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Notice

Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to Seabird Research Activities in Central California

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AGENCY:

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

ACTION:

Notice; incidental harassment authorization; request for comments on proposed Renewal.

SUMMARY:

NMFS received a request from Point Blue Conservation Science (Point Blue) for the Renewal of their currently active incidental harassment authorization (IHA) to take marine mammals incidental to seabird and pinniped research activities in central California. These activities are identical to those covered in the current authorization. Pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, prior to issuing the currently active IHA, NMFS requested comments on both the proposed IHA and the potential for renewing the initial authorization if certain requirements were satisfied. The Renewal requirements have been satisfied, and NMFS is now providing an additional 15-day comment period to allow for any additional comments on the proposed Renewal not previously provided during the initial 30-day comment period.

DATES:

Comments and information must be received no later than November 29, 2019.

ADDRESSES:

Comments should be addressed to Jolie Harrison, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service. Physical comments should be sent to 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910 and electronic comments should be sent to ITP.Fowler@noaa.gov.

Instructions: NMFS is not responsible for comments sent by any other method, to any other address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period. Comments received electronically, including all attachments, must not exceed a 25-megabyte file size. Attachments to electronic comments will be accepted in Microsoft Word or Excel or Adobe PDF file formats only. All comments received are a part of the public record and will generally be posted online at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​permit/​incidental-take-authorizations-under-marine-mammal-protection- act without change. All personal identifying information (e.g., name, address) voluntarily submitted by the commenter may be publicly accessible. Do not submit confidential business information or otherwise sensitive or protected information.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Amy Fowler, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, (301) 427-8401. Electronic copies of the original application, Renewal request, and supporting documents (including NMFS Federal Register notices of the original proposed and final authorizations, and the previous IHA), as well as a list of the references cited in this document, may be obtained online at: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​permit/​incidental-take-authorizations-under-marine-mammal-protection-act. In case of problems accessing these documents, please call the contact listed above.

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SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) prohibits the “take” of marine mammals, with certain exceptions. 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 incidental take authorization is provided to the public for review.

Authorization for incidental takings shall be granted if NMFS finds that the taking will have a negligible impact on the species or stock(s) and will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the species or stock(s) for taking for subsistence uses (where relevant). Further, NMFS must prescribe the permissible methods of taking and other “means of effecting the least practicable adverse impact” on the affected species or stocks and their habitat, paying particular attention to rookeries, mating grounds, and areas of similar significance, and on the availability of such species or stocks for taking for certain subsistence uses (referred to here as “mitigation measures”). Monitoring and reporting of such takings are also required. The meaning of key terms such as “take,” “harassment,” and “negligible impact” Start Printed Page 61893can be found in section 3 of the MMPA (16 U.S.C. 1362) and the agency's regulations at 50 CFR 216.103.

NMFS' regulations implementing the MMPA at 50 CFR 216.107(e) indicate that IHAs may be renewed for additional periods of time not to exceed one year for each reauthorization. In the notice of proposed IHA for the initial authorization, NMFS described the circumstances under which we would consider issuing a Renewal for this activity, and requested public comment on a potential Renewal under those circumstances. Specifically, on a case-by-case basis, NMFS may issue a one-year IHA Renewal 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 of the initial IHA. All of the following conditions must be met in order to issue a Renewal:

  • 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; and

(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 initial findings remain valid.

Although their request was not received 60 days in advance, issuance of the Renewal is still justified, given the effective dates do not extend beyond one year from the expiration of the initial IHA and all of the other qualifications were met.

An additional public comment period of 15 days (for a total of 45 days), with direct notice by email, phone, or postal service to commenters on the initial IHA, is provided to allow for any additional comments on the proposed Renewal. A description of the Renewal process may be found on our website at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​national/​marine-mammal-protection/​incidental-harassment-authorization-renewals. Any comments received on the potential Renewal, along with relevant comments on the initial IHA, have been considered in the development of this proposed IHA Renewal, and a summary of agency responses to applicable comments is included in this notice. NMFS will consider any additional public comments prior to making any final decision on the issuance of the requested Renewal, and agency responses will be summarized in the final notice of our decision.

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 (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 preliminarily determined that the issuance of the renewal IHA qualifies to be categorically excluded from further NEPA review. We will review all comments submitted in response to this notice prior to concluding our NEPA process or making a final decision on the IHA request.

