Skip to Content

Notice

Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to Rocky Intertidal Monitoring Surveys Along the Oregon and California Coasts

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; issuance of an incidental harassment authorization.

SUMMARY:

In accordance with the regulations implementing the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) as amended, notification is hereby given that NMFS has issued an incidental harassment authorization (IHA) to the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Study of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) to incidentally harass, by Level B harassment only, marine mammals during rocky intertidal monitoring surveys.

DATES:

This Authorization is effective from March 12, 2018, through March 11, 2019.

Start Further Info

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Rob Pauline, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, (301) 427-8401. Electronic copies of the application and supporting documents, as well as a list of the references cited in this document, may be obtained online at: www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​pr/​permits/​incidental/​research.htm. In case of problems accessing these documents, please call the contact listed above.

End Further Info End Preamble Start Supplemental Information

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 (as delegated to NMFS) 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.

An 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.

The MMPA states that the term “take” means to harass, hunt, capture, kill or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal.

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).

National Environmental Policy Act

To comply with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA; 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.) and NOAA Administrative Order (NAO) 216-6A, NMFS must review our proposed action (i.e., the issuance of an incidental harassment authorization) with respect to potential impacts on the human environment.

This action is consistent with categories of activities identified in Categorical Exclusion B4 (CE B4) (incidental harassment authorizations with no anticipated serious injury or mortality) of the Companion Manual for NOAA Administrative Order 216-6A, which do not individually or cumulatively have the potential for significant impacts on the quality of the human environment and for which we have not identified any extraordinary circumstances that would preclude this categorical exclusion. Accordingly, NMFS has determined that the issuance of the IHA qualifies to be categorically excluded from further NEPA review.

Summary of Request

On September 26, 2017, NMFS received a request from PISCO for an IHA to take marine mammals incidental to rocky intertidal monitoring surveys along the Oregon and California coasts. PISCO's request is for take of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii), and northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris). Take is anticipated to result from the specified activity by Level B harassment only. Neither PISCO nor NMFS expect mortality to result from this activity and, therefore, an IHA is appropriate.

This IHA would cover one year of a larger project for which PISCO obtained prior IHAs. This multiyear annual survey involves surveying rocky intertidal zones in a number of locations in Oregon and California. NMFS has previously issued five IHAs for this ongoing survey project (77 FR 72327, December 5, 2012; 78 FR 79403, December 30, 2013; 79 FR 73048, December 9, 2014; 81 FR 7319, February 2, 2016; 82 FR 12568, March 6, 2017). PISCO complied with all the requirements (e.g., mitigation, monitoring, and reporting) of the Start Printed Page 11697previous IHAs and information regarding the most recent monitoring results may be found in the Monitoring and Reporting section.

Description of Activity

Overview

PISCO requested an IHA to continue rocky intertidal monitoring work that has been ongoing for 20 years. PISCO focuses on understanding the nearshore ecosystems of the U.S. west coast through a number of interdisciplinary collaborations. The program integrates long-term monitoring of ecological and oceanographic processes at dozens of sites with experimental work in the lab and field. A short description of project components is found below. A detailed description of the planned intertidal monitoring project was provided in the Federal Register notice for the proposed IHA (83 FR 3308; January 24, 2018). Since that time, no changes have been made to the planned monitoring activities. Therefore, a detailed description is not provided here. Please refer to that Federal Register notice for the description of the specific activity.

Dates and Duration

PISCO's research is conducted throughout the year, but will begin no sooner than March 12, 2018 and end on March 11, 2019. Most sites are sampled one to two times per year over a 1-day period (4-6 hours per site) during a negative low tide series. Due to the large number of research sites, scheduling constraints, the necessity for negative low tides and favorable weather/ocean conditions, exact survey dates are variable and difficult to predict. Some sampling may occur in all months.

Specific Geographic Region

Sampling sites occur along the California and Oregon coasts. Community Structure Monitoring sites range from Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach, Oregon to Government Point located northwest of Santa Barbara, California. Biodiversity Survey sites extend from Ecola State Park south to Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego County, California. Exact locations of sampling sites can be found in Tables 1 and 2 of PISCO's application.

