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Notice

Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to Marine Site Characterization Surveys Off of New Jersey

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Start Preamble

AGENCY:

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

ACTION:

Notice; proposed incidental harassment authorization; request for comments on proposed authorization and possible renewal.

SUMMARY:

NMFS has received a request from Ocean Wind, LLC (Ocean Wind) for authorization to take marine mammals incidental to marine site characterization surveys off of New Jersey in the area of Commercial Lease of Submerged Lands for Renewable Energy Development on the Outer Continental Shelf Lease Area OCS-A 0498 and potential export cable routes to landfall locations in New Jersey. Pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NMFS is requesting comments on its proposal to issue an incidental harassment authorization (IHA) to incidentally take marine mammals during the specified activities. NMFS is also requesting comments on a possible one-year renewal that could be issued under certain circumstances and if all requirements are met, as described in Request for Public Comments at the end of this notice. NMFS will consider public comments prior to making any final decision on the issuance of the requested MMPA authorizations and agency responses will be summarized in the final notice of our decision.

DATES:

Comments and information must be received no later than May 6, 2021.

ADDRESSES:

Comments should be addressed to Jolie Harrison, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, and should be submitted via email to ITP.Laws@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, including all attachments, must not exceed a 25-megabyte file size. All comments received are a part of the public record and will generally be posted online at 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.

Start Further Info

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Ben Laws, 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: 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.

End Further Info End Preamble Start Supplemental Information

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

The 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 may be 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 the species or stocks for taking for certain subsistence uses (referred to in shorthand as “mitigation”); and requirements pertaining to the mitigation, monitoring and reporting of the takings are set forth. The definitions of all applicable MMPA statutory terms cited above are included in the relevant sections below.

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 IHA) with respect to potential impacts on the human environment.

This action is consistent with categories of activities identified in Categorical Exclusion B4 (IHAs 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 NMFS have not identified any extraordinary circumstances that would preclude this categorical exclusion. Accordingly, NMFS has preliminarily determined that the issuance of the proposed IHA qualifies to be categorically excluded from further NEPA review.

NMFS 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.

Summary of Request

On December 11, 2020, NMFS received a request from Ocean Wind for an IHA to take marine mammals incidental to marine site characterization surveys off of New Jersey in the area of Commercial Lease of Submerged Lands for Renewable Energy Development on the Outer Continental Shelf Lease Area OCS-A 0498 (Lease Area) and potential export cable routes (ECRs) to landfall locations in New Jersey. Following NMFS review of the draft application, a revised version was submitted on February 23, 2021. That revised version was deemed adequate and complete on March 9, 2020. Ocean Wind's request is for take Start Printed Page 17784of 16 species of marine mammals, by Level B harassment only. Neither Ocean Wind nor NMFS expects serious injury or mortality to result from this activity and, therefore, an IHA is appropriate.

NMFS previously issued an IHA to Ocean Wind for similar work in the same geographic area on June 8, 2017 (82 FR 31562; July 7, 2017) with effective dates from June 8, 2017, through June 7, 2018. Ocean Wind complied with all the requirements (e.g., mitigation, monitoring, and reporting) of the previous IHA.

Description of Proposed Activity

Overview

As part of its overall marine site characterization survey operations, Ocean Wind proposes to conduct high-resolution geophysical (HRG) surveys in the Lease Area and along potential ECRs to landfall locations in New Jersey.

The purpose of the marine site characterization surveys are to obtain an assessment of seabed (geophysical, geotechnical, and geohazard), ecological, and archeological conditions within the footprint of a planned offshore wind facility development. Surveys are also conducted to support engineering design and to map unexploded ordnance. Underwater sound resulting from Ocean Wind's proposed site characterization survey activities, specifically HRG surveys, has the potential to result in incidental take of marine mammals in the form of Level B behavioral harassment.

Dates and Duration

The estimated duration of HRG survey activity is expected to be up to 275 survey days over the course of a single year, with a “survey day” defined as a 24-hour (hr) activity period. Ocean Wind proposes to start survey activity as soon as possible in spring 2021. The IHA would be effective for one year from the date of issuance.

This schedule is based on 24-hr operations and includes potential down time due to inclement weather. Although some shallow-water locations may be surveyed by smaller vessels that would operate during daylight hours only, the estimated total number of survey days assumes uniform 24-hr operations. The number of estimated survey days varies between the Lease Area and ECR area, with 142 vessel survey days expected in the Lease Area and 133 vessel survey days in the ECR area.

Specific Geographic Region

The proposed survey activities will occur within the Project Area which includes the Lease Area and potential ECRs, as shown in Figure 1. The Lease Area is approximately 649 square kilometers (km2) and is within the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's New Jersey Wind Energy Area (WEA). Water depths in the Lease Area range from 15 meters (m) to 35 m, and the potential ECRs extend from the shoreline to approximately 40 m depth.

