Start Printed Page 69019

Negligible Impact Analysis

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.” In making a negligible impact determination, NMFS considers a variety of factors, including but not limited to: (1) The number of anticipated mortalities; (2) the number and nature of anticipated injuries; (3) the number, nature, intensity, and duration of Level B harassment; and (4) the context in which the takes occur.

No injuries or mortalities are anticipated to occur as a result of Shell's proposed Camden Bay exploratory drilling program, and none are proposed to be authorized. Injury, serious injury, or mortality could occur if there were a large or very large oil spill. However, as discussed previously in this document, the likelihood of a spill is extremely remote. Shell has implemented many design and operational standards to mitigate the potential for an oil spill of any size. NMFS does not propose to authorize take from an oil spill, as it is not part of the specified activity. Additionally, animals in the area are not expected to incur hearing impairment (i.e., TTS or PTS) or non-auditory physiological effects. Instead, any impact that could result from Shell's activities is most likely to be behavioral harassment and is expected to be of limited duration. Although it is possible that some individuals may be exposed to sounds from drilling operations more than once, during the migratory periods it is less likely that this will occur since animals will continue to move westward across the Beaufort Sea. This is especially true for bowhead whales that will be migrating past the drilling operations beginning in mid- to late September (depending on the date Shell resumes activities after the shutdown period for the fall bowhead subsistence hunts by the villages of Kaktovik and Nuiqsut).

Some studies have shown that bowhead whales will continue to feed in areas of seismic operations (e.g., Richardson, 2004). Therefore, it is possible that some bowheads may continue to feed in an area of active drilling operations. It is important to note that the sounds produced by drilling operations are of a much lower intensity than those produced by seismic airguns. Should bowheads choose to feed in the ensonified area instead of avoiding the sound, individuals may be exposed to sounds at or above 120 dB (rms) for several hours to days, depending on how long the individual animal chooses to remain in the area to feed. Should bowheads choose to feed in Camden Bay during the ZVSP surveys, this activity will occur only twice during the entire drilling season and will not last more than 10-14 hours each time. It is anticipated that one such survey would occur prior to the migration period and one during the migration period. Therefore, feeding or migrating bowhead whales would only be exposed to airgun sounds for a total of 10-14 hours throughout the entire open-water season. As noted previously, many animals perform vital functions, such as feeding, resting, traveling, and socializing on a diel cycle (24-hr cycle). As discussed here, some bowhead whales may decide to remain in Camden Bay for several days to feed; however, they are not expected to be feeding for 24 hours straight each day. While feeding in an area of increased anthropogenic sound may potentially result in increased stress, it is not anticipated that the level of sound produced by the exploratory drilling operations and the amount of time that an individual whale may remain in the area to feed would result in noise-induced physiological stress to the animal. Additionally, if an animal is excluded from Camden Bay for feeding because it decides to avoid the ensonified area, this may result in some extra energy expenditure for the animal to find an alternate feeding ground. However, Camden Bay is only one of a few feeding areas for bowhead whales in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. NMFS anticipates that bowhead whales could find feeding opportunities in other parts of the Beaufort Sea.

Some bowhead whales have been observed feeding in the Camden Bay area in recent years, even though oil and gas activities have been occurring in the general region. There has also been recent evidence that some bowhead whales continued feeding in close proximity to seismic sources (e.g., Richardson, 2004). The sounds produced by the drillship are of lower intensity than those produced by seismic airguns. Therefore, if animals remain in ensonified areas to feed, they would be in areas where the sound levels are not high enough to cause injury (based on the fact that source levels are not expected to reach levels known to cause even slight, mild TTS, Start Printed Page 69020a non-injurious threshold shift). Additionally, if bowhead whales come within the 180-dB (rms) radius when the airguns are operational, Shell will shutdown the airguns until the animals are outside of the required EZ. Although the impact resulting from the generation of sound may cause a disruption in feeding activities in and around Camden Bay, this disruption is not reasonably likely to adversely affect bowhead whales.

Shell's proposed exploration drilling program is not expected to negatively affect the bowhead whale westward migration through the U.S. Beaufort Sea. The migration typically starts around the last week of August or first week of September. Shell has agreed to cease operations on August 25 for the fall bowhead whale hunts at Kaktovik and Cross Island (for the village of Nuiqsut). Operations will not resume until both communities have announced the close of the fall hunt, which typically occurs around September 15 each year. Therefore, whales that migrate through the area the first few weeks of the migration period will not be exposed to any acoustic or non-acoustic stimuli from Shell's proposed operations. Only the last 6 weeks of Shell's operations would occur during the migratory period. Cow/calf pairs typically migrate through the area later in the season (i.e., late September/October) as opposed to the beginning of the season (i.e., late August/early September). Shell's activities are not anticipated to have a negative effect on the migration or on the cow/calf pairs migrating through the area. If cow/calf pairs migrate through during airgun operations, power down and shutdown procedures are proposed to be required to reduce impacts further.

Beluga whales are more likely to occur in the project area after the recommencement of activities in September than in July or August. Should any belugas occur in the area of active drilling, it is not expected that they would remain in the area for a prolonged period of time, as their westward migration usually occurs further offshore (more than 37 mi [60 km]) and in deeper waters (more than 656 ft [200 m]) than that planned for the location of Shell's Camden Bay well sites. Gray whales do not occur frequently in the Camden Bay area of the Beaufort Sea. Additionally, there are no known feeding grounds for gray whales in the Camden Bay area. The most northern feeding sites known for this species are located in the Chukchi Sea near Hanna Shoal and Point Barrow. Based on these factors, exposures of gray whales to industrial sound are not expected to last for prolonged periods (i.e., several days or weeks) since they are not known to remain in the area for extended periods of time. Since harbor porpoise are considered extralimital in the area with recent sightings not occurring east of Prudhoe Bay, no adverse impacts that could affect important life functions are anticipated for this species.

Some individual pinnipeds may be exposed to drilling sounds more than once during the timeframe of the project. This may be especially true for ringed seals, which occur in the Beaufort Sea year-round and are the most frequently encountered pinniped species in the area. However, as stated previously in this document, pinnipeds appear to be more tolerant of anthropogenic sound, especially at lower received levels, than other marine mammals, such as mysticetes.