History of Request

On June 28, 2018, NMFS issued an IHA to Point Blue to take marine mammals incidental to seabird research activities in central California (83 FR 31372; July 5, 2018), effective from July 7, 2018 through July 6, 2019. On August 20, 2019, NMFS received an application for the Renewal of that initial IHA. As described in the application for Renewal, the activities for which incidental take is requested are identical to those covered in the initial authorization. As required, the applicant also provided a preliminary monitoring report (available at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​national/​marine-mammal-protection/​incidental-take-authorizations-research-and-other-activities) which confirms that the applicant has implemented the required mitigation and monitoring, and which also shows that no impacts of a scale or nature not previously analyzed or authorized have occurred as a result of the activities conducted.

Description of the Specified Activities and Anticipated Impacts

Point Blue plans to monitor and census seabird populations, observe seabird nesting habitat, restore nesting burrows, and resupply a field station annually in central California. The planned activities occur on Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI), Año Nuevo Island (ANO), and Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS). Point Blue, along with partners Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge and PRNS, have been conducting seabird research activities at these locations for over 30 years. This research is conducted under cooperative agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in consultation with the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The seabird research and monitoring activities planned by Point Blue are identical to those analyzed in the initial IHA issued by NMFS, described in detail in the Federal Register notice of proposed IHA (83 FR 20045; May 7, 2018).

Presence of researchers has the potential to disturb pinnipeds hauled out at SEFI, ANO, and PRNS. As in the initial authorization, NMFS anticipates that take, by Level B harassment only, of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris), and Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) could result from the specified activity (83 FR 31372; July 5, 2018).

Detailed Description of the Activity

A detailed description of the seabird research and monitoring activities for which take is proposed here may be found in the Notices of the Proposed and Final IHAs for the initial authorization (83 FR 20045, May 7, 2018; 83 FR 31372, July 5, 2018). The locations (as described in the Specific Geographic Region section of the initial IHA), timing, and nature of the activities, including the types of equipment planned for use, are identical to those described in the previous notices. The proposed Renewal would be effective from the date of issuance through July 6, 2020.Start Printed Page 61894

Description of Marine Mammals

A description of the marine mammals in the area of the activities for which authorization of take is proposed here, including information on abundance, status, distribution, and hearing, may be found in the Federal Register Notice of the Proposed IHA for the initial authorization (83 FR 20045; May 7, 2018). NMFS has reviewed the monitoring data from the initial IHA, recent draft Stock Assessment Reports, information on relevant Unusual Mortality Events, and other scientific literature. The 2018 Stock Assessment Report notes that the estimated abundance of California sea lions has decreased slightly, however, neither this nor any other new information affects which species or stocks have the potential to be affected or the pertinent information in the section Description of Marine Mammals in the Area of Specified Activities contained in the supporting documents for the initial IHA.

Potential Effects on Marine Mammals and Their Habitat

A description of the potential effects of the specified activity on marine mammals and their habitat for the activities for which take is proposed here may be found in the Federal Register Notice of the Proposed IHA for the initial authorization (83 FR 20045; May 7, 2018). NMFS has reviewed the monitoring data from the initial IHA, recent Stock Assessment Reports, information on relevant Unusual Mortality Events, and other scientific literature, and determined that neither this nor any other new information affects our initial analysis of impacts on marine mammals and their habitat.

Estimated Take

A detailed description of the methods and inputs used to estimate take for the specified activity are found in the Federal Register Notices of the Proposed and Final IHAs for the initial authorization (83 FR 20045, May 7, 2018; 83 FR 31372, July 5, 2018). Specifically, the expected number of survey days, and marine mammal occurrence data applicable to this authorization remain unchanged from the previously issued IHA. Similarly, the stocks taken, methods of take, and types of take remain unchanged from the previously issued IHA, as do the number of takes, which are indicated below in Table 1. As in the initial IHA, the take estimates are based on historical data from the previous five monitoring reports (2013-2014, 2014-2015, 2015-2016, 2016-2017, and 2017-2018) to generate 95 percent confidence interval maximums (assuming normal distribution) using STATA, a genera-purpose statistical computer package. Takes recorded in all previous monitoring reports were based on occurrences that are consistent with Levels 2 and 3 of the three-point harassment scale (see Table 2).

