Skip to Content

Notice

Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; St. George Reef Light Station Restoration and Maintenance at Northwest Seal Rock, Del Norte County, California

Document Details

Information about this document as published in the Federal Register.

Published Document

This document has been published in the Federal Register. Use the PDF linked in the document sidebar for the official electronic format.

Start Preamble

AGENCY:

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

ACTION:

Notice; proposed incidental harassment authorization; request for comments.

SUMMARY:

NMFS has received an application from the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society (Society), for an Incidental Harassment Authorization (Authorization) to take marine mammals, by harassment incidental to conducting aircraft operations, lighthouse renovation, and light maintenance activities on the St. George Reef Light Station on Northwest Seal Rock (NWSR) in the northeast Pacific Ocean. The proposed dates for this action would be April 2014 through March 2015. Per the Marine Mammal Protection Act, we are requesting comments on our proposal to issue an Authorization to the Society to incidentally take, by Level B harassment only, marine mammals during the specified activity.

DATES:

Comments and information must be received on or before March 20, 2014.

ADDRESSES:

Comments on the application should be addressed to Jolie Harrison, Supervisor, Incidental Take Program, 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.Cody@noaa.gov. Please include 0648-XD087 in the subject line. Comments sent via email to ITP.Cody@noaa.gov, including all attachments, must not exceed a 25-megabyte file size. NMFS is not responsible for email comments sent to other addresses other than the one provided here.

Instructions: All submitted comments are a part of the public record and will generally be posted to http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​pr/​permits/​incidental.htm#applications 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.

To obtain an electronic copy of the application containing a list of the references used in this document, write to the previously mentioned address, telephone the contact listed here (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT), or visit the internet at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​pr/​permits/​incidental.htm#applications.

The Environmental Assessment (EA) specific to conducting aircraft operations, restoration, and maintenance work on the light station is also available at the same internet address. Information in the EA and this notice collectively provide the environmental information related to the proposed issuance of the Authorization for public review and comment. The public may also view documents cited in this notice, by appointment, during regular business hours, at the aforementioned address.

Start Further Info

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Jeannine Cody, NMFS, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS (301) 713-8401.

End Further Info End Preamble Start Supplemental Information

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

Section 101(a)(5)(D) of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, as amended (MMPA; 16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.) directs the Secretary of Commerce to allow, upon request, the incidental, but not intentional, taking of small numbers of marine mammals of a species or population stock, by United States citizens who engage in a specified activity (other than commercial fishing) within a specified geographical region if, after notice of a proposed authorization to the public for review and public comment: (1) We make certain findings; and (2) the taking is limited to harassment.

An authorization shall be granted for the incidental taking of small numbers of marine mammals if NMFS finds that the taking will have a negligible impact on the species or stock(s), and will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the species or stock(s) for subsistence uses (where relevant). The authorization must also set forth the permissible methods of taking; other means of effecting the least practicable adverse impact on the species or stock and its habitat; and requirements pertaining to the mitigation, monitoring and reporting of such taking. NMFS has defined “negligible impact” in 50 CFR 216.103 as “an impact resulting from the specified activity that cannot be reasonably expected to, and is not reasonably likely to, adversely affect the species or stock through effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival.”

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

On December 14, 2013, NMFS received an application from the Society requesting that we issue an Authorization for the take of marine mammals, incidental to conducting restoration activities on the St. George Reef Light Station (Station) located on Northwest Seal Rock offshore of Crescent City, California in the northeast Pacific Ocean. NMS determined the application complete and adequate on January 13, 2014.

The Society proposes to conduct aircraft operations, lighthouse renovation, and periodic maintenance on the Station's optical light system on a monthly basis. The proposed activity would occur on a monthly basis over one weekend, April 1 through April 30, 2014 and November 1, 2014, through Start Printed Page 9171February 28, 2015. The following specific aspects of the proposed activities have the potential to take marine mammals: (1) Helicopter landings/takeoffs; (2) noise generated during restoration activities (e.g., painting, plastering, welding, and glazing); (3) maintenance activities (e.g., bulb replacement and automation of the light system); and (4) human presence. Thus, we anticipate that take, by Level B harassment only, of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus); Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina); Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) of the eastern U.S. Stock; and northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) could result from the specified activity.

To date, we have issued four, Authorizations to the Society for the conduct of the same activities from 2010 to 2013 (75 FR 4774, January 29, 2010; 76 FR 10564, February 25, 2011; 77 FR 8811, February 15, 2012; and 79 FR 6179, February 3, 2014). This is the Society's fifth request for an annual Authorization as their last Authorization expired on December 31, 2013.

Description of the Specified Activity

Overview

The Station, listed in the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places, is located on Northwest Seal Rock offshore of Crescent City, California in the northeast Pacific Ocean. The Station, built in 1892, rises 45.7 meters (m) (150 feet (ft)) above sea level. The structure consists of hundreds of granite blocks topped with a cast iron lantern room and covers much of the surface of the islet. The purpose of the project is to restore the lighthouse and to conduct annual and emergency maintenance on the Station's optical light system.

Dates and Duration

The Society proposes to conduct the activities (aircraft operations, lighthouse restoration, and maintenance activities) from the period of April 1, 2014 through March 31, 2015, at a maximum frequency of one session per month. The proposed duration for each session would last no more than three days (e.g., Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). The proposed Authorization, if issued, would be effective from April 1, 2014 through April 30, 2014 and November 1, 2014, through March 31, 2015.

We refer the reader to the Detailed Description of Activities section later in this notice for more information on the scope of the proposed activities.

Specified Geographic Region

The Station is located on a small, rocky islet (41°50′24″ N, 124°22′06″ W) approximately nine kilometers (km) (6.0 miles (mi)) in the northeast Pacific Ocean, offshore of Crescent City, California (Latitude: 41°46′48″ N; Longitude: 124°14′11″ W). NWSR is approximately 91.4 m (300 ft) in diameter that peaks at 5.18 m (17 ft) above mean sea level.

Detailed Description of Activities

Aircraft Operations

Because Northwest Seal Rock has no safe landing area for boats, the proposed restoration activities would require the Society to transport personnel and equipment from the California mainland to Northwest Seal Rock by a small helicopter. Helicopter landings take place on top of the engine room (caisson) which is approximately 15 m (48 ft) above the surface of the rocks on Northwest Seal Rock. The Society plans to charter a Raven R44 helicopter, owned and operated by Air Shasta Rotor and Wing, LLC. The Raven R44, which seats three passengers and one pilot, is a compact-sized (1134 kilograms (kg), 2500 pounds (lbs)) helicopter with two-bladed main and tail rotors. Both sets of rotors are fitted with noise-attenuating blade tip caps that would decrease flyover noise.

The Society proposes to transport no more than 15 work crew members and equipment to Northwest Seal Rock for each session and estimates that each session would require no more than 36 helicopter landings/takeoffs per month. During landing, the helicopter would land on the caisson to allow the work crew members to disembark and retrieve their equipment located in a basket attached to the underside of the helicopter. The helicopter would then return to the mainland to pick up additional personnel and equipment.

Proposed schedule: The Society would conduct a maximum of 16 flights (eight arrivals and eight departures) for the first day. The first flight would depart from Crescent City Airport at approximately 9 a.m. for a 6-minute flight to Northwest Seal Rock. The helicopter would land and takeoff immediately after offloading personnel and equipment every 20 minutes (min). The total duration of the first day's aerial operations could last for approximately 3 hours (hrs) and 26 min and would end at approximately 12:34 p.m. Crew members would remain overnight at the Station and would not return to the mainland on the first day.

For the second day, the Society would conduct a maximum of 10 flights (five arrivals and five departures) to transport additional materials on and off the islet. The first flight would depart from Crescent City Airport at 9 a.m. for a 6-minute flight to Northwest Seal Rock. The total duration of the second day's aerial operations could last up to three hours.

For the final day of operations, the Society could conduct a maximum of eight helicopter flights (four arrivals and four departures) to transport the remaining crew members and equipment/material back to the Crescent City Airport. The total duration of the third day's helicopter operations in support of restoration could last up to 2 hrs and 14 min.

Lighthouse Restoration Activities

Restoration and maintenance activities would involve the removal of peeling paint and plaster, restoration of interior plaster and paint, refurbishing structural and decorative metal, reworking original metal support beams throughout the lantern room and elsewhere, replacing glass as necessary, upgrading the present electrical system; and annual light beacon maintenance.