Detailed Description of Specific Activity

Community Structure Monitoring involves the use of permanent photoplot quadrats, which target specific algal and invertebrate assemblages (e.g. mussels, rockweeds, barnacles). Each photoplot is photographed and scored for percent cover. The Community Structure Monitoring approach is based largely on surveys that quantify the percent cover and distribution of algae and invertebrates that constitute these communities. This approach allows researchers to quantify both the patterns of abundance of targeted species, as well as characterize changes in the communities in which they reside. Such information provides managers with insight into the causes and consequences of changes in species abundance. There are a total of 48 Community Structure sites, each of which will be visited in 2018 under the IHA and surveyed over a 1-day period during a low tide series one to two times a year.

Biodiversity Surveys are part of a long-term monitoring project and are conducted every 3-5 years across 142 established sites. Nineteen Biodiversity Survey sites will be visited in 2018. These Biodiversity Surveys involve point contact identification along permanent transects, mobile invertebrate quadrat counts, sea star band counts, and tidal height topographic measurements. Five of the Biodiversity Survey sites are also Community Structure sites, leaving 14 sites that are only Biodiversity Survey sites. As such, a total of 62 unique sites would be visited under the IHA.

The intertidal zones where PISCO conducts intertidal monitoring are also areas where pinnipeds can be found hauled out on the shore at or adjacent to some research sites. Pinnipeds have been recorded at 17 out of the 62 survey sites. Accessing portions of the intertidal habitat at these locations may cause incidental Level B (behavioral) harassment of pinnipeds through some unavoidable approaches if pinnipeds are hauled out directly in the study plots or while biologists walk from one location to another. No motorized equipment is involved in conducting these surveys.

Comments and Responses

A notice of NMFS' proposal to issue an IHA was published in the Federal Register on January 24, 2018 (83 FR 3308). During the 30-day public comment period, the Marine Mammal Commission (Commission) submitted a letter on February 5, 2018. The Commission provided comments as described below and concurred with NMFS's finding that recommended the issuance of an IHA to PISCO, subject to the inclusion of the mitigation, monitoring, and reporting measures.

Comment: The Commission requested clarification of certain issues associated with NMFS's notice that one-year renewals could be issued in certain limited circumstances and expressed concern that the process would bypass the public notice and comment requirements. The Commission also suggested that NMFS should discuss the possibility of renewals through a more general route, such as a rulemaking, instead of notice in a specific authorization. The Commission further recommended that if NMFS did not pursue a more general route, that the agency provide the Commission and the public with a legal analysis supporting our conclusion that this process is consistent with the requirements of section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA.

Response: The process of issuing a renewal IHA does not bypass the public notice and comment requirements of the MMPA. The notice of the proposed IHA expressly notifies the public that under certain, limited conditions an applicant could seek a renewal IHA for an additional year. The notice describes the conditions under which such a renewal request could be considered and expressly seeks public comment in the event such a renewal is sought. Importantly, such renewals would be limited to where the activities are identical or nearly identical to those analyzed in the proposed IHA, monitoring does not indicate impacts that were not previously analyzed and authorized, and the mitigation and monitoring requirements remain the same, all of which allow the public to comment on the appropriateness and effects of a renewal at the same time the public provides comments on the initial IHA. NMFS has, however, modified the language for future proposed IHAs to clarify that all IHAs, including renewal IHAs, are valid for no more than one year and that the agency would consider only one renewal for a project at this time. In addition, notice of issuance or denial of a renewal IHA would be published in the Federal Register, as are all IHAs.

The option for issuing renewal IHAs has been in NMFS's incidental take regulations since 1996. Nonetheless, NMFS will provide additional information to the Commission as well as consider the best way to provide addition information to the public on the renewal process.

Description of Marine Mammals in the Area of Specified Activities

A detailed description of the species likely to be affected by the monitoring project, including brief introductions to the species and relevant stocks as well as available information regarding population trends and threats, and information regarding local occurrence, were provided in the Federal Register notice for the proposed IHA (83 FR Start Printed Page 116983308; January 24, 2018). Since that time, we are not aware of any changes in the status of these species and stocks; therefore, detailed descriptions are not provided here. Please refer to that Federal Register notice for these descriptions as well as to NMFS' website (www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​pr/​species/​mammals/​) for generalized species accounts.