Start Printed Page 17785

Detailed Description of Specific Activity

Ocean Wind proposes to conduct HRG survey operations, including multibeam depth sounding, seafloor imaging, and shallow and medium penetration sub-bottom profiling. The HRG surveys may be conducted using any or all of the following equipment types: Side scan sonar, multibeam echosounder, magnetometers and gradiometers, parametric sub-bottom profiler (SBP), CHIRP SBP, boomers, or sparkers. Ocean Wind assumes that Start Printed Page 17786HRG survey operations would be conducted 24 hours per day, with an assumed daily survey distance of 70 km. Vessels would generally conduct survey effort at a transit speed of approximately 4 knots (kn), which equates to 110 km per 24-hr period. However, based on past survey experience (i.e., knowledge of typical daily downtime due to weather, system malfunctions, etc.) Ocean Wind assumes 70 km as the average daily distance. On this basis, a total of 275 survey days (142 survey days in the Lease Area and 133 survey days in the ECR area) are expected. In certain shallow-water areas, vessels may conduct survey effort during daylight hours only, with a corresponding assumption that the daily survey distance would be halved (35 km). However, for purposes of analysis all survey days are assumed to cover the maximum 70 km. A maximum of two vessels would operate concurrently in areas where 24-hr operations would be conducted, with an additional third vessel potentially conducting daylight-only survey effort in shallow-water areas.

Acoustic sources planned for use during HRG survey activities proposed by Ocean Wind include the following:

  • Shallow penetration, non-impulsive, non-parametric SBPs (i.e., CHIRP SBPs) are used to map the near-surface stratigraphy (top 0 to 10 m) of sediment below seabed. A CHIRP system emits signals covering a frequency sweep from approximately 2 to 20 kHz over time. The frequency range can be adjusted to meet project variables. These sources are typically mounted on a pole rather than towed, reducing the likelihood that an animal would be exposed to the signal.
  • Medium penetration, impulsive sources (i.e., boomers and sparkers) are used to map deeper subsurface stratigraphy. A boomer is a broadband source operating in the 3.5 Hz to 10 kHz frequency range. Sparkers create omnidirectional acoustic pulses from 50 Hz to 4 kHz. These sources are typically towed behind the vessel.

Operation of the following survey equipment types is not expected to present reasonable risk of marine mammal take, and will not be discussed further beyond the brief summaries provided below.

  • Non-impulsive, parametric SBPs are used for providing high data density in sub-bottom profiles that are typically required for cable routes, very shallow water, and archaeological surveys. These sources generate short, very narrow-beam (1° to 3.5°) signals at high frequencies (generally around 85-100 kHz). The narrow beamwidth significantly reduces the potential that a marine mammal could be exposed to the signal, while the high frequency of operation means that the signal is rapidly attenuated in seawater. These sources are typically deployed on a pole rather than towed behind the vessel.
  • Acoustic corers are seabed-mounted sources with three distinct sound sources: A high-frequency parametric sonar, a high-frequency CHIRP sonar, and a low-frequency CHIRP sonar. The beamwidth is narrow (3.5° to 8°) and the source is operated roughly 3.5 m above the seabed with the transducer pointed directly downward.
  • Ultra-short baseline (USBL) positioning systems are used to provide high accuracy ranges by measuring the time between the acoustic pulses transmitted by the vessel transceiver and a transponder (or beacon) necessary to produce the acoustic profile. It is a two-component system with a pole-mounted transceiver and one or several transponders mounted on other survey equipment. USBLs are expected to produce extremely small acoustic propagation distances in their typical operating configuration.
  • Multibeam echosounders (MBESs) are used to determine water depths and general bottom topography. The proposed MBESs all have operating frequencies >180 kHz and are therefore outside the general hearing range of marine mammals.
  • Side scan sonars (SSS) are used for seabed sediment classification purposes and to identify natural and man-made acoustic targets on the seafloor. The proposed SSSs all have operating frequencies >180 kHz and are therefore outside the general hearing range of marine mammals.

Table 1 identifies representative survey equipment with the expected potential to result in exposure of marine mammals and potentially result in take. The make and model of the listed geophysical equipment may vary depending on availability and the final equipment choices will vary depending upon the final survey design, vessel availability, and survey contractor selection.

Table 1—Summary of Representative HRG Equipment

EquipmentOperating frequency (kHz)SLrms (dB re 1 µPa m)SL0-pk (dB re 1 µPa m)Pulse duration (width) (millisecond)Repetition rate (Hz)Beamwidth (degrees)CF = Crocker and Fratantonio (2016) MAN = manufacturer
Non-parametric shallow penetration SBPs (non-impulsive)
ET 216 (2000DS or 3200 top unit)2-16 2-8195-20624MAN.
ET 4244-24176-3.4271CF.
ET 5120.7-12179-9880CF.
GeoPulse 5430A2-17196-501055MAN.
Teledyne Benthos Chirp III—TTV 1702-7197-6015100MAN.
Medium penetration SBPs (impulsive)
AA, Dura-spark UHD (400 tips, 500 J) 10.3-1.22032111.14OmniCF.
AA, triple plate S-Boom (700-1,000 J) 20.1-52052110.6480CF.
- = not applicable; μPa = micropascal; AA = Applied Acoustics; dB = decibel; ET = EdgeTech; J = joule; Omni = omnidirectional source; re = referenced to; PK = zero-to-peak sound pressure level; SL = source level; SPL = root-mean-square sound pressure level; UHD = ultra-high definition.
1 The Dura-spark measurements and specifications provided in Crocker and Fratantonio (2016) were used for all sparker systems proposed for the survey. These include variants of the Dura-spark sparker system and various configurations of the GeoMarine Geo-Source sparker system. The data provided in Crocker and Fratantonio (2016) represent the most applicable data for similar sparker systems with comparable operating methods and settings when manufacturer or other reliable measurements are not available.
2 Crocker and Fratantonio (2016) provide S-Boom measurements using two different power sources (CSP-D700 and CSP-N). The CSP-D700 power source was used in the 700 J measurements but not in the 1,000 J measurements. The CSP-N source was measured for both 700 J and 1,000 J operations but resulted in a lower SL; therefore, the single maximum SL value was used for both operational levels of the S-Boom.
Start Printed Page 17787