Light Maintenance Activities

The Society will need to conduct maintenance on the Station's beacon light at least once or up to two times per year within the proposed work window. Scheduled light maintenance activities would coincide with lighthouse restoration activities conducted monthly during the period of April 1 through April 30, 2014 and during the period of November 1, 2014, through March 31, 2015. The Society expects that maintenance activities would not exceed 3 hrs per each monthly session.

Emergency Light Maintenance

If the beacon light fails during the period from April 1 through April 30, 2014 or November 1, 2014 through March 31, 2015, the Society proposes to send a crew of two to three people to the Station by helicopter to repair the beacon light. For each emergency repair event, the Society proposes to conduct a maximum of four flights (two arrivals and two departures) to transport equipment and supplies. The helicopter may remain on site or transit back to shore and make a second landing to pick up the repair personnel.

In the case of an emergency repair between May 1, 2014, and October 31, 2014, the Society would consult with the NMFS' Western Regional Office (WRO) biologists to best determine the timing of the trips to the lighthouse, on a case-by-case basis, based upon the existing environmental conditions and Start Printed Page 9172the abundance and distribution of any marine mammals present on NWSR. The regional biologists would have real-time knowledge regarding the animal use and abundance of the NWSR at the time of the repair request and would make a decision regarding when the Society could conduct trips to the lighthouse during the emergency repair time window that would have the least practicable adverse impact to marine mammals. The WRO biologists would also ensure that the Society's request for incidental take during emergency repairs would not exceed the number of incidental take authorized in the proposed Authorization. To date, the Society has not needed to conduct emergency light maintenance between May through October under any of the four previous Authorizations.

Sound Sources and Sound Characteristics

NMFS expects that acoustic stimuli resulting from the proposed helicopter operations; noise from maintenance and restoration activities; and human presence have the potential to harass marine mammals, incidental to the conduct of the proposed activities.

This section includes a brief explanation of the sound measurements frequently used in the discussions of acoustic effects in this notice. Sound pressure is the sound force per unit area, and is usually measured in micropascals (μPa), where 1 pascal (Pa) is the pressure resulting from a force of one newton exerted over an area of one square meter. Sound pressure level (SPL) is the ratio of a measured sound pressure and a reference level. The commonly used reference pressure is 1 μPa for under water, and the units for SPLs are dB re: 1 μPa. The commonly used reference pressure is 20 μPa for in air, and the units for SPLs are dB re: 20 μPa.

SPL (in decibels (dB)) = 20 log (pressure/reference pressure).

SPL is an instantaneous measurement expressed as the peak, the peak-peak (p-p), or the root mean square (rms). Root mean square is the square root of the arithmetic average of the squared instantaneous pressure values. All references to SPL in this document refer to the root mean square unless otherwise noted. SPL does not take into account the duration of a sound.

R44 Helicopter Sound Characteristics

Noise testing performed on the R44 Raven Helicopter, as required for Federal Aviation Administration approval, required an overflight at 150 m (492 ft) above ground level, 109 knots and a maximum gross weight of 1,134 kg (2,500 lbs). The noise levels measured on the ground at this distance and speed were 81.9 decibels (dB) re: 20 μPa (A-weighted) for the model R44 Raven I, or 81.0 dB re: 20 μPa (A-weighted) for the model R44 Raven II (NMFS, 2007).

Based on this information, we expect that the received sound levels at the landing area on the Station's caisson would increase above 81-81.9 dB re: 20 μPa (A-weighted).

Restoration and Maintenance Sound Characteristics

Any noise associated with these activities is likely to be from light construction (e.g., sanding, hammering, or use of hand drills). The Society proposes to confine all restoration activities to the existing structure which would occur on the upper levels of the Station. Pinnipeds hauled out on Northwest Seal Rock do not have access to the upper levels of the Station.

Description of Marine Mammals in the Area of the Specified Activity

Table 1 provides the following: All marine mammal species with possible or confirmed occurrence in the proposed activity area; information on those species' regulatory status under the MMPA and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.); abundance; occurrence and seasonality in the activity area.

Table 1—General Information on Marine Mammals That Could Potentially Occur in the Proposed Activity Area

SpeciesStockRegulatory status 1 2Stock abundance 3Occurrence and seasonality
California sea lion (Zalophus californianus)U.S.MMPA—NC ESA—NL296,750Year-round presence.
Northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus)California BreedingMMPA—D ESA—NL9,968Rare.
Pacific harbor seal (Phoca vitulina)CaliforniaMMPA—NC ESA—NL30,196Occasional, spring.
Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus)Eastern Distinct Population SegmentMMPA—D ESA—DL58,334 to 72,223Year-round presence.
1 MMPA: D = Depleted, S = Strategic, NC = Not Classified.
2 ESA: EN = Endangered, T = Threatened, DL = Delisted, NL = Not listed.
3 2013 NMFS Stock Assessment Reports Carretta et al., (2013) and Allen and Angliss (2013).

There are several cetaceans that have the potential to transit in the vicinity of the lighthouse station including the short-beaked common (Delphinus delphis) and the Pacific white-sided (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) dolphin; the blue (Balaenoptera musculus), fin (Balaenoptera physalus), gray (Eschrichtius robustus), humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), killer (Orcinus orca), North Pacific right (Eubalaena japonica), sei (Balaenoptera borealis), and sperm (Physeter macrocephalus) whales; and the Guadalupe fur seal (Arctocephalus townsendi). We will not consider these species further in this notice of a proposed Incidental Harassment Authorization because these are unlikely or rare in the nearshore environment of NWSR and the Society's operations would not likely affect these species—as the bulk of the their activities occur on the Station's caisson.

California (southern) sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis), listed as threatened under the ESA and categorized as depleted under the MMPA, usually range in coastal waters within two km (1.2 mi) of the mainland shore. Neither CCR nor the Society has encountered California sea otters on Northwest Seal Rock during the course of the four-year wildlife study (CCR, 2001) nor has the Society encountered the species during the course of the previous three Authorizations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages the sea otter and we will not consider this species further in this notice of a proposed Authorization.Start Printed Page 9173

The marine mammals most likely to be harassed incidental to the Society's helicopter operations, lighthouse restoration, and lighthouse maintenance on Northwest Seal Rock are primarily Steller and California sea lions and to a lesser extent the Pacific harbor seal and the eastern Pacific stock of northern fur seal. We refer the public to Carretta et al., (2013) and Allen and Angliss (2013) for general information on these species which we present in this notice. The publications are available at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​pr/​sars/​region.htm. We present a summary of information on these species below this section.

California Sea Lion

The California sea lion is now a full species, separated from the Galapagos sea lion (Z. wollebaeki) and the extinct Japanese sea lion (Z. japonicus) (Brunner 2003, Wolf et al., 2007, Schramm et al., 2009). The estimated population of the U.S. stock of California sea lion is approximately 296,750 animals and the current maximum population growth rate is 12 percent (Carretta et al., 2013).

California sea lion breeding areas are on islands located in southern California, in western Baja California, Mexico, and the Gulf of California. During the breeding season, most California sea lions inhabit southern California and Mexico. Rookery sites in southern California are limited to the San Miguel Islands and the southerly Channel Islands of San Nicolas, Santa Barbara, and San Clemente (Carretta et al., 2013). Males establish breeding territories during May through July on both land and in the water. Females come ashore in mid-May and June where they give birth to a single pup approximately four to five days after arrival and will nurse pups for about a week before going on their first feeding trip. Females will alternate feeding trips with nursing bouts until weaning between four and 10 months of age (NMML, 2010).

Adult and juvenile males will migrate as far north as British Columbia, Canada while females and pups remain in southern California waters in the non-breeding season. In warm water (El Niño) years, some females range as far north as Washington and Oregon, presumably following prey.

Crescent Coastal Research (CCR) conducted a three-year (1998-2000) survey of the wildlife species on NWSR for the Society. They reported that counts of California sea lions on NWSR varied greatly (from six to 541) during the observation period from April 1997 through July 2000. CCR reported that counts for California sea lions during the spring (April—May), summer (June-August), and fall (September-October), averaged 60, 154, and 235, respectively (CCR, 2001).

The most current counts for the month of July by NMFS (2000 through 2004) have been relatively low as the total number of California sea lions recorded in 2000 and 2003 was 3 and 11, respectively (M. Lowry, NMFS, SWFSC, unpublished data). Based on the monitoring report for the 2011 season, the maximum numbers of California sea lions present during the April and November, 2011 work sessions was 2 and 90 animals, respectively (SGRLPS, 2012). There were no California sea lions present during the March, 2012 work session (SGRLPS, 2012).