Table 1—Marine Mammals Potentially Present in the Vicinity of the Study Areas

Common nameScientific nameStockESA/ MMPA status; Strategic (Y/N) 1Stock abundance (CV, Nmin, most recent abundance survey) 2PBRAnnual M/SI 3
Order Carnivora—Superfamily Pinnipedia
Family Otariidae (eared seals and sea lions)
California sea lionZalophus californianusU.S-; N296,750 (n/a; 153,337; 2011)9,200389
Steller sea lionEumetopias jubatusEastern U.S-; N41,638 (n/a; 41,638; 2015)2,498108
Family Phocidae (earless seals)
Harbor sealPhoca vitulina richardiiCalifornia/Oregon/Washington-; N30,968 (0.157; 27,348; 2012 [CA])/24,732 (n/a; n/a [OR/WA] 41,64143
Northern elephant sealMirounga angustirostrisCalifornia-; N179,000 (n/a; 81,368; 2010)4,8828.8
1 Endangered Species Act (ESA) status: Endangered (E), Threatened (T)/MMPA status: Depleted (D). A dash (-) indicates that the species is not listed under the ESA or designated as depleted under the MMPA. Under the MMPA, a strategic stock is one for which the level of direct human-caused mortality exceeds PBR or which is determined to be declining and likely to be listed under the ESA within the foreseeable future. Any species or stock listed under the ESA is automatically designated under the MMPA as depleted and as a strategic stock.
2 NMFS marine mammal stock assessment reports online at: www.nmfs.noaa.gov/​pr/​sars/​. CV is coefficient of variation; Nmin is the minimum estimate of stock abundance. In some cases, CV is not applicable [explain if this is the case].
3 These values, found in NMFS's SARs, represent annual levels of human-caused mortality plus serious injury from all sources combined (e.g., commercial fisheries, ship strike). Annual M/SI often cannot be determined precisely and is in some cases presented as a minimum value or range. A CV associated with estimated mortality due to commercial fisheries is presented in some cases.
4 The most recent abundance estimate is >8 years old, there is no current estimate of abundance available for this stock.
Note—Italicized species are not expected or authorized to be taken.

Potential Effects of Specified Activities on Marine Mammals and Their Habitat

The effect of stressors associated with the specified activity (e.g., pedestrian researchers) has the potential to result in behavioral harassment of marine mammals in the vicinity of the action areas. The Federal Register notice for the proposed IHA (83 FR 3308; January 24, 2018) included a discussion of the effects of such disturbance on marine mammals, therefore that information is not repeated here.

NMFS described potential impacts to marine mammal habitat in detail in our Federal Register notice of proposed authorization (83 FR 3308; January 24, 2018). In summary, the project activities would not modify existing marine mammal habitat. Because of the short duration of the activities and the relatively small area of the habitat that may be affected, the impacts to marine mammal habitat are not expected to cause significant or long-term negative consequences for individual marine mammals or their populations

Estimated Take

This section provides an estimate of the number of incidental takes authorized through this IHA, which will inform both NMFS' consideration of whether the number of takes is “small” and the negligible impact determination.

Harassment is the only type of take expected to result from these activities. Except with respect to certain activities not pertinent here, section 3(18) of 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).

Authorized takes would be by Level B harassment only, in the form of disruption of behavioral patterns for individual marine mammals resulting from exposure to researchers. Based on the nature of the activity, Level A harassment is neither anticipated nor authorized.

As described previously, no mortality is anticipated or authorized for this activity. Below we describe how the take is estimated.

Marine Mammal Occurrence

In this section we provide the information about the presence, density, or group dynamics of marine mammals that will inform the take calculations. Take estimates are based on historical marine mammal observations at each site from previous PISCO survey activities. Marine mammal observations are done as part of PISCO site observations, which include notes on physical and biological conditions at the site. The maximum number of marine mammals, by species, seen at any given time throughout the sampling day is recorded at the conclusion of sampling. A marine mammal is counted if it is seen on access ways to the site, at the site, or immediately up-coast or down-coast of the site. Marine mammals in the water immediately offshore are also recorded. Any other relevant information, including the location of a marine mammal relevant to the site, any unusual behavior, and the presence of pups is also noted.