Ringed seals construct lairs for pupping in the Beaufort Sea. However, this species typically does not construct lairs until late winter/early spring on the landfast ice. Because Shell will cease operations by October 31, they will not be in the area during the ringed seal pupping season. Bearded seals breed in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, as the Beaufort Sea provides less suitable habitat for the species. Spotted and ribbon seals are even less common in the Camden Bay area. These species do not breed in the Beaufort Sea. Shell's proposed exploration drilling program is not anticipated to impact breeding or pupping for any of the ice seal species.

Of the eight marine mammal species likely to occur in the proposed drilling area, only the bowhead whale is listed as endangered under the ESA. The species is also designated as “depleted” under the MMPA. Despite these designations, the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock of bowheads has been increasing at a rate of 3.4% annually for nearly a decade (Allen and Angliss, 2011), even in the face of ongoing industrial activity. Additionally, during the 2001 census, 121 calves were counted, which was the highest yet recorded. The calf count provides corroborating evidence for a healthy and increasing population (Allen and Angliss, 2011). Certain stocks or populations of gray and beluga whales and spotted seals are listed as endangered or are proposed for listing under the ESA; however, none of those stocks or populations occur in the proposed activity area. On December 10, 2010, NMFS published a notice of proposed threatened status for subspecies of the ringed seal (75 FR 77476) and a notice of proposed threatened and not warranted status for subspecies and distinct population segments of the bearded seal (75 FR 77496) in the Federal Register. Neither of these two ice seal species is currently considered depleted under the MMPA. There is currently no established critical habitat in the proposed project area for any of these eight species.

Potential impacts to marine mammal habitat were discussed previously in this document (see the “Anticipated Effects on Habitat” section). Although some disturbance is possible to food sources of marine mammals, any impacts to affected marine mammal stocks or species are anticipated to be minor. Based on the vast size of the Arctic Ocean where feeding by marine mammals occurs versus the localized area of the drilling program, any missed feeding opportunities in the direct project area would be of little consequence, as marine mammals would have access to other feeding grounds.

If the Kulluk is the drillship used, the estimated takes proposed to be authorized represent 0.1% of the Beaufort Sea population of approximately 39,258 beluga whales (Allen and Angliss, 2011), 0.08% of the Eastern North Pacific stock of approximately 18,017 gray whales (Allen and Angliss, 2011), 0.03% of the Bering Sea stock of approximately 48,215 harbor porpoise (Allen and Angliss, 2011), and 36.8% of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population of 15,232 individuals assuming 3.4% annual population growth from the 2001 estimate of 10,545 animals (Zeh and Punt, 2005). The take estimates presented for bearded, ringed, and spotted seals represent 0.02%, 0.4%, and 0.01% of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort populations for each species, respectively. The take estimate for ribbon seals represents 0.01% of the Alaska stock of this species. If the Discoverer is the drillship used, the estimated takes proposed to be authorized represent 0.1% of the Beaufort Sea population of approximately 39,258 beluga whales (Allen and Angliss, 2011), 0.08% of the Eastern North Pacific stock of approximately 18,017 gray whales (Allen and Angliss, 2011), 0.03% of the Bering Sea stock of approximately 48,215 harbor porpoise (Allen and Angliss, 2011), and 9.2% of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population of 15,232 individuals assuming 3.4% annual population growth from the 2001 estimate of 10,545 animals (Zeh and Punt, 2005). The take estimates presented for bearded, ringed, and spotted seals represent 0.01%, 0.1%, and 0.01% of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort populations for each species, Start Printed Page 69021respectively. The take estimate for ribbon seals represents 0.01% of the Alaska stock of this species. These estimates represent the percentage of each species or stock that could be taken by Level B behavioral harassment if each animal is taken only once.

The estimated take numbers are likely somewhat of an overestimate for several reasons. First, these take numbers were calculated using a 50% inflation factor of the 120-dB and 160-dB radii, which is a conservative approach recommended by some acousticians when modeling a new sound source in a new location. SSV tests could reveal that the Level B harassment zone is either smaller or larger than that used to estimate take. If the SSV tests reveal that the Level B harassment zones are slightly larger than those modeled, the 50% inflation factor should cover the discrepancy, however, based on recent SSV tests of seismic airguns (which showed that the measured 160-dB isopleths was in the area of the modeled value), the 50% correction factor likely results in an overestimate of takes. Additionally, the mitigation and monitoring measures (described previously in this document) proposed for inclusion in the IHA (if issued) are expected to reduce even further any potential disturbance to marine mammals. Last, some marine mammal individuals, including mysticetes, have been shown to avoid the ensonified area around airguns at certain distances (Richardson et al., 1999), and, therefore, some individuals would not likely enter into the Level B harassment zones for the various types of activities.

The take estimates for the Kulluk are approximately four times those for the Discoverer. One explanation for this is that the Kulluk' s original rigid structure does little to dampen vibration as it moves through the structure to the hull. The Kulluk's main engines are welded to the deck rather than being on vibration absorbing mounts, which may also contribute to the relatively higher sound level. This past year, Shell has invested in retrofitting the Kulluk. This retrofit includes changing out the engines and installing sound dampening mounts for the new engines. This retrofit is expected to help lower the sound levels emitted by the Kulluk. As stated previously, Shell intends to conduct SSV tests for all vessels, including the drillship, once on location in the Beaufort Sea in 2012. Therefore, there is the potential for the take estimates to be reduced even further.

Impact on Availability of Affected Species or Stock for Taking for Subsistence Uses

Relevant Subsistence Uses

The disturbance and potential displacement of marine mammals by sounds from drilling activities are the principal concerns related to subsistence use of the area. Subsistence remains the basis for Alaska Native culture and community. Marine mammals are legally hunted in Alaskan waters by coastal Alaska Natives. In rural Alaska, subsistence activities are often central to many aspects of human existence, including patterns of family life, artistic expression, and community religious and celebratory activities. Additionally, the animals taken for subsistence provide a significant portion of the food that will last the community throughout the year. The main species that are hunted include bowhead and beluga whales, ringed, spotted, and bearded seals, walruses, and polar bears. (As mentioned previously in this document, both the walrus and the polar bear are under the USFWS' jurisdiction.) The importance of each of these species varies among the communities and is largely based on availability.