Table 1—Population Abundance Estimates, Total Proposed Level B Take, and Percentage of Population That May Be Taken

SpeciesStockStock abundanceTotal proposed level B takePercentage of stock or population
California sea lionU.S257,60632,62312.7
Northern elephant sealCalifornia breeding stock179,0002390.13
Harbor sealCalifornia30,9683040.98
Steller sea lionEastern U.S41,638430.10

Description of Proposed Mitigation, Monitoring and Reporting Measures

The proposed mitigation, monitoring, and reporting measures included as requirements in this authorization are identical to those included in the Federal Register Notice announcing the issuance of the initial IHA (83 FR 31372; July 5, 2018), and the discussion of the least practicable adverse impact included in that document remains accurate. The following measures are proposed for this renewal:

To reduce the potential for disturbance from acoustic and visual stimuli associated with survey activities Point Blue will implement the following mitigation measures for marine mammals:

(1) Slow approach to beaches for boat landings to avoid stampede, provide animals opportunity to enter water, and avoid vessel strikes;

(2) 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 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);

(3) 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);

(4) Cease or delay visits if the number of takes that have been granted are met, if a species for which takes were not granted is observed (e.g., northern fur seals and Guadalupe fur seals), or if pups are present;

(5) Monitor for offshore predators and do not approach hauled out pinnipeds if great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) or killer whales (Orcinus orca) are present. If Point Blue and/or its designees see pinniped predators in the area, they must not disturb the pinnipeds until the area is free of predators;

(6) Keep voices hushed and bodies low to the ground in the visual presence of pinnipeds;

(7) Conduct seabird observations at North Landing on SEFI in an observation blind, shielded from the view of hauled out pinnipeds;

(8) Crawl slowly to access seabird nest boxes on ANI if pinnipeds are within view;

(9) Coordinate research visits to intertidal areas of SEFI (to reduce potential take) and coordinate research goals for ANI to minimize the number of trips to the island; and

(10) Require beach landings on ANI only occur after any pinnipeds that might be present on the landing beach have entered the water.

Point Blue will contribute to the knowledge of pinnipeds in California 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-Start Printed Page 61895bearing pinnipeds or carcasses, allowing transmittal of the information to appropriate agencies and personnel; and (3) rare or unusual species of marine mammals for agency follow-up.

Proposed monitoring protocols for Point Blue will include the following:

(1) Record of date, time, and location (or closest point of ingress) of each visit to the research site;

(2) Composition of the marine mammals sighted, such as species, gender and life history stage (e.g., adult, sub-adult, pup);

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

(4) Estimated number of marine mammals (by species) that may have been harassed during the activities;

(5) Behavioral responses or modifications of behaviors that may be attributed to the specific activities and a description of the specific activities occurring during that time (e.g., pedestrian approach, vessel approach); and

(6) Information on the weather, including the tidal state and horizontal visibility.

The lead biologist will serve as an observer to record incidental take. 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 noted in 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.
2 *MovementMovements 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.
3 *FlushAll retreats (flushes) to the water.
* Only observations of disturbance Levels 2 and 3 are recorded as takes.

This information will be incorporated into a monitoring report for NMFS. The monitoring report will cover the period from January 1, 2019 through December 31, 2019. NMFS has requested that Point Blue submit annual monitoring report data on a calendar year schedule, regardless of the current IHA's initiation or expiration dates. This will ensure that data from all consecutive months will be collected and, therefore, can be analyzed to estimate authorized take for future IHA's regardless of the existing IHA's issuance date. Point Blue will submit a draft monitoring report to NMFS Office of Protected Resources by April 1, 2020. A final report will be prepared and submitted within 30 days following resolution of any comments on the draft report from NMFS. If no comments are received from NMFS, the draft final report will be considered to be the final report. This report must contain the informational elements described above, at minimum.

Point Blue must also report observations of unusual pinniped behaviors, numbers, or distributions and tag-bearing carcasses to the NMFS West Coast Regional Office.

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, Point Blue will 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 will not resume until NMFS is able to review the circumstances of the prohibited take. NMFS will work with Point Blue to determine what measures are necessary to minimize the likelihood of further prohibited take and ensure MMPA compliance. Point Blue 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), Point Blue will immediately report the incident 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. Activities may continue while NMFS reviews the circumstances of the incident. NMFS will work with Point Blue 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), Point Blue will report the incident to the Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, and the West Coast Regional Stranding Coordinator, NMFS, within 24 hours of the discovery. Point Blue will provide photographs or video footage or other documentation of the stranded animal sighting to NMFS. Activities may continue while NMFS reviews the circumstances of the incident.