Northern Fur Seal

Northern fur seals occur from southern California north to the Bering Sea and west to the Sea of Okhotsk and Honshu Island of Japan. NMFS recognizes two separate stocks of northern fur seals within U.S. waters: An Eastern Pacific stock distributed among sites in Alaska, British Columbia; and a San Miguel Island stock distributed along the west coast of the continental U.S. The estimated population of the San Miguel Island stock is 9,968 animals with a maximum population growth rate of 12 percent (Carretta et al., 2013).

Northern fur seals may temporarily haul out on land at other sites in Alaska, British Columbia, and on islets along the west coast of the continental United States, but generally this occurs outside of the breeding season (Fiscus, 1983).

Northern fur seals breed in Alaska and migrate along the west coast during fall and winter. Due to their pelagic habitat, they are rarely seen from shore in the continental U.S., but individuals occasionally come ashore on islands well offshore (i.e., Farallon Islands and Channel Islands in California). During the breeding season, approximately 74 percent of the worldwide population inhabits the Pribilof Islands in Alaska, with the remaining animals spread throughout the North Pacific Ocean (Lander and Kajimura, 1982).

CCR observed one male northern fur seal on Northwest Seal Rock in October, 1998 (CCR, 2001). It is possible that a few animals may use the island more often that indicated by the CCR surveys, if they were mistaken for other otariid species (i.e., eared seals or fur seals and sea lions) (M. DeAngelis, NMFS, pers. comm.).

For the 2010, 2011, and 2012 work seasons, the Society has not observed any northern fur seals present on Northwest Seal Rock during restoration activities (SGRLPS, 2010; 2011; 2012). The Society did not conduct any operations for the 2013 season.

Pacific Harbor Seal

The estimated population of the California stock of Pacific harbor seals is approximately 30,196 animals (Carretta et al., 2013). There is no current estimate of abundance available for the Oregon/Washington stock (Carretta et al., 2013).

The animals inhabit near-shore coastal and estuarine areas from Baja California, Mexico, to the Pribilof Islands in Alaska. Pacific harbor seals consist of two subspecies: P. v. stejnegeri in the western North Pacific, near Japan, and P. v. richardsi in the northeast Pacific Ocean. The latter subspecies, recognized as three separate stocks, inhabits the west coast of the continental United States, including: The outer coastal waters of Oregon and Washington states; Washington state inland waters; and Alaska coastal and inland waters. Two of these stocks, the California stock and Oregon/Washington coast stock, of Pacific harbor seals are identified off the coast of Oregon and California for management purposes under the MMPA. However, the stock boundary is difficult to distinguish because of the continuous distribution of harbor seals along the west coast and any rigid boundary line is (to a greater or lesser extent) arbitrary, from a biological perspective (Carretta et al., 2011). Due to the location of the proposed project which is situated near the border of Oregon and California, both stocks could be present within the proposed project area.

In California, over 500 harbor seal haulout sites are widely distributed along the mainland and offshore islands, and include rocky shores, beaches and intertidal sandbars (Lowry et al., 2005). Harbor seals mate at sea and females give birth during the spring and summer, although, the pupping season varies with latitude. Females nurse their pups for an average of 24 days and are ready to swim minutes after being born. Harbor seal pupping takes place at many locations and rookery size varies from a few pups to many hundreds of pups. The nearest harbor seal rookery relative to the proposed project site is at Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge, located approximately located 965 m (0.6 mi) south of Point St. George, and 2.4 km (1.5 mi) north of the Crescent City Harbor in Del Norte County, California (USFWS, 2007).Start Printed Page 9174

CCR noted that harbor seal use of Northwest Seal Rock was minimal, with only one sighting of a group of six animals, during 20 observation surveys. They hypothesized that harbor seals may avoid the islet because of its distance from shore, relatively steep topography, and full exposure to rough and frequently turbulent sea swells. For the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the Society did not observe any Pacific harbor seals present on Northwest Seal Rock during restoration activities (SGRLPS, 2010; 2011). During the 2012 season, the Society reported sighting a total of two harbor seals present on Northwest Seal Rock (SGRLPS, 2012). The Society did not conduct any operations for the 2013 season.

Steller Sea Lion

Steller sea lions consist of two distinct population segments: the western and eastern distinct population segments (DPS) divided at 144° West longitude (Cape Suckling, Alaska). The western segment of Steller sea lions inhabit central and western Gulf of Alaska, Aleutian Islands, as well as coastal waters and breed in Asia (e.g., Japan and Russia). The eastern segment includes sea lions living in southeast Alaska, British Columbia, California, and Oregon.

Steller sea lions range along the North Pacific Rim from northern Japan to California (Loughlin et al., 1984), with centers of abundance and distribution in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands, respectively. The species is not known to migrate, but individuals disperse widely outside of the breeding season (late May through early July), thus potentially intermixing with animals from other areas.

In 2012, the estimated population of the eastern distinct population segment ranged from a minimum of 58,334 up to 72,223 animals and the maximum population growth rate is 12 percent (Allen and Angliss, 2013). On October 23, 2013 NMFS announced the removal of the eastern distinct population segment of Steller sea lions from the list of threatened species under the ESA. As of December 4, 2013 the eastern DPS is not a threatened species listed under the ESA. With the delisting, federal agencies proposing actions that may affect the eastern Steller sea lions are no longer required to consult with NMFS under section 7 of the ESA.

The eastern distinct population segment of Steller sea lions breeds on rookeries located in southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, and California. There are no rookeries located in Washington state. Steller sea lions give birth in May through July and breeding commences a couple of weeks after birth. Pups are weaned during the winter and spring of the following year.

Despite the wide-ranging movements of juveniles and adult males in particular, exchange between rookeries by breeding adult females and males (other than between adjoining rookeries) appears low, although males have a higher tendency to disperse than females (NMFS, 1995; Trujillo et al., 2004; Hoffman et al., 2006). A northward shift in the overall breeding distribution has occurred, with a contraction of the range in southern California and new rookeries established in southeastern Alaska (Pitcher et al., 2007). Overall, counts of non-pups at trend sites in California and Oregon have been relatively stable or increasing slowly since the 1980s (Allen and Angliss, 2012).

CCR reported that Steller sea lion numbers at Northwest Seal Rock ranged from 20 to 355 animals. Counts of Steller sea lions during the spring (April—May), summer (June-August), and fall (September-October), averaged 68, 110, and 56, respectively (CCR, 2001). A more recent survey at NWSR between 2000 and 2004 showed Steller sea lion numbers ranged from 175 to 354 in July (M. Lowry, NMFS/SWFSC, unpubl. data). The Society presumes that winter use of NWSR by Steller sea lion to be minimal, due to inundation of the natural portion of the island by large swells.

For the 2010 season, the Society reported that no Steller sea lions were present in the vicinity of Northwest Seal Rock during restoration activities (SGRLPS, 2010). Based on the monitoring report for the 2011 season, the maximum numbers of Steller sea lions present during the April and November 2011, work sessions was 2 and 150 animals, respectively (SGRLPS, 2012). During the 2012 season, the Society did not observe any Steller sea lions present on Northwest Seal Rock during restoration activities. The Society did not conduct any operations for the 2013 season.

Potential Effects of the Specified Activities on Marine Mammals

This section includes a summary and discussion of the ways that the types of stressors associated with the specified activity (e.g., aircraft operations and human presence) have the potential to impact marine mammals. This discussion may also include reactions that we consider to rise to the level of a take and those that we do not consider to rise to the level of a take (e.g., with acoustics, we may include a discussion of studies that show animals not reacting to sound or animals exhibiting barely perceptible avoidance behaviors). We also intend this section to provide a background of potential effects of the Society's activities. This section does not consider the specific manner in which the Society would carry out the proposed activity, what mitigation measures the Society would implement, and how either of those would shape the anticipated impacts from this specific activity. The “Estimated Take by Incidental Harassment” section later in this document will include a quantitative analysis of the number of individuals that we expect the Society to take during this activity. The “Negligible Impact Analysis” section will include the analysis of how this specific activity would impact marine mammals. We will consider the content of the following sections: (1) Negligible Impact Analysis; (2) Estimated Take by Incidental Harassment; (3) Proposed Mitigation; and (4) Anticipated Effects on Marine Mammal Habitat, to draw conclusions regarding the likely impacts of the Society's activities on the reproductive success or survivorship of individuals—and from that consideration—the likely impacts of this activity on the affected marine mammal populations or stocks.