Take Calculation and Estimation

The observations described above formed the basis from which researchers with extensive knowledge and experience at each site estimated the actual number of marine mammals that may be subject to take. Take estimates for each species for which take is authorized were based on the following equation:

Take estimate per survey site = (number of expected animals per site * Start Printed Page 11699number of survey days per survey site)

For take estimates, PISCO looked at sites that have consistently had a marine mammal presence and used the maximum number of marine mammals previously observed at these sites that could be subject to take (e.g. pinnipeds on the site, nearby, or along access ways and not including any pinnipeds in the water or on offshore rocks). At many sites, the number of marine mammals is quite variable and PISCO may observe fewer than the number used for take estimates. There are also limited occasions where PISCO observes pinnipeds at sites where they had not previously seen any.

Individual species' totals for each survey site were summed to arrive at a total estimated take number. Numbers are rounded up to the nearest value of 5 (e.g., a maximum of 7 observed animals would be rounded up to 10). Section 6 in PISCO's application outlines the number of visits per year for each sampling site and the potential number of pinnipeds anticipated to be encountered at each site. Tables 2, 3, 4 in PISCO's application outlines the number of potential takes per site.

Harbor seals are expected to occur at 15 locations with expected taken numbers ranging from 5 to 25 animals per visit (Table 2 in PISCO's application). These locations will be subject to 21 site visits under the IHA. It is anticipated that there will be 230 exposures of adult harbor seals and 25 exposures of weaned pups. Therefore, NMFS has authorized 255 harbor seal takes. This is an increase over the proposed number of 203 takes included in the notice for the proposed IHA (83 FR 3308; January 24, 2018). The increase is due to draft 2017 monitoring plan data which showed increased take of adult seals at several locations (i.e., Fogarty Creek, Shelter Cove, Bodega, Franklin Point, and Cayucos) which was not included in the application resulting in a total of 230 adult seal expsoures. Also, the number of pup exposures was increased from 13 to 25 as the takes at several sites listed in the application were rounded up to the nearest 5 (i.e., Fogarty Creek, Stillwater, Point Pinos, and Carmel Point).

California sea lions are expected to be present at five sites with eight scheduled visits as shown in Table 3 in the application. Eighty-five adult and five pup exposures are expected to be taken. Therefore, NMFS has authorized 90 California sea lion takes.

Northern elephant seals are only expected to occur at one site this year, Piedras Blancs, which will experience two separate visits (See Table 4 in application). Up to 10 adult and 40 weaned pup exposures are anticipated. Therefore, NMFS has authorized 50 Northern elephant seal takes.

NMFS has authorized the take, by Level B harassment only, of 255 harbor seals, 90 California sea lions, and 50 northern elephant seals. These numbers are considered to be maximum take estimates; therefore, actual take may be less if animals decide to haul out at a different location for the day or animals are out foraging at the time of the survey activities.

Mitigation

In order to issue an IHA 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 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 (latter not applicable for this action). NMFS regulations require applicants for incidental take authorizations to include information about the availability and feasibility (economic and technological) of equipment, methods, and manner of conducting such activity or other means of effecting the least practicable adverse impact upon the affected species or stocks and their habitat (50 CFR 216.104(a)(11)).

In evaluating how mitigation may or may not be appropriate to ensure the least practicable adverse impact on species or stocks and their habitat, as well as subsistence uses where applicable, we carefully consider two primary factors:

(1) The manner in which, and the degree to which, the successful implementation of the measure(s) is expected to reduce impacts to marine mammals, marine mammal species or stocks, and their habitat. This considers the nature of the potential adverse impact being mitigated (likelihood, scope, range). It further considers the likelihood that the measure will be effective if implemented (probability of accomplishing the mitigating result if implemented as planned) the likelihood of effective implementation (probability implemented as planned); and

(2) The practicability of the measures for applicant implementation, which may consider such things as cost, impact on operations, and, in the case of a military readiness activity, personnel safety, practicality of implementation, and impact on the effectiveness of the military readiness activity.

PISCO will implement several mitigation measures to reduce potential take by Level B (behavioral disturbance) harassment. Measures are listed below.