Public Comments

As noted previously, NMFS published a notice of a proposed IHA (83 FR 20045; May 7, 2018) and solicited public comments on both our proposal to issue the initial IHA for seabird research and on the potential for a Renewal, should certain requirements be met.

All public comments were addressed in the notice announcing the issuance of the initial IHA (83 FR 31372; July 5, 2018). Below, we describe how we have addressed, with updated information where appropriate, any comments received that specifically pertain to the Renewal of the 2018 IHA.Start Printed Page 61896

Comment: The Marine Mammal Commission (Commission) requested clarification of certain issues associated with NMFS's notice that one-year Renewals can 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 notice of the proposed initial IHA expressly notified and invited comment from the public on the possibility that under certain, limited conditions the applicant could seek a Renewal IHA for an additional year. The notice described the conditions under which such a Renewal request could be considered and expressly sought public comment in the event such a Renewal were sought. Further, since issuance of the initial IHA NMFS has modified the Renewal process to provide notice through the Federal Register and an additional 15-day public comment period at the time the Renewal IHA is requested. NMFS also will provide direct notice of the proposed Renewal to those who commented on the initial IHA, to provide an opportunity to submit any additional comments.

We appreciate the Commission's suggestion that NMFS discuss the potential for IHA Renewals through a more general route, such as a rulemaking. However, utilizing the public comment process associated with IHAs is more efficient for the agency, while still providing for appropriate public input into NMFS' decision-making. Further, NMFS's recent modification to the Renewal process (i.e., soliciting additional public comment at the time of a Renewal request) should alleviate the Commission's concern about the lack of additional public comment and need for a more general rulemaking.

For more information, NMFS has published a description of the Renewal process on our website (available at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​national/​marine-mammal-protection/​incidental-harassment-authorization-renewals).

Preliminary Determinations

The seabird research and monitoring activities proposed by Point Blue are identical to those analyzed in the initial IHA, as are the planned number of days of activity, the method of taking, and the effects of the action. The potential effects of Point Blue's activities are limited to Level B harassment in the form of behavioral disturbance. In analyzing the effects of the activity in the initial IHA, NMFS determined that Point Blue's activities would have a negligible impact on the affected species or stocks and that the authorized take numbers of each species or stock were small relative to the relevant stocks (e.g., less than 13 percent of all stocks). The numbers of marine mammals proposed to be taken in this authorization are identical to those authorized in the initial IHA. The mitigation measures and monitoring and reporting requirements as described above are identical to the initial IHA.

NMFS has preliminarily concluded that there is no new information suggesting that our analysis or findings should change from those reached for the initial IHA. This includes consideration of the estimated abundance of the California sea lion stock decreasing slightly. Based on the information and analysis contained here and in the referenced documents, NMFS has determined the following: (1) The required mitigation measures will effect the least practicable impact on marine mammal species or stocks and their habitat; (2) the authorized takes will have a negligible impact on the affected marine mammal species or stocks; (3) the authorized takes represent small numbers of marine mammals relative to the affected stock abundances; (4) Point Blue's activities will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on taking for subsistence purposes as no relevant subsistence uses of marine mammals are implicated by this action; and (5) appropriate monitoring and reporting requirements are included.

Endangered Species Act

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 West Coast Region Protected Resources Division Office, whenever we propose to authorize take for endangered or threatened species.

No incidental take of ESA-listed species is proposed 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.

Proposed Renewal and Request for Public Comment

As a result of these preliminary determinations, NMFS proposes to issue an IHA Renewal to Point Blue for conducting seabird research activities in Central California, provided the previously described mitigation, monitoring, and reporting requirements are incorporated. A draft of the proposed IHA can be found at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​permit/​incidental-take-authorizations-under-marine-mammal-protection-act. We request comment on our analyses, the proposed Renewal, and any other aspect of this Notice. Please include with your comments any supporting data or literature citations to help inform our final decision on the request for MMPA authorization.

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Dated: November 7, 2019.

Donna S. Wieting,

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

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[FR Doc. 2019-24668 Filed 11-13-19; 8:45 am]

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