Proposed mitigation, monitoring, and reporting measures are described in detail later in this document (please see Proposed Mitigation and Proposed Monitoring and Reporting).

Description of Marine Mammals in the Area of Specified Activities

Sections 3 and 4 of the application summarize available information regarding status and trends, distribution and habitat preferences, and behavior and life history, of the potentially affected species. Additional information regarding population trends and threats may be found in NMFS' Stock Assessment Reports (SARs; www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​national/​marine-mammal-protection/​marine-mammal-stock-assessments) and more general information about these species (e.g., physical and behavioral descriptions) may be found on NMFS' website (www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​find-species).

Table 2 lists all species or stocks for which take is expected and proposed to be authorized for this action, and summarizes information related to the population or stock, including regulatory status under the MMPA and Endangered Species Act (ESA) and potential biological removal (PBR), where known. For taxonomy, NMFS follows the Committee on Taxonomy (2020). PBR is defined by the MMPA as the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population (as described in NMFS' SARs). While no mortality is anticipated or would be authorized here, PBR and annual serious injury and mortality from anthropogenic sources are included as gross indicators of the status of the species and other threats.

Marine mammal abundance estimates presented in this document represent the total number of individuals that make up a given stock or the total number estimated within a particular study or survey area. NMFS' stock abundance estimates for most species represent the total estimate of individuals within the geographic area, if known, that comprises that stock. For some species, this geographic area may extend beyond U.S. waters. All managed stocks in this region are assessed in NMFS' U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico SARs. All values presented in Table 2 are the most recent available at the time of publication and are available in the 2019 SARs (Hayes et al., 2020) and draft 2020 SARS, available at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​national/​marine-mammal-protection/​marine-mammal-stock-assessment-reports.

Table 2—Marine Mammal Species Likely to Occur Near the Project Area That May Be Affected by Ocean Wind's Activity

Common nameScientific nameStockESA/MMPA status; strategic (Y/N) 1Stock abundance (CV, Nmin, most recent abundance survey) 2PBRAnnual M/SI 3
Order Cetartiodactyla—Cetacea—Superfamily Mysticeti (baleen whales)
Family Balaenidae:
North Atlantic right whaleEubalaena glacialisWestern North Atlantic (WNA)E/D; Y412 (0; 408; 2018)0.818.6
Family Balaenopteridae (rorquals):
Humpback whaleMegaptera novaeangliaeGulf of Maine-/-; Y1,393 (0.15; 1,375; 2016)2258
Fin whaleBalaenoptera physalusWNAE/D; Y6,802 (0.24; 5,573; 2016)112.35
Sei whaleBalaenoptera borealisNova ScotiaE/D; Y6,292 (1.02; 3,098; 2016)6.21.2
Minke whaleBalaenoptera acutorostrataCanadian East Coast-/-; N21,968 (0.31; 17,002; 2016)17010.6
Superfamily Odontoceti (toothed whales, dolphins, and porpoises)
Family Physeteridae:
Sperm whalePhyseter macrocephalusNorth AtlanticE/D; Y4,349 (0.28;3,451; 2016)3.90
Family Delphinidae:
Long-finned pilot whaleGlobicephala melasWNA-/-; N39,215 (0.30; 30,627; 2016)30621
Short finned pilot whaleGlobicephala macrorhynchusWNA-/-; N28,924 (0.24; 23,637; 2016)236160
Bottlenose dolphinTursiops truncatusWNA Offshore-/-; N62,851 (0.23; 51,914; 2016)51928
WNA Northern Migratory Coastal-/D;Y6,639 (0.41, 4,759, 2016)4812.2-21.5
Common dolphinDelphinus delphisWNA-/-; N172,974 (0.21; 145,216; 2016)1,452399
Atlantic white-sided dolphinLagenorhynchus acutusWNA-/-; N93,233 (0.71; 54,443; 2016)54426
Atlantic spotted dolphinStenella frontalisWNA-/-; N39,921 (0.27; 32,032; 2016)3200
Risso's dolphinGrampus griseusWNA-/-; N35,493 (0.19; 30,289; 2016)30354.3
Family Phocoenidae (porpoises):
Harbor porpoisePhocoena phocoenaGulf of Maine/Bay of Fundy-/-; N95,543 (0.31; 74,034; 2016)851217
Order Carnivora—Superfamily Pinnipedia
Family Phocidae (earless seals):
Gray seal 4Halichoerus grypusWNA-/-; N27,131 (0.19; 23,158, 2016)1,3894,729
Harbor sealPhoca vitulinaWNA-/-; N75,834 (0.15; 66,884, 2012)2,006350
1 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.fisheries.noaa.gov/​national/​marine-mammal-protection/​marine-mammal-stock-assessments. CV is coefficient of variation; Nmin is the minimum estimate of stock abundance. In some cases, CV is not applicable.
3 These values, found in NMFS' SARs, represent annual levels of human-caused mortality plus serious injury from all sources combined (e.g., commercial fisheries, ship strike).
4 NMFS' stock abundance estimate (and associated PBR value) applies to U.S. population only. Total stock abundance (including animals in Canada) is approximately 451,431. The annual M/SI value given is for the total stock.
Start Printed Page 17788