The subsistence communities in the Beaufort Sea that have the potential to be impacted by Shell's Camden Bay drilling program include Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, and Barrow. Kaktovik is a coastal community 60 mi (96.6 km) east of the project area. Nuiqsut is 118 mi (190 km) west of the project area and about 20 mi (32 km) inland from the coast along the Colville River. Cross Island, from which Nuiqsut hunters base their bowhead whaling activities, is 47 mi (75.6 km) southwest of the project area. Barrow, the community farthest from the project area, lies 298 mi (479.6 km) west of Shell's Camden Bay drill sites.

(1) Bowhead Whales

Of the three communities, Barrow is the only one that currently participates in a spring bowhead whale hunt. However, this hunt is not anticipated to be affected by Shell's activities, as the spring hunt occurs in late April to early May, and Shell's Camden Bay drilling program will not begin until July 10, at the earliest.

All three communities participate in a fall bowhead hunt. In autumn, westward-migrating bowhead whales typically reach the Kaktovik and Cross Island (Nuiqsut hunters) areas by early September, at which points the hunts begin (Kaleak, 1996; Long, 1996; Galginaitis and Koski, 2002; Galginaitis and Funk, 2004, 2005; Koski et al., 2005). Around late August, the hunters from Nuiqsut establish camps on Cross Island from where they undertake the fall bowhead whale hunt. The hunting period starts normally in early September and may last as late as mid-October, depending mainly on ice and weather conditions and the success of the hunt. Most of the hunt occurs offshore in waters east, north, and northwest of Cross Island where bowheads migrate and not inside the barrier islands (Galginaitis, 2007). Hunters prefer to take bowheads close to shore to avoid a long tow, but Braund and Moorehead (1995) report that crews may (rarely) pursue whales as far as 50 mi (80 km) offshore. Whaling crews use Kaktovik as their home base, leaving the village and returning on a daily basis. The core whaling area is within 12 mi (19.3 km) of the village with a periphery ranging about 8 mi (13 km) farther, if necessary. The extreme limits of the Kaktovik whaling limit would be the middle of Camden Bay to the west. The timing of the Kaktovik bowhead whale hunt roughly parallels the Cross Island whale hunt (Impact Assessment Inc, 1990b; SRB&A, 2009:Map 64). In recent years, the hunts at Kaktovik and Cross Island have usually ended by mid- to late September.

Westbound bowheads typically reach the Barrow area in mid-September and are in that area until late October (Brower, 1996). However, over the years, local residents report having seen a small number of bowhead whales feeding off Barrow or in the pack ice off Barrow during the summer. Recently, autumn bowhead whaling near Barrow has normally begun in mid-September to early October, but in earlier years it began as early as August if whales were observed and ice conditions were favorable (USDI/BLM, 2005). The recent decision to delay harvesting whales until mid-to-late September has been made to prevent spoilage, which might occur if whales were harvested earlier in the season when the temperatures tend to be warmer. Whaling near Barrow can continue into October, depending on the quota and conditions.

Shell anticipates arriving on location in Camden Bay around July 10 and continuing operations until August 25. Shell has stated that it will suspend all operations on August 25 for the Nuiqsut (Cross Island) and Kaktovik subsistence bowhead whale hunts. The drillship and support vessels will leave the Camden Bay project area, will move to a location at or north of 71.25° N. latitude and at or west of 146.4° W. longitude, and will return to resume activities after the Nuiqsut (Cross Start Printed Page 69022Island) and Kaktovik bowhead hunts conclude. Depending on when Nuiqsut and Kaktovik declare their hunts closed, drilling operations may resume in the middle of the Barrow fall bowhead hunt.

(2) Beluga Whales

Beluga whales are not a prevailing subsistence resource in the communities of Kaktovik and Nuiqsut. Kaktovik hunters may harvest one beluga whale in conjunction with the bowhead hunt; however, it appears that most households obtain beluga through exchanges with other communities. Although Nuiqsut hunters have not hunted belugas for many years while on Cross Island for the fall hunt, this does not mean that they may not return to this practice in the future. Data presented by Braund and Kruse (2009) indicate that only 1% of Barrow's total harvest between 1962 and 1982 was of beluga whales and that it did not account for any of the harvested animals between 1987 and 1989.

There has been minimal harvest of beluga whales in Beaufort Sea villages in recent years. Additionally, if belugas are harvested, it is usually in conjunction with the fall bowhead harvest. Shell will not be operating during the Kaktovik and Nuiqsut fall bowhead harvests.

(3) Ice Seals

Ringed seals are available to subsistence users in the Beaufort Sea year-round, but they are primarily hunted in the winter or spring due to the rich availability of other mammals in the summer. Bearded seals are primarily hunted during July in the Beaufort Sea; however, in 2007, bearded seals were harvested in the months of August and September at the mouth of the Colville River Delta. An annual bearded seal harvest occurs in the vicinity of Thetis Island (which is a considerable distance from Shell's proposed Camden Bay drill sites) in July through August. Approximately 20 bearded seals are harvested annually through this hunt. Spotted seals are harvested by some of the villages in the summer months. Nuiqsut hunters typically hunt spotted seals in the nearshore waters off the Colville River delta, which is more than 100 mi (161 km) from Shell's proposed drill sites.

Although there is the potential for some of the Beaufort villages to hunt ice seals during the summer and fall months while Shell is conducting exploratory drilling operations, the primary sealing months occur outside of Shell's operating time frame. Additionally, some of the more established seal hunts that do occur in the Beaufort Sea, such as the Colville delta area hunts, are located a significant distance (in some instances 100 mi [161 km] or more) from the proposed project area.

Potential Impacts to Subsistence Uses

NMFS has defined “unmitigable adverse impact” in 50 CFR 216.103 as an impact resulting from the specified activity that is likely to reduce the availability of the species to a level insufficient for a harvest to meet subsistence needs by causing the marine mammals to abandon or avoid hunting areas; directly displacing subsistence users; or placing physical barriers between the marine mammals and the subsistence hunters; and that cannot be sufficiently mitigated by other measures to increase the availability of marine mammals to allow subsistence needs to be met.