  • Researchers will observe a site from a distance, using binoculars if necessary, to detect any marine mammals prior to approach to determine if mitigation is required (i.e., site surveys will not be conducted if Steller sea lions, northern fur seals, or Guadalupe fur seals are present; if other pinnipeds are present, researchers will approach with caution, walking slowly, quietly, and close to the ground to avoid surprising any hauled-out individuals and to reduce flushing/stampeding of individuals).
  • Researchers will avoid pinnipeds along access ways to sites by locating and taking a different access way. Researchers will keep a safe distance from and not approach any marine mammal while conducting research, unless it is absolutely necessary to flush a marine mammal in order to continue conducting research (i.e., if a site cannot be accessed or sampled due to the presence of pinnipeds).
  • Researchers will avoid making loud noises (i.e., using hushed voices) and keep bodies low to the ground in the visual presence of pinnipeds.
  • Researches will monitor the offshore area for predators (such as killer whales and white sharks) and avoid flushing of pinnipeds when predators are observed in nearshore waters. Note that PISCO has never observed an offshore predator while researchers were present at any of the survey sites.
  • Intentional flushing will not occur if dependent pups are present to avoid mother/pup separation and trampling of pups. Staff shall reschedule work at sites where pups are present, unless other means of accomplishing the work can be done without causing disturbance to mothers and dependent pups.
  • To avoid take of Steller sea lions, northern fur seals, or Guadalupe fur seals, any site where they are present will not be approached and will be sampled at a later date.
  • Researchers will promptly vacate sites at the conclusion of sampling.

The primary method of mitigating the risk of disturbance to pinnipeds, which will be in use at all times, is the selection of judicious routes of approach to study sites, avoiding close contact with pinnipeds hauled out on shore, and the use of extreme caution upon approach. Each visit to a given study site will last for approximately 4-6 Start Printed Page 11700hours, after which the site is vacated and can be re-occupied by any marine mammals that may have been disturbed by the presence of researchers. Also, by arriving before low tide, worker presence will tend to encourage pinnipeds to move to other areas for the day before they haul out and settle onto rocks at low tide.

Based on our evaluation of the applicant's measures, NMFS has determined that the required mitigation measures provide the means effecting the least practicable impact on the affected species or stocks and their habitat, paying particular attention to rookeries, mating grounds, and areas of similar significance.

Monitoring and Reporting

In order to issue an IHA 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 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 action area. Effective reporting is critical both to compliance as well as ensuring that the most value is obtained from the required monitoring.

Monitoring and reporting requirements prescribed by NMFS should contribute to improved understanding of one or more of the following:

  • Occurrence of marine mammal species or stocks in the area in which take is anticipated (e.g., presence, abundance, distribution, density);
  • Nature, scope, or context of likely marine mammal exposure to potential stressors/impacts (individual or cumulative, acute or chronic), through better understanding of: (1) Action or environment (e.g., source characterization, propagation, ambient noise); (2) affected species (e.g., life history, dive patterns); (3) co-occurrence of marine mammal species with the action; or (4) biological or behavioral context of exposure (e.g., age, calving or feeding areas);
  • Individual marine mammal responses (behavioral or physiological) to acoustic stressors (acute, chronic, or cumulative), other stressors, or cumulative impacts from multiple stressors;
  • How anticipated responses to stressors impact either: (1) Long-term fitness and survival of individual marine mammals; or (2) populations, species, or stocks;
  • Effects on marine mammal habitat (e.g., marine mammal prey species, acoustic habitat, or other important physical components of marine mammal habitat); and
  • Mitigation and monitoring effectiveness.

PISCO will contribute to the knowledge of pinnipeds in California and Oregon by noting observations of: (1) Unusual behaviors, numbers, or distributions of pinnipeds, such that any potential follow-up research can be conducted by the appropriate personnel; (2) tag-bearing carcasses of pinnipeds, allowing transmittal of the information to appropriate agencies and personnel; and (3) rare or unusual species of marine mammals for agency follow-up.

Monitoring requirements in relation to PISCO's rocky intertidal monitoring will include observations made by the applicant. Information recorded will include species counts (with numbers of pups/juveniles when possible) of animals present before approaching, numbers of observed disturbances, and descriptions of the disturbance behaviors during the monitoring surveys, including location, date, and time of the event. For consistency, any reactions by pinnipeds to researchers will be recorded according to a three-point scale shown in Table 2. Note that only observations of disturbance Levels 2 and 3 should be recorded as takes.