As indicated above, all 16 species (with 17 managed stocks) in Table 2 temporally and spatially co-occur with the activity to the degree that take is reasonably likely to occur. In addition to what is included in Sections 3 and 4 of the application, the SARs, and NMFS' website, further detail informing the baseline for select species (i.e., information regarding current Unusual Mortality Events (UME) and important habitat areas) is provided below.

North Atlantic Right Whale

Elevated North Atlantic right whale mortalities have occurred since June 7, 2017, along the U.S. and Canadian coast. This event has been declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME), with human interactions, including entanglement in fixed fishing gear and vessel strikes, implicated in at least 15 of the mortalities thus far. As of March 12, 2021, a total of 34 confirmed dead stranded whales (21 in Canada; 13 in the United States) have been documented. The cumulative total number of animals in the North Atlantic right whale UME has been updated to 49 individuals to include both the confirmed mortalities (dead stranded or floaters) (n=34) and seriously injured free-swimming whales (n=15) to better reflect the confirmed number of whales likely removed from the population during the UME and more accurately reflect the population impacts. More information is available online at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​national/​marine-life-distress/​2017-2021-north-atlantic-right-whale-unusual-mortality-event.

The proposed survey area is part of a migratory corridor Biologically Important Area (BIA) for North Atlantic right whales (effective March-April and November-December) that extends from Massachusetts to Florida (LeBrecque et al., 2015). Off the coast of New Jersey, the migratory BIA extends from the coast to beyond the shelf break. This important migratory area is approximately 269,488 km2 in size (compared with the approximately 5,500 km2 of total estimated Level B harassment ensonified area associated with the 275 planned survey days) and is comprised of the waters of the continental shelf offshore the East Coast of the United States, extending from Florida through Massachusetts. NMFS' regulations at 50 CFR part 224.105 designated nearshore waters of the Mid-Atlantic Bight as Mid-Atlantic U.S. Seasonal Management Areas (SMA) for right whales in 2008. SMAs were developed to reduce the threat of collisions between ships and right whales around their migratory route and calving grounds. A portion of one SMA, which occurs off the mouth of Delaware Bay, overlaps spatially with a section of the proposed survey area. The SMA which occurs off the mouth of Delaware Bay is active from November 1 through April 30 of each year.

Humpback Whale

NMFS recently evaluated the status of the species, and on September 8, 2016, NMFS divided the species into 14 distinct population segments (DPS), removed the species-level listing, and in its place listed four DPSs as endangered and one DPS as threatened (81 FR 62260; September 8, 2016). The remaining nine DPSs were not listed. The West Indies DPS, which is not listed under the ESA, is the only DPS of humpback whale that is expected to occur in the survey area. Bettridge et al. (2015) estimated the size of this population at 12,312 (95 percent CI 8,688-15,954) whales in 2004-05, which is consistent with previous population estimates of approximately 10,000-11,000 whales (Stevick et al., 2003; Smith et al., 1999) and the increasing trend for the West Indies DPS (Bettridge et al., 2015). Whales occurring in the survey area are considered to be from the West Indies DPS, but are not necessarily from the Gulf of Maine feeding population managed as a stock by NMFS. Barco et al., 2002 estimated that, based on photo-identification, only 39 percent of individual humpback whales observed along the mid- and south Atlantic U.S. coast are from the Gulf of Maine stock.

Since January 2016, elevated humpback whale mortalities have occurred along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. Partial or full necropsy examinations have been conducted on approximately half of the 147 known cases (as of March 8, 2021). Of the whales examined, about 50 percent had evidence of human interaction, either ship strike or entanglement. While a portion of the whales have shown evidence of pre-mortem vessel strike, this finding is not consistent across all whales examined and more research is needed. NOAA is consulting with researchers that are conducting studies on the humpback whale populations, and these efforts may provide information on changes in whale distribution and habitat use that could provide additional insight into how these vessel interactions occurred. More information is available at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​national/​marine-life-distress/​2016-2021-humpback-whale-unusual-mortality-event-along-atlantic-coast.

Minke Whale

Since January 2017, elevated minke whale mortalities have occurred along the Atlantic coast from Maine through South Carolina, with a total of 105 strandings (as of March 8, 2021). This event has been declared a UME. Full or partial necropsy examinations were conducted on more than 60 percent of the whales. Preliminary findings in several of the whales have shown evidence of human interactions or infectious disease, but these findings are not consistent across all of the whales examined, so more research is needed. More information is available at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​national/​marine-life-distress/​2017-2021-minke-whale-unusual-mortality-event-along-atlantic-coast.