Acoustic Impacts

Acoustic and visual stimuli generated by: (1) Helicopter landings/takeoffs; (2) noise generated during restoration activities (e.g., painting, plastering, welding, and glazing); and (3) maintenance activities (e.g., bulb replacement and automation of the light system) may have the potential to cause the following: temporary or permanent hearing impairment and/or behavioral disturbance (Southall, et al., 2007).

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 and current data indicate that not all marine mammal species have equal hearing capabilities (Richardson et al., 1995; Wartzok and Ketten, 1999). Southall et al. (2007) designated “functional hearing groups” for marine mammals based on available behavioral data; audiograms derived from auditory evoked potentials; anatomical modeling; and other data. Southall et al. (2007) also estimated the lower and upper frequencies of functional hearing for each group as animals are less sensitive to sounds at the lower and upper frequency limits of their functional hearing range and are more sensitive to a range of frequencies Start Printed Page 9175within the middle of their functional hearing range.

The functional groups and the associated frequencies are:

  • Low frequency cetaceans (13 species of mysticetes): functional hearing estimates occur between approximately 7 Hertz (Hz) and 30 kHz (extended from 22 kHz based on data indicating that some mysticetes can hear above 22 kHz; Au et al., 2006; Lucifredi and Stein, 2007; Ketten and Mountain, 2009; Tubelli et al., 2012);
  • Mid-frequency cetaceans (32 species of dolphins, six species of larger toothed whales, and 19 species of beaked and bottlenose whales): functional hearing estimates 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 estimates occur between approximately 200 Hz and 180 kHz; and
  • Pinnipeds in water: functional hearing estimates occur between approximately 75 Hz and 100 kHz, with the greatest sensitivity between approximately 700 Hz and 20 kHz.

As mentioned previously in this document, four marine mammal species would likely occur in the proposed action area. All are pinnipeds and fall under the Pinnipeds in water functional hearing group category. We consider a species' functional hearing group when we analyze the effects of exposure to sound on marine mammals.

Helicopter Noise

Marine mammals produce sounds in various important contexts—social interactions, foraging, navigating, and to responding to predators. The best available science suggests that pinnipeds have a functional aerial hearing sensitivity between 75 hertz (Hz) and 75 kilohertz (kHz) and can produce a diversity of sounds, though generally from 100 Hz to several tens of kHz (Southall, et al., 2007).

Exposure to high intensity sound for a sufficient duration may result in auditory effects such as a noise-induced threshold shift—an increase in the auditory threshold after exposure to noise (Finneran, Carder, Schlundt, and Ridgway, 2005). Factors that influence the amount of threshold shift include the amplitude, duration, frequency content, temporal pattern, and energy distribution of noise exposure. The magnitude of hearing threshold shift normally decreases over time following cessation of the noise exposure. The amount of threshold shift just after exposure is called the initial threshold shift. If the threshold shift eventually returns to zero (i.e., the threshold returns to the pre-exposure value), it is called temporary threshold shift (TTS) (Southall et al., 2007).

Pinnipeds have the potential to be disturbed by airborne and underwater noise generated by the engine of the aircraft (Born, Riget, Dietz, & Andriashek, 1999; Richardson, Greene, Malme, & Thomson, 1995). Data on underwater TTS-onset in pinnipeds exposed to pulses are limited to a single study which exposed two California sea lions to single underwater pulses from an arc-gap transducer and found no measurable TTS following exposures up to 183 dB re: 1 μPa (peak-to-peak) (Finneran, Dear, Carder, & Ridgway, 2003).

Researchers have demonstrated TTS in certain captive odontocetes and pinnipeds exposed to strong sounds (reviewed in Southall et al., 2007). In 2004, researchers measured auditory fatigue to airborne sound in harbor seals, California sea lions, and northern elephant seals after exposure to non-pulse noise for 25 minutes (Kastak, Southall, Holt, Kastak, & Schusterman, 2004). In the study, the harbor seal experienced approximately 6 dB of TTS at 99 dB re: 20 μPa. The authors identified onset of TTS in the California sea lion at 122 dB re: 20 μPa. The northern elephant seal experienced TTS-onset at 121 dB re: 20 μPa (Kastak, et al., 2004).

There is a dearth of information on acoustic effects of helicopter overflights on pinniped hearing and communication (Richardson, et al., 1995) and to NMFS' knowledge, there has been no specific documentation of TTS, let alone permanent threshold shift (PTS), in free-ranging pinnipeds exposed to helicopter operations during realistic field conditions (Baker, Jensz, & Chilvers, 2012; Scheidat et al., 2011).

In 2008, we issued an Authorization to the USFWS for the take of small numbers of Steller sea lions and Pacific harbor seals, incidental to rodent eradication activities on an islet offshore of Rat Island, AK conducted by helicopter. The 15-minute aerial treatment consisted of the helicopter slowly approaching the islet at an elevation of over 1,000 feet (304.8 m); gradually decreasing altitude in slow circles; and applying the rodenticide in a single pass and returning to Rat Island. The gradual and deliberate approach to the islet resulted in the sea lions present initially becoming aware of the helicopter and calmly moving into the water. Further, the USFWS reported that all responses fell well within the range of Level B harassment (i.e., alert head raises without moving or limited, short-term displacement resulting from aircraft noise due to helicopter overflights).

As a general statement from the available information, pinnipeds exposed to intense (approximately 110 to 120 dB re: 20 μPa) non-pulse sounds often leave haulout areas and seek refuge temporarily (minutes to a few hours) in the water (Southall et al., 2007). Any noise attributed to the Society's proposed helicopter operations on NWSR would be short-term (approximately 5 min per trip). We would expect the ambient noise levels to return to a baseline state when helicopter operations have ceased for the day. Per Richardson et al. (1995), approaching aircraft generally flush animals into the water and noise from a helicopter is typically directed down in a “cone” underneath the aircraft. As the helicopter landings take place 15 m (48 ft) above the surface of the rocks on NWSR, we presume that the received sound levels would increase above 81-81.9 dB re: 20 μPa (A-weighted) at the landing pad. However, we do not expect that the increased received levels of sound from the helicopter would cause TTS or PTS because the pinnipeds would flush before the helicopter approached NWSR; thus increasing the distance between the pinnipeds and the received sound levels on NWSR during the proposed action.

Visual Disturbance

There is increasing recognition that the effect of human disturbance wildlife is highly dependent on the nature of the disturbance (Burger et al., 1995; Klein et al., 1995; and Kucey, 2005). Disturbances resulting from human activity can impact short- and long-term pinniped haul out behavior (Renouf et al., 1981; Schneider and Payne, 1983; Terhune and Almon, 1983; Allen et al., 1984; Stewart, 1984; Suryan and Harvey, 1999; Mortenson et al., 2000; and Kucey and Trites, 2006). The apparent skittishness of both harbor seals and Steller sea lions raises concerns regarding behavioral and physiological impacts to individuals and populations experiencing high levels of human disturbance. Human activity can flush harbor seals off haul out sites (Allen et al., 1984; Calambokidis et al., 1991; Suryan and Harvey, 1999; Mortenson et al., 2000).

The Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) may avoid beaches disturbed by humans (Kenyon, 1972). Stevens and Boness (2003) concluded that after the 1997-98 El Niño, when populations of the South American fur Start Printed Page 9176seal, Arctocephalus australis, in Peru declined dramatically, seals abandoned some of their former primary breeding sites, but continued to breed at adjacent beaches that were more rugged (i.e., less likely to be used by humans). Abandoned and unused sites were more likely to have human disturbance than currently used sites. In one case, human disturbance appeared to cause Steller sea lions to desert a breeding area at Northeast Point on St. Paul Island, Alaska (Kenyon, 1962).

It is likely that the initial helicopter approach to the Station would cause a subset, or all of the marine mammals hauled out on NWSR to depart the rock and flush into the water. The physical presence of aircraft could also lead to non-auditory effects on marine mammals involving visual or other cues. Airborne sound from a low-flying helicopter or airplane may be heard by marine mammals while at the surface or underwater. In general, helicopters tend to be noisier than fixed wing aircraft of similar size and underwater sounds from aircraft are strongest just below the surface and directly under the aircraft. Noise from aircraft would not be expected to cause direct physical effects but have the potential to affect behavior. The primary factor that may influence abrupt movements of animals is engine noise, specifically changes in engine noise. Responses by mammals could include hasty dives or turns, change in course, or flushing and stampeding from a haul out site. There are few well documented studies of the impacts of aircraft overflight over pinniped haul out sites or rookeries, and many of those that exist, are specific to military activities (Efroymson et al., 2001).