Noise and general activity during Shell's proposed drilling program have the potential to impact marine mammals hunted by Native Alaskans. In the case of cetaceans, the most common reaction to anthropogenic sounds (as noted previously in this document) is avoidance of the ensonified area. In the case of bowhead whales, this often means that the animals divert from their normal migratory path by several kilometers. Helicopter activity also has the potential to disturb cetaceans and pinnipeds by causing them to vacate the area. Additionally, general vessel presence in the vicinity of traditional hunting areas could negatively impact a hunt. Native knowledge indicates that bowhead whales become increasingly “skittish” in the presence of seismic noise. Whales are more wary around the hunters and tend to expose a much smaller portion of their back when surfacing (which makes harvesting more difficult). Additionally, natives report that bowheads exhibit angry behaviors in the presence of seismic, such as tail-slapping, which translate to danger for nearby subsistence harvesters.

In the case of subsistence hunts for bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea, there could be an adverse impact on the hunt if the whales were deflected seaward (further from shore) in traditional hunting areas. The impact would be that whaling crews would have to travel greater distances to intercept westward migrating whales, thereby creating a safety hazard for whaling crews and/or limiting chances of successfully striking and landing bowheads.

Plan of Cooperation (POC)

Regulations at 50 CFR 216.104(a)(12) require IHA applicants for activities that take place in Arctic waters to provide a POC or information that identifies what measures have been taken and/or will be taken to minimize adverse effects on the availability of marine mammals for subsistence purposes. Shell has developed a Draft POC for its 2012 Camden Bay, Beaufort Sea, Alaska, exploration drilling program to minimize any adverse impacts on the availability of marine mammals for subsistence uses. A copy of the Draft POC was provided to NMFS with the IHA Application as Attachment D (see ADDRESSES for availability). Meetings with potentially affected subsistence users began in 2009 and continued into 2010 and 2011 (see Table 4.2-1 in Shell's POC for a list of all meetings conducted through April 2011). During these meetings, Shell focused on lessons learned from prior years' activities and presented mitigation measures for avoiding potential conflicts, which are outlined in the 2012 POC and this document. For the 2012 Camden Bay drilling program, Shell's POC with Chukchi Sea villages primarily addresses the issue of transit of vessels, whereas the POC with Beaufort Sea villages addresses vessel transit, drilling, and associated activities. Communities that were consulted regarding Shell's 2012 Arctic Ocean operations include: Barrow, Kaktovik, Wainwright, Kotzebue, Kivalina, Point Lay, Point Hope, Kiana, Gambell, Savoonga, and Shishmaref.

Beginning in early January 2009 and continuing into 2011, Shell held one-on-one meetings with representatives from the North Slope Borough (NSB) and Northwest Arctic Borough (NWAB), subsistence-user group leadership, and Village Whaling Captain Association representatives. Shell's primary purpose in holding individual meetings was to inform and prepare key leaders, prior to the public meetings, so that they would be prepared to give appropriate feedback on planned activities.

Shell presented the proposed project to the NWAB Assembly on January 27, 2009, to the NSB Assembly on February 2, 2009, and to the NSB and NWAB Planning Commissions in a joint meeting on March 25, 2009. Meetings were also scheduled with representatives from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC), and presentations on proposed activities were given to the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, and the Native Village of Barrow. On December 8, 2009, Shell held consultation meetings with Start Printed Page 69023representatives from the various marine mammal commissions. Prior to drilling in 2012, Shell will also hold additional consultation meetings with the affected communities and subsistence user groups, NSB, and NWAB to discuss the mitigation measures included in the POC. Shell also attended the 2011 Conflict Avoidance Agreement (CAA) negotiation meetings in support of a limited program of marine environmental baseline activities in 2011 taking place in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Shell has stated that it is committed to a CAA process and will demonstrate this by making a good-faith effort to negotiate a CAA every year it has planned activities.

The following mitigation measures, plans and programs, are integral to the POC and were developed during consultation with potentially affected subsistence groups and communities. These measures, plans, and programs will be implemented by Shell during its 2012 exploration drilling operations in both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas to monitor and mitigate potential impacts to subsistence users and resources. The mitigation measures Shell has adopted and will implement during its 2012 Camden Bay exploration drilling operations are listed and discussed below. The most recent version of Shell's planned mitigation measures was presented to community leaders and subsistence user groups starting in January of 2009 and has evolved since in response to information learned during the consultation process.

To minimize any cultural or resource impacts to subsistence whaling activities from its exploration operations, Shell will suspend drilling activities on August 25, 2012, prior to the start of the Kaktovik and Cross Island bowhead whale hunting season. The drillship and associated vessels will remain outside of the Camden Bay area during the hunt. Shell will resume drilling operations after the conclusion of the hunt and, depending on ice and weather conditions, continue its exploration activities through October 31, 2012. In addition to the adoption of this project timing restriction, Shell will implement the following additional measures to ensure coordination of its activities with local subsistence users to minimize further the risk of impacting marine mammals and interfering with the subsistence hunts for marine mammals:

(1) The drillship and support vessels will transit through the Chukchi Sea along a route that lies offshore of the polynya zone. In the event the transit outside of the polynya zone results in Shell having to break ice (as opposed to managing ice by pushing it out of the way), the drillship and support vessels will enter into the polynya zone far enough so that ice breaking is not necessary. If it is necessary to move into the polynya zone, Shell will notify the local communities of the change in the transit route through the Com Centers;

(2) Shell has developed a Communication Plan and will implement the plan before initiating exploration drilling operations to coordinate activities with local subsistence users as well as Village Whaling Associations in order to minimize the risk of interfering with subsistence hunting activities and keep current as to the timing and status of the bowhead whale migration, as well as the timing and status of other subsistence hunts. The Communication Plan includes procedures for coordination with Com and Call Centers to be located in coastal villages along the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas during Shell's proposed activities in 2012;