Seals

Since July 2018, elevated numbers of harbor seal and gray seal mortalities have occurred across Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. This event has been declared a UME. Additionally, stranded seals have shown clinical signs as far south as Virginia, although not in elevated numbers, therefore the UME investigation now encompasses all seal strandings from Maine to Virginia. Ice seals (harp and hooded seals) have also started stranding with clinical signs, again not in elevated numbers, and those two seal species have also been added to the UME investigation. A total of 3,152 reported strandings (of all species) had occurred from July 1, 2018, through March 13, 2020. Full or partial necropsy examinations have been conducted on some of the seals and samples have been collected for testing. Based on tests conducted thus far, the main pathogen found in the seals is phocine distemper virus. NMFS is performing additional testing to identify any other factors that may be involved in this UME. Information on this UME is available online at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​new-england-mid-atlantic/​marine-life-distress/​2018-2020-pinniped-unusual-mortality-event-along.

Marine Mammal Hearing

Hearing is the most important sensory modality for marine mammals underwater, and exposure to anthropogenic sound can have deleterious effects. To appropriately assess the potential effects of exposure to sound, it is necessary to understand the frequency ranges marine mammals are able to hear. Current data indicate that not all marine mammal species have equal hearing capabilities (e.g., Start Printed Page 17789Richardson et al., 1995; Wartzok and Ketten, 1999; Au and Hastings, 2008). To reflect this, Southall et al. (2007) recommended that marine mammals be divided into functional hearing groups based on directly measured or estimated hearing ranges on the basis of available behavioral response data, audiograms derived using auditory evoked potential techniques, anatomical modeling, and other data. Note that no direct measurements of hearing ability have been successfully completed for mysticetes (i.e., low-frequency cetaceans). Subsequently, NMFS (2018) described generalized hearing ranges for these marine mammal hearing groups. Generalized hearing ranges were chosen based on the approximately 65 decibel (dB) threshold from the normalized composite audiograms, with the exception for lower limits for low-frequency cetaceans where the lower bound was deemed to be biologically implausible and the lower bound from Southall et al. (2007) retained. Marine mammal hearing groups and their associated hearing ranges are provided in Table 3.

Table 3—Marine Mammal Hearing Groups

[NMFS, 2018]

Hearing groupGeneralized hearing range *
Low-frequency (LF) cetaceans (baleen whales)7 Hz to 35 kHz.
Mid-frequency (MF) cetaceans (dolphins, toothed whales, beaked whales, bottlenose whales)150 Hz to 160 kHz.
High-frequency (HF) cetaceans (true porpoises, Kogia, river dolphins, cephalorhynchid, Lagenorhynchus cruciger & L. australis)275 Hz to 160 kHz.
Phocid pinnipeds (PW) (underwater) (true seals)50 Hz to 86 kHz.
Otariid pinnipeds (OW) (underwater) (sea lions and fur seals)60 Hz to 39 kHz.
* Represents the generalized hearing range for the entire group as a composite (i.e., all species within the group), where individual species' hearing ranges are typically not as broad. Generalized hearing range chosen based on ~65 dB threshold from normalized composite audiogram, with the exception for lower limits for LF cetaceans (Southall et al. 2007) and PW pinniped (approximation).

The pinniped functional hearing group was modified from Southall et al. (2007) on the basis of data indicating that phocid species have consistently demonstrated an extended frequency range of hearing compared to otariids, especially in the higher frequency range (Hemilä et al., 2006; Kastelein et al., 2009).

For more detail concerning these groups and associated frequency ranges, please see NMFS (2018) for a review of available information. Sixteen marine mammal species (14 cetacean and 2 pinniped (both phocid) species) have the reasonable potential to co-occur with the proposed survey activities. Please refer to Table 2. Of the cetacean species that may be present, five are classified as low-frequency cetaceans (i.e., all mysticete species), eight are classified as mid-frequency cetaceans (i.e., all delphinid species and the sperm whale), and one is classified as a high-frequency cetacean (i.e., harbor porpoise).

Potential Effects of Specified Activities on Marine Mammals and Their Habitat

This section includes a summary of the ways that Ocean Wind's specified activity may impact marine mammals and their habitat. Detailed descriptions of the potential effects of similar specified activities have been provided in other recent Federal Register notices, including for survey activities using the same methodology, over a similar amount of time, and occurring within the same specified geographical region (e.g., 82 FR 20563, May 3, 2017; 85 FR 36537, June 17, 2020; 85 FR 37848, June 24, 2020; 85 FR 48179, August 10, 2020). No significant new information is available, and we refer the reader to these documents rather than repeating the details here. The Estimated Take section includes a quantitative analysis of the number of individuals that are expected to be taken by Ocean Wind's activity. The Negligible Impact Analysis and Determination section considers the potential effects of the specified activity, the Estimated Take section, and the Proposed Mitigation section, to draw conclusions regarding the likely impacts of these activities on the reproductive success or survivorship of individuals and how those impacts on individuals are likely to impact marine mammal species or stocks.