Table 2—Levels of Pinniped Behavioral Disturbance

LevelType of responseDefinition
1AlertSeal head orientation or brief movement in response to disturbance, which may include turning head towards the disturbance, craning head and neck while holding the body rigid in a u-shaped position, changing from a lying to a sitting position, or brief movement of less than twice the animal's body length.
2MovementMovements in response to the source of disturbance, ranging from short withdrawals at least twice the animal's body length to longer retreats over the beach, or if already moving a change of direction of greater than 90 degrees.
3FlushAll retreats (flushes) to the water.

In addition, observations regarding the number and species of any marine mammals observed, either in the water or hauled-out, at or adjacent to a site, are recorded as part of field observations during research activities. Information regarding physical and biological conditions pertaining to a site, as well as the date and time that research was conducted are also noted. This information will be incorporated into a monitoring report for NMFS.

If at any time the specified activity clearly causes the take of a marine mammal in a manner prohibited by this IHA, such as an injury (Level A harassment), serious injury, or mortality, PISCO shall immediately cease the specified activities and report the incident to the Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, and the West Coast Regional Stranding Coordinator, NMFS. The report must include the following information:

(1) Time and date of the incident;

(2) Description of the incident;

(3) Environmental conditions (e.g., wind speed and direction, Beaufort sea state, cloud cover, and visibility);

(4) Description of all marine mammal observations in the 24 hours preceding the incident;

(5) Species identification or description of the animal(s) involved;

(6) Fate of the animal(s); and

(7) Photographs or video footage of the animal(s).

Activities shall not resume until NMFS is able to review the circumstances of the prohibited take. NMFS will work with PISCO to determine what measures are necessary to minimize the likelihood of further prohibited take and ensure MMPA compliance. PISCO may not resume the activities until notified by NMFS.

In the event that an injured or dead marine mammal is discovered and it is determined that the cause of the injury or death is unknown and the death is relatively recent (e.g., in less than a moderate state of decomposition), PISCO shall immediately report the Start Printed Page 11701incident to the Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, and the West Coast Regional Stranding Coordinator, NMFS. The report must include the same information identified in the paragraph above IHA. Activities may continue while NMFS reviews the circumstances of the incident. NMFS will work with PISCO to determine whether additional mitigation measures or modifications to the activities are appropriate.

In the event that an injured or dead marine mammal is discovered and it is determined that the injury or death is not associated with or related to the activities authorized in the IHA (e.g., previously wounded animal, carcass with moderate to advanced decomposition, or scavenger damage), PISCO shall report the incident to the Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, and the West Coast Regional Stranding Coordinator, NMFS, within 24 hours of the discovery. PISCO shall provide photographs, video footage or other documentation of the stranded animal sighting to NMFS. Activities may continue while NMFS reviews the circumstances of the incident.

A draft final report must be submitted to NMFS Office of Protected Resources within 60 days after the conclusion of the 2018 field season or 60 days prior to the start of the next field season if a new IHA will be requested. The report will include a summary of the information gathered pursuant to the monitoring requirements set forth in the IHA. A final report must be submitted to the Director of the NMFS Office of Protected Resources and to the NMFS West Coast Regional Administrator within 30 days after receiving comments from NMFS on the draft final report. If no comments are received from NMFS, the draft final report will be considered the final report.

Monitoring Results From Previously Authorized Activities

PISCO complied with the mitigation and monitoring that were required under the IHA issued in February 2016. In compliance with the IHA, PISCO submitted a report detailing the activities and marine mammal monitoring they conducted. The IHA required PISCO to conduct counts of pinnipeds present at study sites prior to approaching the sites and to record species counts and any observed reactions to the presence of the researchers.

From December 3, 2016, through February 2, 2017 researchers conducted rocky intertidal sampling at numerous sites in California and Oregon (see Table 12 in PISCO's 2016 monitoring report). Tables 7, 8, and 9 in PISCO's monitoring report outline marine mammal observations and reactions. During this period there were 96 takes of harbor seals, 1 take of California sea lions, and 22 takes of northern elephant seals. NMFS had authorized the take of 203 harbor seals, 720 California sea lions, and 40 Northern Elephant seals under that IHA. PISCO also submitted a preliminary monitoring report associated with the existing IHA for the period covering February 21, 2017 through November 30, 2017. PISCO recorded 63 takes of harbor seals and 3 takes of California sea lions. There were no takes of northern elephant seals. NMFS had authorized the take of 233 harbor seals, 90 California sea lions, and 60 northern elephant seals under the existing IHA.