Several factors complicate the analysis of long- and short-term effects for aircraft overflights. Information on behavioral effects of overflights by military aircraft (or component stressors) on most wildlife species is sparse. Moreover, models that relate behavioral changes to abundance or reproduction, and those that relate behavioral or hearing effects thresholds from one population to another are generally not available. In addition, the aggregation of sound frequencies, durations, and the view of the aircraft into a single exposure metric is not always the best predictor of effects and it may also be difficult to calculate. Overall, there has been no indication that single or occasional aircraft flying above pinnipeds in water cause long term displacement of these animals (Richardson et al., 1995). The Lowest Observed Adverse Effects Levels (LOAELs) are rather variable for pinnipeds on land, ranging from just over 150 m (492 ft) to about 2,000 m (6,562 ft) (Efroymson et al., 2001). A conservative (90th percentile) distance effects level is 1,150 m (3,773 ft). Most thresholds represent movement away from the overflight. Bowles and Stewart (1980) estimated an LOAEL of 305 m (1,000 ft) for helicopters (low and landing) in California sea lions and harbor seals observed on San Miguel Island, CA; animals responded to some degree by moving within the haul out and entering into the water, stampeding into the water, or clearing the haul out completely. Both species always responded with the raising of their heads. California sea lions appeared to react more to the visual cue of the helicopter than the noise.

If pinnipeds are present on NWSR, it is likely that a helicopter landing at the Station would cause some number of the pinnipeds on NWSR to flush; however, when present, they appear to show rapid habituation to helicopter landing and departure (Crescent Coastal Research, 2001; Guy Towers, SGRLPS, pers. com.). According to the CCR Report (2001), while up to 40 percent of the California and Steller sea lions present on the rock have been observed to enter the water on the first of a series of helicopter landings, as few as zero percent have flushed on subsequent landings on the same date. In fact, the Society reported that during the November 2011 work session, Steller sea lions and California sea lions exhibited minimal ingress and egress from Northwest Seal Rock during helicopter approaches and departures (SGRLPS, 2011).

If pinnipeds are present on NWSR, Level B behavioral harassment of pinnipeds may occur during helicopter landing and takeoff from NWSR due to the pinnipeds temporarily moving from the rocks and lower structure of the Station into the sea due to the noise and appearance of helicopter during approaches and departures. It is expected that all or a portion of the marine mammals hauled out on the island will depart the rock and move into the water upon initial helicopter approaches. The movement to the water would be gradual due to the required controlled helicopter approaches (see Proposed Mitigation section), the small size of the aircraft, the use of noise-attenuating blade tip caps on the rotors, and behavioral habituation on the part of the animals as helicopter trips continue throughout the day. During the sessions of helicopter activity, if present on NWSR, some animals may be temporarily displaced from the island and either raft in the water or relocate to other haul-outs.

Sea lions have shown habituation to helicopter flights within a day at the project site and most animals are expected to return soon after helicopter activities cease for that day. By clustering helicopter arrival/departures within a short time period, we expect animals present to show less response to subsequent landings. We anticipate no impact on the population size or breeding stock of Steller sea lions, California sea lions, Pacific harbor seals, or northern fur seals.

Restoration and maintenance activities would involve the removal of peeling paint and plaster, restoration of interior plaster and paint, refurbishing structural and decorative metal, reworking original metal support beams throughout the lantern room and elsewhere, replacing glass as necessary, upgrading the present electrical system; and annual light beacon maintenance. Any noise associated with these activities is likely to be from light construction (e.g., sanding, hammering, or use of hand drills) and the pinnipeds may be disturbed by human presence. Animals respond to disturbance from humans in the same way as they respond to the risk of predation, by avoiding areas of high risk, either completely or by using them for limited periods (Gill et al., 1996).

Stampede

Sudden movement of large numbers of animals may cause a stampede. In order to prevent such stampedes from occurring within the sea lion colony, we would require certain mitigation requirements and restrictions, such as controlled helicopter approaches and limited access period during the pupping season, should we issue an Authorization. As such, and because any pinnipeds nearby likely would avoid the approaching helicopter, the Society anticipates that there will be no instances of injury or mortality during the proposed project.

Anticipated Effects on Marine Mammal Habitat

NMFS does not expect that the proposed activity would have any effects on marine mammal habitat. Based on previous monitoring reports and anecdotal observations, up to 315 animals could use the small, rocky base at the base of the Station as a haulout site. The Society proposes to confine all restoration activities to the existing structure which would occur on the upper levels of the Station which are not used by marine mammals. Thus, NMFS expects that there will be no long- or short-term physical impacts to pinniped habitat on NWSR.Start Printed Page 9177

The Society would remove all waste, discarded materials and equipment from the island after each visit. The proposed activities will not result in any permanent impact on habitats used by marine mammals, including prey species and foraging habitat. The main impact associated with the proposed activity will be temporarily elevated noise levels and the associated direct effects on marine mammals (i.e., the potential for temporary abandonment of the site), previously discussed in this notice.

Proposed Mitigation

In order to issue an incidental take authorization under section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA, NMFS must set forth the permissible methods of taking pursuant to such activity, and other means of effecting the least practicable adverse 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).

As a way to reduce or minimize adverse impacts that would result from the proposed project to the lowest level practicable, NMFS proposes to require the following mitigation measures.

Time and Frequency: The Society would conduct restoration activities at maximum of once per month between April 1 through April 30, 2014 and November 1, 2014, through March 31, 2015. Each restoration session would last no more than three days. Maintenance of the light beacon would occur only in conjunction with restoration activities.

Helicopter Approach and Timing Techniques: The Society would ensure that its helicopter approach patterns to the Station and timing techniques do not disturb marine mammals as most practicable. To the extent possible, the helicopter should approach NWSR when the tide is too high for the marine mammals to haul-out on NWSR.

Since the most severe impacts (stampede) precede rapid and direct helicopter approaches, the Society's initial approach to the Station must be offshore from the island at a relatively high altitude (e.g., 800-1,000 ft, or 244-305 m). Before the final approach, the helicopter shall circle lower, and approach from area with the lowest pinniped density. If for any safety reasons (e.g., wind condition) the Society cannot conduct these types of helicopter approach and timing techniques, they must abort the restoration and maintenance activities for that day.

Avoidance of Visual and Acoustic Contact with People on Island: The Society would instruct its members and restoration crews to avoid making unnecessary noise and not expose themselves visually to pinnipeds around the base of the Station. Although CCR reported no impacts from these activities in the 2001 CCR study, it is relatively simple for the Society to avoid this potential impact. The door to the lower platform (which is used at times by pinnipeds) shall remain closed and barricaded to all tourists and other personnel.

Mitigation Conclusions

NMFS has carefully evaluated the Society's proposed mitigation measures in the context of ensuring that we prescribe 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.

Any mitigation measure(s) prescribed by us should be able to accomplish, have a reasonable likelihood of accomplishing (based on current science), or contribute to the accomplishment of one or more of the general goals listed here:

1. Avoidance or minimization of injury or death of marine mammals wherever possible (goals 2, 3, and 4 may contribute to this goal).

2. A reduction in the numbers of marine mammals (total number or number at biologically important time or location) exposed to helicopter operations and human presence that we expect to result in the take of marine mammals (this goal may contribute to 1, above, or to reducing harassment takes only).

3. A reduction in the number of times (total number or number at biologically important time or location) individuals would be exposed to helicopter operations or human presence that we expect to result in the take of marine mammals (this goal may contribute to 1, above, or to reducing harassment takes only).

4. A reduction in the intensity of exposures (either total number or number at biologically important time or location) to to helicopter operations or human presence that we expect to result in the take of marine mammals (this goal may contribute to a, above, or to reducing the severity of harassment takes only).

5. Avoidance or minimization of adverse effects to marine mammal habitat, paying special attention to the food base, activities that block or limit passage to or from biologically important areas, permanent destruction of habitat, or temporary destruction/disturbance of habitat during a biologically important time.

6. For monitoring directly related to mitigation—an increase in the probability of detecting marine mammals, thus allowing for more effective implementation of the mitigation.