Background on Active Acoustic Sound Sources and Acoustic Terminology

This subsection contains a brief technical background on sound, on the characteristics of certain sound types, and on metrics used in this proposal inasmuch as the information is relevant to the specified activity and to the summary of the potential effects of the specified activity on marine mammals. For general information on sound and its interaction with the marine environment, please see, e.g., Au and Hastings (2008); Richardson et al. (1995); Urick (1983).

Sound travels in waves, the basic components of which are frequency, wavelength, velocity, and amplitude. Frequency is the number of pressure waves that pass by a reference point per unit of time and is measured in hertz or cycles per second. Wavelength is the distance between two peaks or corresponding points of a sound wave (length of one cycle). Higher frequency sounds have shorter wavelengths than lower frequency sounds, and typically attenuate (decrease) more rapidly, except in certain cases in shallower water. Amplitude is the height of the sound pressure wave or the “loudness” of a sound and is typically described using the relative unit of the decibel. A sound pressure level (SPL) in dB is described as the ratio between a measured pressure and a reference pressure (for underwater sound, this is 1 microPascal (μPa)), and is a logarithmic unit that accounts for large variations in amplitude. Therefore, a relatively small change in dB corresponds to large changes in sound pressure. The source level (SL) represents the SPL referenced at a distance of 1 m from the source (referenced to 1 μPa), while the received level is the SPL at the listener's position (referenced to 1 μPa).

Root mean square (rms) is the quadratic mean sound pressure over the duration of an impulse. Root mean square is calculated by squaring all of the sound amplitudes, averaging the squares, and then taking the square root of the average (Urick, 1983). Root mean square accounts for both positive and negative values; squaring the pressures makes all values positive so that they may be accounted for in the summation of pressure levels (Hastings and Popper, 2005). This measurement is often used in the context of discussing behavioral effects, in part because behavioral effects, which often result from auditory Start Printed Page 17790cues, may be better expressed through averaged units than by peak pressures.

Sound exposure level (SEL; represented as dB re 1 μPa2-s) represents the total energy in a stated frequency band over a stated time interval or event and considers both intensity and duration of exposure. The per-pulse SEL is calculated over the time window containing the entire pulse (i.e., 100 percent of the acoustic energy). SEL is a cumulative metric; it can be accumulated over a single pulse, or calculated over periods containing multiple pulses. Cumulative SEL represents the total energy accumulated by a receiver over a defined time window or during an event. Peak sound pressure (also referred to as zero-to-peak sound pressure or 0-pk) is the maximum instantaneous sound pressure measurable in the water at a specified distance from the source and is represented in the same units as the rms sound pressure.

When underwater objects vibrate or activity occurs, sound-pressure waves are created. These waves alternately compress and decompress the water as the sound wave travels. Underwater sound waves radiate in a manner similar to ripples on the surface of a pond and may be either directed in a beam or beams or may radiate in all directions (omnidirectional sources), as is the case for sound produced by the pile driving activity considered here. The compressions and decompressions associated with sound waves are detected as changes in pressure by aquatic life and man-made sound receptors such as hydrophones.

Even in the absence of sound from the specified activity, the underwater environment is typically loud due to ambient sound, which is defined as environmental background sound levels lacking a single source or point (Richardson et al., 1995). The sound level of a region is defined by the total acoustical energy being generated by known and unknown sources. These sources may include physical (e.g., wind and waves, earthquakes, ice, atmospheric sound), biological (e.g., sounds produced by marine mammals, fish, and invertebrates), and anthropogenic (e.g., vessels, dredging, construction) sound. A number of sources contribute to ambient sound, including wind and waves, which are a main source of naturally occurring ambient sound for frequencies between 200 Hz and 50 kHz (Mitson, 1995). In general, ambient sound levels tend to increase with increasing wind speed and wave height. Precipitation can become an important component of total sound at frequencies above 500 Hz, and possibly down to 100 Hz during quiet times. Marine mammals can contribute significantly to ambient sound levels, as can some fish and snapping shrimp. The frequency band for biological contributions is from approximately 12 Hz to over 100 kHz. Sources of ambient sound related to human activity include transportation (surface vessels), dredging and construction, oil and gas drilling and production, geophysical surveys, sonar, and explosions. Vessel noise typically dominates the total ambient sound for frequencies between 20 and 300 Hz. In general, the frequencies of anthropogenic sounds are below 1 kHz and, if higher frequency sound levels are created, they attenuate rapidly.

The sum of the various natural and anthropogenic sound sources that comprise ambient sound at any given location and time depends not only on the source levels (as determined by current weather conditions and levels of biological and human activity) but also on the ability of sound to propagate through the environment. In turn, sound propagation is dependent on the spatially and temporally varying properties of the water column and sea floor, and is frequency-dependent. As a result of the dependence on a large number of varying factors, ambient sound levels can be expected to vary widely over both coarse and fine spatial and temporal scales. Sound levels at a given frequency and location can vary by 10-20 dB from day to day (Richardson et al., 1995). The result is that, depending on the source type and its intensity, sound from the specified activity may be a negligible addition to the local environment or could form a distinctive signal that may affect marine mammals. Details of source types are described in the following text.