Based on the results from the monitoring report, we conclude that these results support our original findings that the mitigation measures set forth in the 2016 and 2017 IHAs effected the least practicable impact on the species or stocks. There were no stampede events during these years and most disturbances were Level 1 and 2 from the disturbance scale meaning the animal did not fully flush but observed or moved slightly in response to researchers. Those that did fully flush to the water did so slowly. Most of these animals tended to observe researchers from the water and then re-haulout farther up-coast or down-coast of the site within approximately 30 minutes of the disturbance.

Negligible Impact Analysis and Determination

NMFS has defined negligible impact 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 (50 CFR 216.103). A negligible impact finding is based on the lack of likely adverse effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival (i.e., population-level effects). An estimate of the number of 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 harassment, NMFS considers other factors, such as the likely nature of any responses (e.g., intensity, duration), the context of any responses (e.g., critical reproductive time or location, migration), as well as effects on habitat, and the likely effectiveness of the mitigation. We also assess the number, intensity, and context of estimated takes by evaluating this information relative to population status. Consistent with the 1989 preamble for NMFS's implementing regulations (54 FR 40338; September 29, 1989), the impacts from other past and ongoing anthropogenic activities are incorporated into this analysis via their impacts on the environmental baseline (e.g., as reflected in the regulatory status of the species, population size and growth rate where known, ongoing sources of human-caused mortality, or ambient noise levels).

No injuries or mortalities are anticipated to occur as a result of PISCO's rocky intertidal monitoring surveys and none are authorized. The risk of marine mammal injury, serious injury, or mortality associated with rocky intertidal monitoring increases somewhat if disturbances occur during breeding season. These situations present increased potential for mothers and dependent pups to become separated and, if separated pairs do not quickly reunite, the risk of mortality to pups (e.g., through starvation) may increase. Separately, adult male elephant seals may trample elephant seal pups if disturbed, which could potentially result in the injury, serious injury, or mortality of the pups. Few pups are anticipated to be encountered during the planned surveys. As shown in previous monitoring reports, however, limited numbers of harbor seal, northern elephant seal, and California sea lion pups have been observed at several sites during past years. Harbor seals are very precocious with only a short period of time in which separation of a mother from a pup could occur. Although elephant seal pups are occasionally present when researchers visit survey sites, risk of pup mortalities is very low because elephant seals are far less reactive to researcher presence compared to the other two species. Further, elephant seal pups are typically found on sand beaches, while study sites are located in the rocky intertidal zone, meaning that there is typically a buffer between researchers and pups. The caution used by researchers in approaching sites generally precludes the possibility of behavior, such as stampeding, that could result in extended separation of mothers and dependent pups or trampling of pups. Finally, no research would occur where separation of mother and her nursing pup or crushing of pups can become a concern.

Typically, even those reactions constituting Level B harassment would result at most in temporary, short-term behavioral disturbance. In any given study season, researchers will visit select sites one to two times per year for Start Printed Page 117024-6 hours per visit. Therefore, disturbance of pinnipeds resulting from the presence of researchers lasts only for short periods. These short periods of disturbance lasting less than a day are separated by months or years. Community structure sites are visited at most twice per year and the visits occur in different seasons. Biodiversity surveys take place at a given location once every 3-5 years.

Of the marine mammal species anticipated to occur in the planned activity areas, none are listed under the ESA. Taking into account the planned mitigation measures, effects to marine mammals are generally expected to be restricted to short-term changes in behavior or temporary abandonment of haulout sites, pinnipeds are not expected to permanently abandon any area that is surveyed by researchers, as is evidenced by continued presence of pinnipeds at the sites during annual monitoring counts. No adverse effects to prey species are anticipated and habitat impacts are limited and highly localized, consisting of the placement of permanent bolts in the intertidal zone. 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 requied mitigation and monitoring measures, NMFS finds that the total marine mammal take from PISCO's rocky intertidal monitoring program will not adversely affect annual rates of recruitment or survival and, therefore, will have a negligible impact on the affected species or stocks.

In summary and as described above, the following factors primarily support our determination that the impacts resulting from this activity are not expected to adversely affect the species or stock through effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival:

  • No pinniped mortality is anticipated or authorized;
  • Only a small number of pups are expected to be disturbed;
  • Effects of the survey activities would be limited to short-term, localized behavioral changes;
  • Nominal impacts to pinniped habitat; and
  • Effectiveness of mitigation measures.