Based on the evaluation of the Society's proposed measures, as well as other measures considered by us, NMFS preliminarily determined that the proposed mitigation measures provide the means of effecting the least practicable impact on marine mammal species or stocks and their habitat, paying particular attention to rookeries, mating grounds, and areas of similar significance.

Summary of Previous Monitoring

The Society complied with the mitigation and monitoring required under the previous authorizations (2010-2013). They did not conduct any operations for the 2013 season. However, in compliance with the 2012 Authorization, the Society submitted a final report on the activities at the Station, covering the period of February 15, 2012 through April 30, 2012. During the effective dates of the 2012 IHA, the Society conducted one work session in March, 2012. The Society's aircraft operations and restoration activities on NWSR did not exceed the activity levels analyzed under the 2012 authorization. During the March 2012 work session, the Society observed two harbor seals hauled out on Northwest Seal Rock. Both animals (a juvenile and an adult) departed the rock, entered the water, and did not return to the Station during the duration of the activities.

Proposed Monitoring

In order to issue an ITA for an activity, section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA states that NMFS must 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 Authorizations must include the suggested means of accomplishing the necessary monitoring Start Printed Page 9178and reporting that will result in increased knowledge of the species and of the level of taking or impacts on populations of marine mammals that we expect to be present in the proposed action area.

Monitoring measures prescribed by us should accomplish one or more of the following general goals:

1. An increase in the probability of detecting marine mammals, both within the mitigation zone (thus allowing for more effective implementation of the mitigation) and during other times and locations, in order to generate more data to contribute to the analyses mentioned later;

2. An increase in our understanding of how many marine mammals would be affected by helicopter operations and human presence and the likelihood of associating those exposures with specific adverse effects, such as behavioral harassment, temporary or permanent threshold shift;

3. An increase in our understanding of how marine mammals respond to stimuli that we expect to result in take and how those anticipated adverse effects on individuals (in different ways and to varying degrees) may impact the population, species, or stock (specifically through effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival) through any of the following methods:

a. Behavioral observations in the presence of stimuli compared to observations in the absence of stimuli (i.e., we need to be able to accurately predict received level, distance from source, and other pertinent information);

b. Physiological measurements in the presence of stimuli compared to observations in the absence of stimuli (i.e., we need to be able to accurately predict received level, distance from source, and other pertinent information);

c. Distribution and/or abundance comparisons in times or areas with concentrated stimuli versus times or areas without stimuli;

4. An increased knowledge of the affected species; and

5. An increase in our understanding of the effectiveness of certain mitigation and monitoring measures.

Proposed Monitoring Measures: At least once during the period between April 1 through April 30, 2014 and November 1, 2014 through March 31, 2015, a qualified biologist shall be present during all three workdays at the Station. The qualified biologist hired will be subject to approval by us and they shall document use of the island by the pinnipeds, frequency, (i.e., dates, time, tidal height, species, numbers present, and any disturbances), and note any responses to potential disturbances.

Aerial photographic surveys may provide the most accurate means of documenting species composition, age and sex class of pinnipeds using the project site during human activity periods. The Society should complete aerial photo coverage of the island from the same helicopter used to transport the Society's personnel to the island during restoration trips. The Society would take photographs of all marine mammals hauled out on the island at an altitude greater than 300 m (984 ft) by a skilled photographer, prior to the first landing on each visit included in the monitoring program. Photographic documentation of marine mammals present at the end of each three-day work session shall also be made for a before and after comparison. These photographs will be forwarded to a biologist capable of discerning marine mammal species. Data shall be provided to us in the form of a report with a data table, any other significant observations related to marine mammals, and a report of restoration activities (see Reporting). The original photographs can be made available to us or other marine mammal experts for inspection and further analysis.

Proposed Reporting

The Society will submit a draft Monitoring Report to us no later than 90 days after they complete the project to the NMFS Director of Office of Protected Resources. Within 30 days after receiving comments from us on the draft Final Monitoring Report, the Society must submit a Final Monitoring Report to the NMFS Director of Office of Protected Resources. If the Society receives no comments from us on the draft Monitoring Report, then NMFS will consider the draft Monitoring Report to be the Final Monitoring Report.

The final report will provide:

(i) A summary and table of the dates, times, and weather during all helicopter operations, and restoration and maintenance activities.

(ii) Species, number, location, and behavior of any marine mammals, observed throughout all monitoring activities.

(iii) An estimate of the number (by species) of marine mammals that are known to have been exposed to acoustic stimuli associated with the helicopter operations, restoration and maintenance activities.

(iv) A description of the implementation and effectiveness of the monitoring and mitigation measures of the IHA and full documentation of methods, results, and interpretation pertaining to all monitoring.

In the unanticipated event that the specified activity clearly causes the take of a marine mammal in a manner prohibited by the authorization (if issued), such as an injury (Level A harassment), serious injury, or mortality (e.g., vessel-strike, stampede, etc.), the Society shall immediately cease the specified activities and immediately report the incident to the Incidental Take Program Supervisor, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, at 301-427-8401 and/or by email to Jolie.Harrison@noaa.gov and ITP.Cody@noaa.gov and the Assistant Western Regional Stranding Coordinator at (562) 980-3264 (Justin.Greenman@noaa.gov). The report must include the following information:

  • Time, date, and location (latitude/longitude) of the incident;
  • Description and location of the incident (including water depth, if applicable);
  • Environmental conditions (e.g., wind speed and direction, Beaufort sea state, cloud cover, and visibility);
  • Description of all marine mammal observations in the 24 hours preceding the incident;
  • Species identification or description of the animal(s) involved;
  • Fate of the animal(s); and
  • Photographs or video footage of the animal(s) (if equipment is available).

The Society shall not resume its activities until NMFS is able to review the circumstances of the prohibited take. NMFS shall work with the Society to determine what is necessary to minimize the likelihood of further prohibited take and ensure Marine Mammal Protection Act compliance. The Society may not resume their activities until notified by us via letter, email, or telephone.

In the event that the Society discovers an injured or dead marine mammal, and the lead visual observer 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 we describe in the next paragraph), the Society will immediately report the incident to the Incidental Take Program Supervisor, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, at 301-427-8401 and/or by email to Jolie.Harrison@noaa.gov and ITP.Cody@noaa.gov and the Assistant Western Regional Stranding Coordinator at (562) 980-3264 (Justin.Greenman@noaa.gov). The report must include the same information identified in the paragraph above this section. Activities may Start Printed Page 9179continue while NMFS reviews the circumstances of the incident. NMFS will work with the Society to determine whether modifications in the activities are appropriate.

In the event that the Society discovers an injured or dead marine mammal, and the lead visual observer determines that the injury or death is not associated with or related to the authorized activities (e.g., previously wounded animal, carcass with moderate to advanced decomposition, or scavenger damage), the Society will report the incident to the Incidental Take Program Supervisor, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, at 301-427-8401 and/or by email to Jolie.Harrison@noaa.gov and ITP.Cody@noaa.gov and the Assistant Western Regional Stranding Coordinator at (562) 980-3264 (Justin.Greenman@noaa.gov), within 24 hours of the discovery. The Society's staff will provide photographs or video footage (if available) or other documentation of the stranded animal sighting to us.

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].

NMFS anticipates that the helicopter operations and restoration and maintenance activities have the potential to harass (Level B only) marine mammals that may be present on NWSR. Thus NMFS will only authorize take by Level B harassment as a result of the helicopter operations and restoration and maintenance activities on NWSR.

Based on pinniped survey counts conducted by CCR on NWSR in the spring of 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 (CCR, 2001), NMFS estimates that approximately 204 California sea lions (calculated by multiplying the average monthly abundance of California sea lions (zero in April, 1997 and 34 in April, 1998) present on NWSR by 6 months of the restoration and maintenance activities), 172 Steller sea lions (NMFS' estimate of the maximum number of Steller sea lions that could be present on NWSR with a 95-percent confidence interval), 36 Pacific harbor seals (calculated by multiplying the maximum number of harbor seals present on NWSR (6) by 6 months), and 6 northern fur seals (calculated by multiplying the maximum number of northern fur seals present on NWSR (1) by 6 months) could be potentially affected by Level B behavioral harassment over the course of the Authorization. NMFS bases these estimates of the numbers of marine mammals that might be affected on consideration of the number of marine mammals that could be disturbed appreciably by approximately 51 hours of aircraft operations during the course of the activity. These incidental harassment take numbers represent approximately 0.14 percent of the U.S. stock of California sea lion, 0.42 percent of the eastern U.S. stock of Steller sea lion, 0.11 percent of the California stock of Pacific harbor seals, and 0.06 percent of the San Miguel Island stock of northern fur seal. Because of the required mitigation measures and the likelihood that some pinnipeds will avoid the area, NMFS does not expect any injury or mortality to pinnipeds to occur and NMFS has not authorized take by Level A harassment for this proposed activity.