Sounds are often considered to fall into one of two general types: Pulsed and non-pulsed (defined in the following). The distinction between these two sound types is important because they have differing potential to cause physical effects, particularly with regard to hearing (e.g., Ward, 1997 in Southall et al., 2007). Please see Southall et al. (2007) for an in-depth discussion of these concepts. The distinction between these two sound types is not always obvious, as certain signals share properties of both pulsed and non-pulsed sounds. A signal near a source could be categorized as a pulse, but due to propagation effects as it moves farther from the source, the signal duration becomes longer (e.g., Greene and Richardson, 1988).

Pulsed sound sources (e.g., airguns, explosions, gunshots, sonic booms, impact pile driving) produce signals that are brief (typically considered to be less than one second), broadband, atonal transients (ANSI, 1986, 2005; Harris, 1998; NIOSH, 1998; ISO, 2003) and occur either as isolated events or repeated in some succession. Pulsed sounds are all characterized by a relatively rapid rise from ambient pressure to a maximal pressure value followed by a rapid decay period that may include a period of diminishing, oscillating maximal and minimal pressures, and generally have an increased capacity to induce physical injury as compared with sounds that lack these features.

Non-pulsed sounds can be tonal, narrowband, or broadband, brief or prolonged, and may be either continuous or intermittent (ANSI, 1995; NIOSH, 1998). Some of these non-pulsed sounds can be transient signals of short duration but without the essential properties of pulses (e.g., rapid rise time). Examples of non-pulsed sounds include those produced by vessels, aircraft, machinery operations such as drilling or dredging, vibratory pile driving, and active sonar systems. The duration of such sounds, as received at a distance, can be greatly extended in a highly reverberant environment.

Sparkers and boomers produce pulsed signals with energy in the frequency ranges specified in Table 1. The amplitude of the acoustic wave emitted from sparker sources is equal in all directions (i.e., omnidirectional), while other sources planned for use during the proposed surveys have some degree of directionality to the beam, as specified in Table 1. Other sources planned for use during the proposed survey activity (e.g., CHIRP SBPs) should be considered non-pulsed, intermittent sources.

Summary on Specific Potential Effects of Acoustic Sound Sources

Underwater sound from active acoustic sources can include one or more of the following: Temporary or permanent hearing impairment, non-auditory physical or physiological effects, behavioral disturbance, stress, and masking. The degree of effect is intrinsically related to the signal characteristics, received level, distance from the source, and duration of the sound exposure. Marine mammals exposed to high-intensity sound, or to lower-intensity sound for prolonged periods, can experience hearing threshold shift (TS), which is the loss of hearing sensitivity at certain frequency ranges (Finneran, 2015). TS can be permanent (PTS), in which case the loss of hearing sensitivity is not fully Start Printed Page 17791recoverable, or temporary (TTS), in which case the animal's hearing threshold would recover over time (Southall et al., 2007).

Animals in the vicinity of Ocean Wind's proposed HRG survey activity are unlikely to incur even TTS due to the characteristics of the sound sources, which include relatively low source levels (176 to 205 dB re 1 μPa-m) and generally very short pulses and potential duration of exposure. These characteristics mean that instantaneous exposure is unlikely to cause TTS, as it is unlikely that exposure would occur close enough to the vessel for received levels to exceed peak pressure TTS criteria, and that the cumulative duration of exposure would be insufficient to exceed cumulative sound exposure level (SEL) criteria. Even for high-frequency cetacean species (e.g., harbor porpoises), which have the greatest sensitivity to potential TTS, individuals would have to make a very close approach and also remain very close to vessels operating these sources in order to receive multiple exposures at relatively high levels, as would be necessary to cause TTS. Intermittent exposures—as would occur due to the brief, transient signals produced by these sources—require a higher cumulative SEL to induce TTS than would continuous exposures of the same duration (i.e., intermittent exposure results in lower levels of TTS). Moreover, most marine mammals would more likely avoid a loud sound source rather than swim in such close proximity as to result in TTS. Kremser et al. (2005) noted that the probability of a cetacean swimming through the area of exposure when a sub-bottom profiler emits a pulse is small—because if the animal was in the area, it would have to pass the transducer at close range in order to be subjected to sound levels that could cause TTS and would likely exhibit avoidance behavior to the area near the transducer rather than swim through at such a close range. Further, the restricted beam shape of many of HRG survey devices planned for use (Table 1) makes it unlikely that an animal would be exposed more than briefly during the passage of the vessel.

Behavioral disturbance may include a variety of effects, including subtle changes in behavior (e.g., minor or brief avoidance of an area or changes in vocalizations), more conspicuous changes in similar behavioral activities, and more sustained and/or potentially severe reactions, such as displacement from or abandonment of high-quality habitat. Behavioral responses to sound are highly variable and context-specific and any reactions depend on numerous intrinsic and extrinsic factors (e.g., species, state of maturity, experience, current activity, reproductive state, auditory sensitivity, time of day), as well as the interplay between factors. Available studies show wide variation in response to underwater sound; therefore, it is difficult to predict specifically how any given sound in a particular instance might affect marine mammals perceiving the signal.