(3) Shell will employ local Subsistence Advisors from the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea villages to provide consultation and guidance regarding the whale migration and subsistence hunt. There will be a total of nine subsistence advisor-liaison positions (one per village), to work approximately 8-hours per day and 40-hour weeks through Shell's 2012 exploration project. The subsistence advisor will use local knowledge (Traditional Knowledge) to gather data on subsistence lifestyle within the community and advise on ways to minimize and mitigate potential impacts to subsistence resources during the drilling season. Responsibilities include reporting any subsistence concerns or conflicts; coordinating with subsistence users; reporting subsistence-related comments, concerns, and information; and advising how to avoid subsistence conflicts. A subsistence advisor handbook will be developed prior to the operational season to specify position work tasks in more detail;

(4) Shell will implement flight restrictions prohibiting aircraft from flying within 1,000 ft (305 m) of marine mammals or below 1,500 ft (457 m) altitude (except during takeoffs and landings or in emergency situations) while over land or sea;

(5) The drilling support fleet will avoid known fragile ecosystems, including the Ledyard Bay Critical Habitat Unit and will include coordination through the Com Centers;

(6) All vessels will maintain cruising speed not to exceed 9 knots while transiting the Beaufort Sea;

(7) Collect all drilling mud and cuttings with adhered mud from all well sections below the 26-inch (20-inch casing) section, as well as treated sanitary waste water, domestic wastes, bilge water, and ballast water and transport them outside the Arctic for proper disposal in an Environmental Protection Agency licensed treatment/disposal site. These waste streams shall not be discharged into the ocean;

(8) Drilling mud shall be cooled to mitigate any potential permafrost thawing or thermal dissociation of any methane hydrates encountered during exploration drilling if such materials are present at the drill site; and

(9) Drilling mud shall be recycled to the extent practicable based on operational considerations (e.g., whether mud properties have deteriorated to the point where they cannot be used further) so that the volume of the mud disposed of at the end of the drilling season is reduced.

The POC also contains measures regarding ice management procedures, critical operations procedures, the blowout prevention program, and oil spill response. Some of the oil spill response measures to reduce impacts to subsistence hunts include: Having the primary OSRV on standby at all times so that it is available within 1 hour if needed; the remainder of the OSR fleet will be available within 72 hours if needed and will be capable of collecting oil on the water up to the calculated Worst Case Discharge; oil spill containment equipment will be available in the unlikely event of a blowout; capping stack equipment will be stored aboard one of the ice management vessels and will be available for immediate deployment in the unlikely event of a blowout; and pre-booming will be required for all fuel transfers between vessels.

Unmitigable Adverse Impact Analysis

Shell has adopted a spatial and temporal strategy for its Camden Bay operations that should minimize impacts to subsistence hunters. First, Shell's activities will not commence until after the spring hunts have occurred. Additionally, Shell will traverse the Chukchi Sea far offshore, so as to not interfere with July hunts in the Chukchi Sea and will communicate with the Com Centers to notify local communities of any changes in the transit route. Once Shell is on location in Camden Bay, Beaufort Sea, whaling will not commence until late August/early September. Shell has agreed to cease operations on August 25 to allow the villages of Kaktovik and Nuiqsut to prepare for the fall bowhead hunts, will Start Printed Page 69024move the drillship and all support vessels out of the hunting area so that there are no physical barriers between the marine mammals and the hunters, and will not recommence activities until the close of both villages' hunts.

Kaktovik is located 60 mi (96.6 km) east of the project area. Therefore, westward migrating whales would reach Kaktovik before reaching the area of Shell's activities or any of the ensonified zones. Although Cross Island and Barrow are west of Shell's drill sites, sound generating activities from Shell's drilling program will have ceased prior to the whales passing through the area. Additionally, Barrow lies 298 mi (479.6 km) west of Shell's Camden Bay drill sites, so whalers in that area would not be displaced by any of Shell's activities.

Adverse impacts are not anticipated on sealing activities since the majority of hunts for seals occur in the winter and spring, when Shell will not be operating. Sealing activities in the Colville River delta area occur more than 100 mi (161 km) from Shell's Camden Bay drill sites.

Shell will also support the village Com Centers in the Arctic communities and employ local SAs from the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea villages to provide consultation and guidance regarding the whale migration and subsistence hunt. The SAs will provide advice to Shell on ways to minimize and mitigate potential impacts to subsistence resources during the drilling season.

In the unlikely event of a major oil spill in the Beaufort Sea, there could be major impacts on the availability of marine mammals for subsistence uses. As discussed earlier in this document, the probability of a major oil spill occurring over the life of the project is low (Bercha, 2008). Additionally, Shell developed an ODPCP, which is currently under review by the Department of the Interior and several Federal agencies and the public. Shell has also incorporated several mitigation measures into its operational design to reduce further the risk of an oil spill. Copies of Shell's 2012 Camden Bay Exploration Plan and ODPCP can be found on the Internet at: http://www.alaska.boemre.gov/​ref/​ProjectHistory/​2012Shell_​BF/​revisedEP/​EP.pdf and http://www.alaska.boemre.gov/​fo/​ODPCPs/​2010_​BF_​rev1.pdf, respectively.

Proposed Incidental Harassment Authorization

This section contains a draft of the IHA itself. The wording contained in this section is proposed for inclusion in the IHA (if issued).

(1) This Authorization is valid from July 10, 2012, through October 31, 2012.

(2) This Authorization is valid only for activities associated with Shell's 2012 Camden Bay exploration drilling program. The specific areas where Shell's exploration drilling program will be conducted are within Shell lease holdings in the Outer Continental Shelf Lease Sale 195 and 202 areas in the Beaufort Sea.

(3)(a) The incidental taking of marine mammals, by Level B harassment only, is limited to the following species: Bowhead whale; gray whale; beluga whale; harbor porpoise; ringed seal; bearded seal; spotted seal; and ribbon seal.

(3)(b) The taking by injury (Level A harassment), serious injury, or death of any of the species listed in Condition 3(a) or the taking of any kind of any other species of marine mammal is prohibited and may result in the modification, suspension or revocation of this Authorization.

(4) The authorization for taking by harassment is limited to the following acoustic sources (or sources with comparable frequency and intensity) and from the following activities:

(a) 8-airgun array with a total discharge volume of 760 in3;

(b) continuous drillship sounds during active drilling operations; and

(c) vessel sounds generated during active ice management or icebreaking.

(5) The taking of any marine mammal in a manner prohibited under this Authorization must be reported immediately to the Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS or his designee.