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 monitoring and mitigation measures, NMFS finds that the total marine mammal take from the planned activity will have a negligible impact on all affected marine mammal species or stocks.

Small Numbers

As noted above, only small numbers of incidental take may be authorized under section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA for specified activities other than military readiness activities. The MMPA does not define small numbers and so, in practice, where estimated numbers are available, NMFS compares the number of individuals taken to the most appropriate estimation of abundance of the relevant species or stock in our determination of whether an authorization is limited to small numbers of marine mammals. Additionally, other qualitative factors may be considered in the analysis, such as the temporal or spatial scale of the activities.

Table 3—Population Abundance Estimates, Total Authorized Level B Take, and Percentage of Population That May Be Taken for the Potentially Affected Species During the Planned Rocky Intertidal Monitoring Program

SpeciesAbundance *Authorized Level B takePercentage of stock or population
Harbor seal1 30,968 2 24,732255<0.82-1.03
California sea lion296,75090<0.01
Northern elephant seal179,00050<0.01
* Abundance estimates are taken from the 2016 U.S. Pacific Marine Mammal Stock Assessments (Carretta et al., 2016).
1 California stock abundance estimate.
2 Oregon/Washington stock abundance estimate from 1999-Most recent surveys.

Table 3 presents the abundance of each species or stock, the authorized take estimates, and the percentage of the affected populations or stocks that may be taken by Level B harassment. The numbers of animals authorized to be taken would be considered small relative to the relevant stocks or populations (0.82-1.03 percent for harbor seals, and <0.01 percent for California sea lions and northern elephant seals).

Based on the analysis contained herein of the planned activity (including the required mitigation and monitoring measures) and the anticipated take of marine mammals, NMFS finds that small numbers of marine mammals will be taken relative to the population size of the affected species or stocks.

Unmitigable Adverse Impact Analysis and Determination

There are no relevant subsistence uses of the affected marine mammal stocks or species implicated by this action. Therefore, NMFS has determined that the total taking of affected species or stocks would not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of such species or stocks for taking for subsistence purposes.

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

Section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA: 16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.) requires that each Federal agency insure that any action it authorizes, funds, or carries out is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat. To ensure ESA compliance for the issuance of IHAs, NMFS consults internally, in this case with the ESA Interagency Cooperation Division whenever we authorize take for endangered or threatened species.

No incidental take of ESA-listed species is authorized or expected to result from this activity. Therefore, NMFS has determined that formal consultation under section 7 of the ESA is not required for this action.

Authorization

As a result of these determinations, we have issued an IHA to PISCO for conducting the described activities related to rocky intertidal monitoring Start Printed Page 11703surveys along the Oregon and Washington coasts from March 12, 2018 through March 11, 2019 provided the previously described mitigation, monitoring, and reporting requirements are incorporated.

On a case-by-case basis, NMFS may issue a second one-year IHA without additional notice when (1) another year of identical or nearly identical activities as described in the Specified Activities section is planned or (2) the activities would not be completed by the time the IHA expires and a second IHA would allow for completion of the activities beyond that described in the Dates and Duration section, provided all of the following conditions are met:

  • A request for renewal is received no later than 60 days prior to expiration of the current IHA.
  • The request for renewal must include the following:

(1) An explanation that the activities to be conducted beyond the initial dates either are identical to the previously analyzed activities or include changes so minor (e.g., reduction in pile size) that the changes do not affect the previous analyses, take estimates, or mitigation and monitoring requirements.

(2) A preliminary monitoring report showing the results of the required monitoring to date and an explanation showing that the monitoring results do not indicate impacts of a scale or nature not previously analyzed or authorized.

  • Upon review of the request for renewal, the status of the affected species or stocks, and any other pertinent information, NMFS determines that there are no more than minor changes in the activities, the mitigation and monitoring measures remain the same and appropriate, and the original findings remain valid.
Start Signature

Dated: March 13, 2018.

Donna S. Wieting,

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

End Signature End Supplemental Information

[FR Doc. 2018-05380 Filed 3-15-18; 8:45 am]

BILLING CODE 3510-22-P