Encouraging and Coordinating Research

The Society will continue to coordinate monitoring of pinnipeds during the helicopter operations and restoration activities which contribute to the basic knowledge of marine mammal biology on NWSR.

Analysis and Preliminary Determinations

Negligible Impact

Negligible impact is “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” (50 CFR 216.103). The lack of likely adverse effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival (i.e., population level effects) forms the basis of a negligible impact finding. Thus, an estimate of the number of Level B harassment takes, alone, is not enough information on which to base an impact determination. In addition to considering estimates of the number of marine mammals that might be “taken” through behavioral harassment, NMFS must consider other factors, such as the likely nature of any responses (their intensity, duration, etc.), the context of any responses (critical reproductive time or location, migration, etc.), as well as the number and nature of estimated Level A harassment takes, and the number of estimated mortalities, and effects on habitat.

In making a negligible impact determination, NMFS considers:

  • The number of anticipated injuries, serious injuries, or mortalities;
  • The number, nature, and intensity, and duration of Level B harassment; and
  • The context in which the takes occur (e.g., impacts to areas of significance, impacts to local populations, and cumulative impacts when taking into account successive/contemporaneous actions when added to baseline data);
  • The status of stock or species of marine mammals (i.e., depleted, not depleted, decreasing, increasing, stable, impact relative to the size of the population);
  • Impacts on habitat affecting rates of recruitment/survival; and
  • The effectiveness of monitoring and mitigation measures.

For reasons stated previously in this document and based on the following factors, the Society's specified activities are not likely to cause long-term behavioral disturbance, abandonment of the haulout area, injury, serious injury, or mortality because:

(1) The effects of the Society's operations would be limited to no responses, short-term startle responses, or temporary behavioral changes due to the short and sporadic duration of the restoration activities. Minor and brief responses, such as short-duration startle or alert reactions, are not likely to constitute disruption of behavioral patterns, such as migration, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.

(2) The availability of alternate areas for pinnipeds to avoid the resultant acoustic and visual disturbances from the restoration activities and helicopter operations. Results from previous monitoring reports also show that the pinnipeds returned to the various sites and did not permanently abandon haul-out sites after the Society conducted their activities.

(3) There is no potential for large-scale movements leading to injury, serious injury, or mortality because the Society must delay ingress onto NWSR until after the pinnipeds present have slowly entered the water.

NMFS does not anticipate that any injuries, serious injuries, or mortalities would occur as a result of the Society's proposed activities, and NMFS does not propose to authorize injury, serious injury or mortality. These species may exhibit behavioral modifications, including temporarily vacating the area during the proposed helicopter operations and restoration activities to avoid the resultant acoustic and visual Start Printed Page 9180disturbances. Further, these proposed activities would not take place in areas of significance for marine mammal feeding, resting, breeding, or calving and would not adversely impact marine mammal habitat. Due to the nature, degree, and context of the behavioral harassment anticipated, the activities are not expected to impact rates of recruitment or survival.

Based on this notice's analysis of the likely effects of the specified activity on marine mammals and their habitat, and taking into consideration the implementation of the proposed monitoring and mitigation measures, NMFS preliminarily finds that the Society's proposed helicopter operations and restoration/maintenance activities would have a negligible impact on the affected marine mammal species or stocks.

Small Numbers

As mentioned previously, NMFS estimates that the Society's activities could potentially affect, by Level B harassment only, four species of marine mammals under our jurisdiction. For each species, these estimates are small numbers (each, less than or equal to one percent) relative to the population size. These incidental harassment take numbers represent approximately 0.14 percent of the U.S. stock of California sea lion, 0.42 percent of the eastern U.S. stock of Steller sea lion, 0.11 percent of the California stock of Pacific harbor seals, and 0.06 percent of the San Miguel Island stock of northern fur seal. Because of the required mitigation measures and the likelihood that some pinnipeds will avoid the area, no injury or mortality to pinnipeds is expected nor requested. The proposed taking would be limited to small numbers of marine mammals, relative to the population sizes of the affected species or stocks (i.e., for each species, these numbers are less than one percent).

Based on the analysis contained herein of the likely effects of the specified activity on marine mammals and their habitat, and taking into consideration the implementation of the mitigation and monitoring measures, NMFS preliminarily finds that the Society's proposed helicopter operations and restoration/maintenance activities would take small numbers of marine mammals relative to the populations of the affected species or stocks.

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

There are no relevant subsistence uses of marine mammals implicated by this action.

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

NMFS does not expect that the Society's proposed helicopter operations and restoration/maintenance activities would affect any species listed under the ESA. Therefore, NMFS has determined that a section 7 consultation under the ESA is not required.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

To meet our NEPA requirements for the issuance of an Authorization to the Society, NMFS has prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA) in 2010 that was specific to conducting aircraft operations and restoration and maintenance work on the St. George Reef Light Station. The EA, titled “Issuance of an Incidental Harassment Authorization to Take Marine Mammals by Harassment Incidental to Conducting Aircraft Operations, Lighthouse Restoration and Maintenance Activities on St. George Reef Lighthouse Station in Del Norte County, California,” evaluated the impacts on the human environment of our authorization of incidental Level B harassment resulting from the specified activity in the specified geographic region. At that time, NMFS concluded that issuance of an annual Authorization would not significantly affect the quality of the human environment and issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the 2010 EA regarding the Society's activities. In conjunction with the Society's 2014 application, NMFS has again reviewed the 2010 EA and determined that there are no new direct, indirect or cumulative impacts to the human and natural environment associated with the IHA requiring evaluation in a supplemental EA and NMFS, therefore, intends to preliminarily reaffirm the 2010 FONSI. An electronic copy of the EA and the FONSI for this activity is available upon request (see ADDRESSES).

Proposed Authorization

As a result of these preliminary determinations, NMFS proposes issuing an Authorization to the Society for conducting helicopter operations and restoration activities on the St. George Light Station in the northeast Pacific Ocean, April 1 through April 30, 2014 and November 1, 2014, through March 31, 2015, provided they incorporate the previously mentioned mitigation, monitoring, and reporting requirements.

Draft Authorization

The St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society (Society), P.O. Box 577, Crescent City, CA 95531, is hereby authorized under section 101(a)(5)(D) of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (16 U.S.C. 1371(a)(5)(D)) and 50 CFR 216.107, to harass marine mammals incidental to conducting helicopter operations and restoration and maintenance work on the St. George Reef Light Station (Station) on Northwest Seal Rock in the northeast Pacific Ocean.

1. This Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) is valid from April 1 through April 30, 2014 and November 1, 2014, through March 31, 2015.

2. This IHA is valid only for activities associated with helicopter operations and restoration and maintenance activities (See items 2(a)-(d)) on the Station on Northwest Seal Rock (41°50′24″ N, 124°22′06″ W) in the northeast Pacific Ocean.

a. The use of a small, compact, 4-person helicopter with two-bladed main and tail rotors fitted with noise-attenuating blade tip caps to transit to and from Northwest Seal Rock;

b. restoration activities (e.g., painting, plastering, welding, and glazing) conducted on the Station;

c. maintenance activities (e.g., bulb replacement and automation of the light system) conducted on the Station; and

d. emergency repair events (e.g., the failure of the PATON beacon light) between April 1 through April 30, 2014 and November 1, 2014, through March 31, 2015, outside of the three-day work session.

3. General Conditions

a. A copy of this IHA must be in the possession of the Society, its designees, and work crew personnel operating under the authority of this IHA.

b. The species authorized for taking are the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus), Pacific Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), the eastern Distinct Population Segment of Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus), and the eastern Pacific stock of northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus).

c. The taking, by Level B harassment only, is limited to the species listed in condition 3(b) (See Table 1 for take numbers, attached).

d. The taking by Level A harassment, injury or death of any of the species listed in item 3(b) of the Authorization or the taking by harassment, injury or death of any other species of marine mammal is prohibited and may result in the modification, suspension, or revocation of this IHA.Start Printed Page 9181

e. In the case of an emergency repair event (i.e., failure of the PATON beacon light) between May 1, 2014 through October 31, 2014, the Society will consult with the ARA, Western Region, NMFS, to best determine the timing of an emergency repair trip to the Station.

a. The Western Region NMFS marine mammal biologist will make a decision regarding when the Society can schedule helicopter trips to the Northwest Seal Rock during the emergency repair time window and will ensure that such operations will have the least practicable adverse impact to marine mammals.

b. The ARA, Western Region, NMFS will also ensure that the Society's request for incidental take during an emergency repair event would not exceed the number of incidental take authorized in this IHA.