(6) The holder of this Authorization must notify the Chief of the Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, at least 48 hours prior to the start of exploration drilling activities (unless constrained by the date of issuance of this Authorization in which case notification shall be made as soon as possible).

(7) General Mitigation and Monitoring Requirements: The Holder of this Authorization is required to implement the following mitigation and monitoring requirements when conducting the specified activities to achieve the least practicable impact on affected marine mammal species or stocks:

(a) All vessels shall reduce speed to at least 9 knots when within 300 yards (274 m) of whales. The reduction in speed will vary based on the situation but must be sufficient to avoid interfering with the whales. Those vessels capable of steering around such groups should do so. Vessels may not be operated in such a way as to separate members of a group of whales from other members of the group;

(b) Avoid multiple changes in direction and speed when within 300 yards (274 m) of whales;

(c) When weather conditions require, such as when visibility drops, support vessels must reduce speed and change direction, as necessary (and as operationally practicable), to avoid the likelihood of injury to whales;

(d) All vessels shall maintain cruising speed not to exceed 9 knots while transiting the Beaufort Sea in order to reduce the risk of ship-whale collisions;

(e) Aircraft shall not fly within 1,000 ft (305 m) of marine mammals or below 1,500 ft (457 m) altitude (except during takeoffs, landings, or in emergency situations) while over land or sea;

(f) Utilize two, NMFS-qualified, vessel-based Protected Species Observers (PSOs) (except during meal times and restroom breaks, when at least one PSO shall be on watch) to visually watch for and monitor marine mammals near the drillship or support vessel during active drilling or airgun operations (from nautical twilight-dawn to nautical twilight-dusk) and before and during start-ups of airguns day or night. The vessels' crew shall also assist in detecting marine mammals, when practicable. PSOs shall have access to reticle binoculars (7x50 Fujinon), big-eye binoculars (25x150), and night vision devices. PSO shifts shall last no longer than 4 hours at a time and shall not be on watch more than 12 hours in a 24-hour period. PSOs shall also make observations during daytime periods when active operations are not being conducted for comparison of animal abundance and behavior, when feasible;

(g) When a mammal sighting is made, the following information about the sighting will be recorded:

(i) Species, group size, age/size/sex categories (if determinable), behavior when first sighted and after initial sighting, heading (if consistent), bearing and distance from the MMO, apparent reaction to activities (e.g., none, avoidance, approach, paralleling, etc.), closest point of approach, and behavioral pace;

(ii) Time, location, speed, activity of the vessel, sea state, ice cover, visibility, and sun glare; and

(iii) The positions of other vessel(s) in the vicinity of the MMO location.

(iv) The ship's position, speed of support vessels, and water temperature, water depth, sea state, ice cover, visibility, and sun glare will also be recorded at the start and end of each observation watch, every 30 minutes Start Printed Page 69025during a watch, and whenever there is a change in any of those variables.

(h) PSO teams shall consist of Inupiat observers and experienced field biologists. An experienced field crew leader will supervise the PSO team onboard the survey vessel. New observers shall be paired with experienced observers to avoid situations where lack of experience impairs the quality of observations;

(i) PSOs will complete a two- or three-day training session on marine mammal monitoring, to be conducted shortly before the anticipated start of the 2012 open-water season. The training session(s) will be conducted by qualified marine mammalogists with extensive crew-leader experience during previous vessel-based monitoring programs. A marine mammal observers' handbook, adapted for the specifics of the planned program will be reviewed as part of the training;

(j) If there are Alaska Native PSOs, the PSO training that is conducted prior to the start of the survey activities shall be conducted with both Alaska Native PSOs and biologist PSOs being trained at the same time in the same room. There shall not be separate training courses for the different PSOs; and

(k) PSOs shall be trained using visual aids (e.g., videos, photos), to help them identify the species that they are likely to encounter in the conditions under which the animals will likely be seen.

(8) ZVSP Mitigation and Monitoring Measures: The Holder of this Authorization is required to implement the following mitigation and monitoring requirements when conducting the specified activities to achieve the least practicable impact on affected marine mammal species or stocks:

(a) PSOs shall conduct monitoring while the airgun array is being deployed or recovered from the water;

(b) PSOs shall visually observe the entire extent of the exclusion zone (EZ) (180 dB re 1 μPa [rms] for cetaceans and 190 dB re 1 μPa [rms] for pinnipeds) using NMFS-qualified PSOs, for at least 30 minutes (min) prior to starting the airgun array (day or night). If the PSO finds a marine mammal within the EZ, Shell must delay the seismic survey until the marine mammal(s) has left the area. If the PSO sees a marine mammal that surfaces then dives below the surface, the PSO shall continue the watch for 30 min. If the PSO sees no marine mammals during that time, they should assume that the animal has moved beyond the EZ. If for any reason the entire radius cannot be seen for the entire 30 min period (i.e., rough seas, fog, darkness), or if marine mammals are near, approaching, or in the EZ, the airguns may not be ramped-up. If one airgun is already running at a source level of at least 180 dB re 1 μPa (rms), the Holder of this Authorization may start the second airgun without observing the entire EZ for 30 min prior, provided no marine mammals are known to be near the EZ;

(c) Establish and monitor a 180 dB re 1 μPa (rms) and a 190 dB re 1 μPa (rms) EZ for marine mammals before the 8-airgun array (760 in3) is in operation; and a 180 dB re 1 μPa (rms) and a 190 dB re 1 μPa (rms) EZ before a single airgun (40 in3) is in operation, respectively. For purposes of the field verification tests, described in condition 10(c)(i) below, the 180 dB radius is predicted to be 0.77 mi (1.24 km) and the 190 dB radius is predicted to be 0.33 mi (524 m);

(d) Implement a “ramp-up” procedure when starting up at the beginning of seismic operations, which means start the smallest gun first and add airguns in a sequence such that the source level of the array shall increase in steps not exceeding approximately 6 dB per 5-min period. During ramp-up, the PSOs shall monitor the EZ, and if marine mammals are sighted, a power-down, or shut-down shall be implemented as though the full array were operational. Therefore, initiation of ramp-up procedures from shut-down requires that the PSOs be able to view the full EZ;

(e) Power-down or shutdown the airgun(s) if a marine mammal is detected within, approaches, or enters the relevant EZ. A shutdown means all operating airguns are shutdown (i.e., turned off). A power-down means reducing the number of operating airguns to a single operating 40 in3 airgun, which reduces the EZ to the degree that the animal(s) is no longer in or about to enter it;

(f) Following a power-down, if the marine mammal approaches the smaller designated EZ, the airguns must then be completely shutdown. Airgun activity shall not resume until the PSO has visually observed the marine mammal(s) exiting the EZ and is not likely to return, or has not been seen within the EZ for 15 min for species with shorter dive durations (small odontocetes and pinnipeds) or 30 min for species with longer dive durations (mysticetes);

(g) Following a power-down or shut-down and subsequent animal departure, airgun operations may resume following ramp-up procedures described in Condition 8(d) above;

(h) ZVSP surveys may continue into night and low-light hours if such segment(s) of the survey is initiated when the entire relevant EZs are visible and can be effectively monitored; and

(i) No initiation of airgun array operations is permitted from a shutdown position at night or during low-light hours (such as in dense fog or heavy rain) when the entire relevant EZ cannot be effectively monitored by the PSO(s) on duty.

(9) Subsistence Mitigation Measures: To ensure no unmitigable adverse impact on subsistence uses of marine mammals, the Holder of this Authorization shall:

(a) Traverse north through the Bering Strait through the Chukchi Sea along a route that lies offshore of the polynya zone. In the event the transit outside of the polynya zone results in Shell having to break ice, the drilling vessel and support vessels will enter into the polynya zone far enough so that icebreaking is not necessary. If it is necessary to move into the polynya zone, Shell shall notify the local communities of the change in transit route through the Communication and Call Centers (Com Centers). As soon as the fleet transits past the ice, it will exit the polynya zone and continue a path in the open sea toward the Camden Bay drill sites;

(b) Implement the Communication Plan before initiating exploration drilling operations to coordinate activities with local subsistence users and Village Whaling Associations in order to minimize the risk of interfering with subsistence hunting activities;

(c) Participate in the Com Center Program. The Com Centers shall operate 24 hours/day during the 2012 bowhead whale hunt;

(d) Employ local Subsistence Advisors (SAs) from the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea villages to provide consultation and guidance regarding the whale migration and subsistence hunt;

(e) Not operate aircraft below 1,500 ft (457 m) unless engaged in marine mammal monitoring, approaching, landing or taking off, or unless engaged in providing assistance to a whaler or in poor weather (low ceilings) or any other emergency situations;

(f) Collect all drilling mud and cuttings with adhered mud from all well sections below the 26-inch (20-inch casing) section, as well as treated sanitary waste water, domestic wastes, bilge water, and ballast water and transport them outside the Arctic for proper disposal in an Environmental Protection Agency licensed treatment/disposal site. These waste streams shall not be discharged into the ocean;

(g) Cool all drilling mud to mitigate any potential permafrost thawing or thermal dissociation of any methane Start Printed Page 69026hydrates encountered during exploration drilling if such materials are present at the drill site;

(h) Recycle all drilling mud to the extent practicable based on operational considerations (e.g., whether mud properties have deteriorated to the point where they cannot be used further) so that the volume of the mud disposed of at the end of the drilling season is reduced; and

(i) Suspended all drilling activities on August 25 for the Kaktovik and Nuiqsut (Cross Island) fall bowhead whale hunts. The drilling vessel and support fleet shall leave the Camden Bay project area and move to an area north of latitude 71°25′ N and west of longitude 146°4′ W. Shell shall not return to the area to resume drilling operations until the close of the Kaktovik and Nuiqsut fall bowhead whale hunts.

(10) Monitoring Measures

(a) Vessel-based Monitoring: The Holder of this Authorization shall designate biologically-trained PSOs to be aboard the drillship and all support vessels. The PSOs are required to monitor for marine mammals in order to implement the mitigation measures described in conditions 7 and 8 above;

(b) Aerial Survey Monitoring: The Holder of this Authorization must implement the aerial survey monitoring program detailed in its Marine Mammal Mitigation and Monitoring Plan (4MP). The surveys must commence 5 to 7 days before operations at the exploration well sites get underway. Surveys shall be flown daily throughout operations, weather and flight conditions permitting and shall continue for 5 to 7 days after all activities at the site have ended; and

(c) Acoustic Monitoring:

(i) Field Source Verification: the Holder of this Authorization is required to conduct sound source verification tests for the drilling vessel, support vessels, and the airgun array. Sound source verification shall consist of distances where broadside and endfire directions at which broadband received levels reach 190, 180, 170, 160, and 120 dB re 1 μPa (rms) for all active acoustic sources that may be used during the activities. For the airgun array, the configurations shall include at least the full array and the operation of a single source that will be used during power downs. The test results shall be reported to NMFS within 5 days of completing the test.

(ii) Acoustic Study of Bowhead Deflections: Deploy acoustic recorders at five sites along the bowhead whale migration path in order to record vocalizations of bowhead whales as they pass through the exploration drilling area. This program must be implemented as detailed in the 4MP.

(11) Reporting Requirements: The Holder of this Authorization is required to:

(a) Within 5 days of completing the sound source verification tests for the drillship, support vessels, and the airguns, the Holder shall submit a preliminary report of the results to NMFS. The report should report down to the 120-dB radius in 10-dB increments;

(b) Submit a draft report on all activities and monitoring results to the Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, within 90 days of the completion of the exploration drilling program. This report must contain and summarize the following information:

(i) Summaries of monitoring effort (e.g., total hours, total distances, and marine mammal distribution through the study period, accounting for sea state and other factors affecting visibility and detectability of marine mammals);

(ii) analyses of the effects of various factors influencing detectability of marine mammals (e.g., sea state, number of observers, and fog/glare);

(iii) species composition, occurrence, and distribution of marine mammal sightings, including date, water depth, numbers, age/size/gender categories (if determinable), group sizes, and ice cover;

(iv) sighting rates of marine mammals during periods with and without exploration drilling activities (and other variables that could affect detectability), such as: (A) Initial sighting distances versus drilling state; (B) closest point of approach versus drilling state; (C) observed behaviors and types of movements versus drilling state; (D) numbers of sightings/individuals seen versus drilling state; (E) distribution around the survey vessel versus drilling state; and (F) estimates of take by harassment;

(v) Reported results from all hypothesis tests should include estimates of the associated statistical power when practicable;

(vi) Estimate and report uncertainty in all take estimates. Uncertainty could be expressed by the presentation of confidence limits, a minimum-maximum, posterior probability distribution, etc.; the exact approach would be selected based on the sampling method and data available;

(vii) The report should clearly compare authorized takes to the level of actual estimated takes.