4. Cooperation

The holder of this Authorization is required to cooperate with the NMFS and any other Federal, state, or local agency authorized to monitor the impacts of the activity on marine mammals.

5. Mitigation Measures

In order to ensure the least practicable impact on the species listed in condition 3(b), the holder of this Authorization is required to:

a. Conduct restoration and maintenance activities at the Station at a maximum of one session per month between April 1 through April 30, 2014 and November 1, 2014, through March 31, 2015. Each restoration session will be no more than three days in duration. Maintenance of the light beacon will occur only in conjunction with the monthly restoration activities.

b. Ensure that helicopter approach patterns to the Northwest Seal Rock will be such that the timing techniques are least disturbing to marine mammals. To the extent possible, the helicopter should approach Northwest Seal Rock when the tide is too high for the marine mammals to haul-out on Northwest Seal Rock.

c. Avoid rapid and direct approaches by the helicopter to the station by approaching Northwest Seal Rock at a relatively high altitude (e.g., 800-1,000 ft; 244-305 m). Before the final approach, the helicopter shall circle lower, and approach from area where the density of pinnipeds is the lowest. If for any safety reasons (e.g., wind conditions or visibility) such helicopter approach and timing techniques cannot be achieved, the Society must abort the restoration and maintenance session for that day.

d. Provide instructions to the Society's members, the restoration crew, and if applicable, to tourists, on appropriate conduct when in the vicinity of hauled-out marine mammals. The Society's members, the restoration crew, and if applicable, tourists, will avoid making unnecessary noise while on Northwest Seal Rock and must not view pinnipeds around the base of the Station.

e. Ensure that the door to the Station's lower platform shall remain closed and barricaded at all times.

6. Monitoring

The holder of this Authorization is required to:

a. Have a NMFS-approved biologist present during all three workdays at the Station at least once during the period between April 1 through April 30, 2014 and November 1, 2014, through March 31, 2015. This requirement may be modified depending on the results of the monthly monitoring reports. The biologist shall document use of the island by the marine mammals (i.e., dates, time, tidal height, species, numbers present, frequency of use, weather conditions, and any disturbances), and note any responses to potential disturbances.

b. Record the date, time, and location (or closest point of ingress) of each visit to the Northwest Seal Rock. See Table 2 for an example of a data collection sheet.

c. Collect the following information for each visit:

i. Information on the numbers (by species) of marine mammals observed during the activities;

ii. the estimated number of marine mammals (by species) that may have been harassed during the activities;

iii. any behavioral responses or modifications of behaviors that may be attributed to the specific activities (e.g., flushing into water, becoming alert and moving, rafting); and

iv. information on the weather, including the tidal state and horizontal visibility.

d. Employ a skilled, aerial photographer to document marine mammals hauled out on Northwest Seal Rock for comparing marine mammal presence on Northwest Seal Rock pre- and post-restoration.

i. The photographer will complete a photographic survey of Northwest Seal Rock using the same helicopter that will transport Society personnel to the island during restoration trips.

ii. For a pre-restoration survey, photographs of all marine mammals hauled-out on the island shall be taken at an altitude greater than 300 m (984 ft) during the first arrival flight to Northwest Seal Rock.

iii. For the post-restoration survey, photographs of all marine mammals hauled-out on the island shall be taken at an altitude greater than 300 m (984 ft) during the last departure flight from Northwest Seal Rock;

iv. The Society and/or its designees will forward the photographs to a biologist capable of discerning marine mammal species. The Society shall provide the data to us in the form of a report with a data table, any other significant observations related to marine mammals, and a report of restoration activities (see Reporting). The Society will make available the original photographs to NMFS or to other marine mammal experts for inspection and further analysis.

7. Reporting Requirements

Final Report: The holder of this authorization is required to submit a draft monitoring report to the Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, 1315 East West Highway, 13th Floor, Silver Spring, MD 20910; phone (301) 427-8401 no later than 90 days after the project is completed. The report must contain the following information:

a. A summary of the dates, times, and weather during all helicopter operations, restoration, and maintenance activities.

b. Species, number, location, and behavior of any marine mammals, observed throughout all monitoring activities.

c. An estimate of the number (by species) of marine mammals that are known to have been exposed to visual and acoustic stimuli associated with the helicopter operations, restoration, and maintenance activities.

d. A description of the implementation and effectiveness of the monitoring and mitigation measures of the IHA and full documentation of methods, results, and interpretation pertaining to all monitoring.

8. Reporting Prohibited Take

In the unanticipated event that the specified activity clearly causes the take of a marine mammal in a manner prohibited by the authorization (if issued), such as an injury (Level A harassment), serious injury, or mortality (e.g., vessel-strike, stampede, etc.), the Society shall immediately cease the specified activities and immediately report the incident to the Incidental Take Program Supervisor, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, at 301-427-8401 and/or by email to Start Printed Page 9182 Jolie.Harrison@noaa.gov and ITP.Cody@noaa.gov and the Assistant Western Regional Stranding Coordinator at (562) 980-3264 (Justin.Greenman@noaa.gov).

The report must include the following information:

  • Time, date, and location (latitude/longitude) of the incident;
  • Name and type of vessel involved;
  • Vessel's speed during and leading up to the incident;
  • Description of the incident;
  • Status of all sound source use in the 24 hours preceding the incident;
  • Water depth;
  • Environmental conditions (e.g., wind speed and direction, Beaufort sea state, cloud cover, and visibility);
  • Description of all marine mammal observations in the 24 hours preceding the incident;
  • Species identification or description of the animal(s) involved;
  • Fate of the animal(s); and
  • Photographs or video footage of the animal(s) (if equipment is available).

The Society shall not resume its activities until we are able to review the circumstances of the prohibited take. We shall work with the Society to determine what is necessary to minimize the likelihood of further prohibited take and ensure Marine Mammal Protection Act compliance. The Society may not resume their activities until notified by us via letter, email, or telephone.

9. Reporting an Injured or Dead Marine Mammal With an Unknown Cause of Death

In the event that the Society discovers an injured or dead marine mammal, and the lead visual observer 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 we describe in the next paragraph), the Society will immediately report the incident to the Incidental Take Program Supervisor, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, at 301-427-8401 and/or by email to Jolie.Harrison@noaa.gov and ITP.Cody@noaa.gov and the Assistant Western Regional Stranding Coordinator at (562) 980-3264 (Justin.Greenman@noaa.gov). The report must include the same information identified in the paragraph above this section. Activities may continue while we review the circumstances of the incident. We will work with the Society to determine whether modifications in the activities are appropriate.

The report must include the same information identified in the paragraph above. Activities may continue while we review the circumstances of the incident. We will work with the Society to determine whether modifications in the activities are appropriate.

10. Reporting an Injured or Dead Marine Mammal Not Related to the SGRLPS' Activities

In the event that the Society discovers an injured or dead marine mammal, and the lead visual observer determines that the injury or death is not associated with or related to the authorized activities (e.g., previously wounded animal, carcass with moderate to advanced decomposition, or scavenger damage), the Society will report the incident to the Incidental Take Program Supervisor, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, at 301-427-8401 and/or by email to Jolie.Harrison@noaa.gov and ITP.Cody@noaa.gov and the Assistant Western Regional Stranding Coordinator at (562) 980-3264 (Justin.Greenman@noaa.gov), within 24 hours of the discovery.

The Society's staff will provide photographs or video footage (if available) or other documentation of the stranded animal sighting to us.

11. 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 a more than a negligible impact on the species or stock of affected marine mammals.

Information Solicited

We request comments on our analysis, the draft authorization, and any other aspect of this notice of proposed Authorization for the Society's proposed helicopter operations and restoration/maintenance activities. Please include any supporting data or literature citations with your comments to help inform our final decision on the Society's request for an application.

Start Signature

Dated: February 11, 2014.

Donna S. Wieting,

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

End Signature End Supplemental Information

[FR Doc. 2014-03379 Filed 2-14-14; 8:45 am]

BILLING CODE 3510-22-P