(viii) If, after the independent monitoring plan peer review changes are made to the monitoring program, those changes must be detailed in the report.

(c) The draft report will be subject to review and comment by NMFS. Any recommendations made by NMFS must be addressed in the final report prior to acceptance by NMFS. The draft report will be considered the final report for this activity under this Authorization if NMFS has not provided comments and recommendations within 90 days of receipt of the draft report.

(d) A draft comprehensive report describing the aerial, acoustic, and vessel-based monitoring programs will be prepared and submitted within 240 days of the date of this Authorization. The comprehensive report will describe the methods, results, conclusions and limitations of each of the individual data sets in detail. The report will also integrate (to the extent possible) the studies into a broad based assessment of all industry activities and their impacts on marine mammals in the Arctic Ocean during 2012.

(e) The draft comprehensive report will be subject to review and comment by NMFS, the AEWC, and the NSB Department of Wildlife Management. The draft comprehensive report will be accepted by NMFS as the final comprehensive report upon incorporation of comments and recommendations.

(12)(a) In the unanticipated event that the drilling program operation clearly causes the take of a marine mammal in a manner prohibited by this Authorization, such as an injury (Level A harassment), serious injury or mortality (e.g., ship-strike, gear interaction, and/or entanglement), Shell shall immediately cease operations and immediately report the incident to the Chief of the Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, by phone or email and the Alaska Regional Stranding Coordinators. The report must include the following information: (i) Time, date, and location (latitude/longitude) of the incident; (ii) the name and type of vessel involved; (iii) the vessel's speed during and leading up to the incident; (iv) description of the incident; (v) status of all sound source use in the 24 hours preceding the incident; (vi) water depth; (vii) environmental conditions (e.g., wind speed and direction, Beaufort sea state, cloud cover, and visibility); (viii) description of marine mammal observations in the 24 hours preceding the incident; (ix) species identification or description of the animal(s) involved; (x) the fate of the animal(s); (xi) and photographs or video footage of the animal (if equipment is available).Start Printed Page 69027

Activities shall not resume until NMFS is able to review the circumstances of the prohibited take. NMFS shall work with Shell to determine what is necessary to minimize the likelihood of further prohibited take and ensure MMPA compliance. Shell may not resume their activities until notified by NMFS via letter, email, or telephone.

(b) In the event that Shell discovers an injured or dead marine mammal, and the lead PSO determines that the cause of the injury or death is unknown and the death is relatively recent (i.e., in less than a moderate state of decomposition as described in the next paragraph), Shell will immediately report the incident to the Chief of the Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, by phone or email and the NMFS Alaska Stranding Hotline and/or by email to the Alaska Regional Stranding Coordinators. The report must include the same information identified in Condition 12(a) above. Activities may continue while NMFS reviews the circumstances of the incident. NMFS will work with Shell to determine whether modifications in the activities are appropriate.

(c) In the event that Shell discovers an injured or dead marine mammal, and the lead PSO determines that the injury or death is not associated with or related to the activities authorized in Condition 2 of this Authorization (e.g., previously wounded animal, carcass with moderate to advanced decomposition, or scavenger damage), Shell shall report the incident to the Chief of the Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, by phone or email and the NMFS Alaska Stranding Hotline and/or by email to the Alaska Regional Stranding Coordinators, within 24 hours of the discovery. Shell shall provide photographs or video footage (if available) or other documentation of the stranded animal sighting to NMFS and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Activities may continue while NMFS reviews the circumstances of the incident.

(13) Activities related to the monitoring described in this Authorization do not require a separate scientific research permit issued under section 104 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

(14) The Plan of Cooperation outlining the steps that will be taken to cooperate and communicate with the native communities to ensure the availability of marine mammals for subsistence uses must be implemented.

(15) Shell is required to comply with the Terms and Conditions of the Incidental Take Statement (ITS) corresponding to NMFS's Biological Opinion issued to NMFS's Office of Protected Resources.

(16) A copy of this Authorization and the ITS must be in the possession of all contractors and PSOs operating under the authority of this Incidental Harassment Authorization.

(17) Penalties and Permit Sanctions: Any person who violates any provision of this Incidental Harassment Authorization is subject to civil and criminal penalties, permit sanctions, and forfeiture as authorized under the MMPA.

(18) This Authorization may be modified, suspended or withdrawn if the Holder fails to abide by the conditions prescribed herein or if the authorized taking is having more than a negligible impact on the species or stock of affected marine mammals, or if there is an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of such species or stocks for subsistence uses.

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

There is one marine mammal species listed as endangered under the ESA with confirmed or possible occurrence in the proposed project area: the bowhead whale. NMFS' Permits and Conservation Division will initiate consultation with NMFS' Endangered Species Division under section 7 of the ESA on the issuance of an IHA to Shell under section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA for this activity. Consultation will be concluded prior to a determination on the issuance of an IHA.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

NMFS is currently preparing an Environmental Assessment (EA), pursuant to NEPA, to determine whether the issuance of an IHA to Shell for its 2012 drilling activities may have a significant impact on the human environment. NMFS expects to release a draft of the EA for public comment, and will inform the public, through the Federal Register and posting on our Web site, once a draft is available (see ADDRESSES).

Request for Public Comment

As noted above, NMFS requests comment on our analysis, the draft authorization, and any other aspect of the Notice of Proposed IHA for Shell's 2012 Beaufort Sea exploratory drilling program. Please include, with your comments, any supporting data or literature citations to help inform our final decision on Shell's request for an MMPA authorization.

Start Signature

Dated: October 31, 2011.

James H. Lecky,

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

End Signature End Supplemental Information

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BILLING CODE 3510-22-C

[FR Doc. 2011-28641 Filed 11-4-11; 8:45 am]

BILLING CODE 3510-22-P