In addition, sound can disrupt behavior through masking, or interfering with, an animal's ability to detect, recognize, or discriminate between acoustic signals of interest (e.g., those used for intraspecific communication and social interactions, prey detection, predator avoidance, navigation). Masking occurs when the receipt of a sound is interfered with by another coincident sound at similar frequencies and at similar or higher intensity, and may occur whether the sound is natural (e.g., snapping shrimp, wind, waves, precipitation) or anthropogenic (e.g., shipping, sonar, seismic exploration) in origin. Marine mammal communications would not likely be masked appreciably by the acoustic signals signals given the directionality of the signals for most HRG survey equipment types planned for use (Table 1) and the brief period when an individual mammal is likely to be exposed.

Sound may affect marine mammals through impacts on the abundance, behavior, or distribution of prey species (e.g., crustaceans, cephalopods, fish, zooplankton) (i.e., effects to marine mammal habitat). Prey species exposed to sound might move away from the sound source, experience TTS, experience masking of biologically relevant sounds, or show no obvious direct effects. The most likely impacts (if any) for most prey species in a given area would be temporary avoidance of the area. Surveys using active acoustic sound sources move through an area relatively quickly, limiting exposure to multiple pulses. In all cases, sound levels would return to ambient once a survey ends and the noise source is shut down and, when exposure to sound ends, behavioral and/or physiological responses are expected to end relatively quickly. Finally, the HRG survey equipment will not have significant impacts to the seafloor and does not represent a source of pollution.

Vessel Strike

Vessel collisions with marine mammals, or ship strikes, can result in death or serious injury of the animal. These interactions are typically associated with large whales, which are less maneuverable than are smaller cetaceans or pinnipeds in relation to large vessels. Ship strikes generally involve commercial shipping vessels, which are generally larger and of which there is much more traffic in the ocean than geophysical survey vessels. Jensen and Silber (2004) summarized ship strikes of large whales worldwide from 1975-2003 and found that most collisions occurred in the open ocean and involved large vessels (e.g., commercial shipping). For vessels used in geophysical survey activities, vessel speed while towing gear is typically only 4-5 knots. At these speeds, both the possibility of striking a marine mammal and the possibility of a strike resulting in serious injury or mortality are so low as to be discountable. At average transit speed for geophysical survey vessels, the probability of serious injury or mortality resulting from a strike is less than 50 percent. However, the likelihood of a strike actually happening is again low given the smaller size of these vessels and generally slower speeds. Notably in the Jensen and Silber study, no strike incidents were reported for geophysical survey vessels during that time period.

The potential effects of Ocean Wind's specified survey activity are expected to be limited to Level B behavioral harassment. No permanent or temporary auditory effects, or significant impacts to marine mammal habitat, including prey, are expected.

Estimated Take

This section provides an estimate of the number of incidental takes proposed for authorization through this IHA, which will inform both NMFS' consideration of “small numbers” 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 noise from certain HRG acoustic sources. Based primarily on the characteristics of the signals Start Printed Page 17792produced by the acoustic sources planned for use, Level A harassment is neither anticipated (even absent mitigation), nor proposed to be authorized. Consideration of the anticipated effectiveness of the mitigation measures (i.e., exclusion zones and shutdown measures), discussed in detail below in the Proposed Mitigation section, further strengthens the conclusion that Level A harassment is not a reasonably anticipated outcome of the survey activity. As described previously, no serious injury or mortality is anticipated or proposed to be authorized for this activity. Below we describe how the take is estimated.

Generally speaking, we estimate take by considering: (1) Acoustic thresholds above which NMFS believes the best available science indicates marine mammals will be behaviorally harassed or incur some degree of permanent hearing impairment; (2) the area or volume of water that will be ensonified above these levels in a day; (3) the density or occurrence of marine mammals within these ensonified areas; and, (4) and the number of days of activities. We note that while these basic factors can contribute to a basic calculation to provide an initial prediction of takes, additional information that can qualitatively inform take estimates is also sometimes available (e.g., previous monitoring results or average group size). Below, we describe the factors considered here in more detail and present the proposed take estimates.

Acoustic Thresholds

NMFS uses acoustic thresholds that identify the received level of underwater sound above which exposed marine mammals would be reasonably expected to be behaviorally harassed (equated to Level B harassment) or to incur PTS of some degree (equated to Level A harassment).

Level B Harassment—Though significantly driven by received level, the onset of behavioral disturbance from anthropogenic noise exposure is also informed to varying degrees by other factors related to the source (e.g., frequency, predictability, duty cycle), the environment (e.g., bathymetry), and the receiving animals (hearing, motivation, experience, demography, behavioral context) and can be difficult to predict (Southall et al., 2007; Ellison et al., 2012). NMFS uses a generalized acoustic threshold based on received level to estimate the onset of behavioral harassment. NMFS predicts that marine mammals may be behaviorally harassed (i.e., Level B harassment) when exposed to underwater anthropogenic noise above received levels of 160 dB re 1 μPa (rms) for the impulsive sources (i.e., boomers, sparkers) and non-impulsive, intermittent sources (e.g., CHIRP SBPs) evaluated here for Ocean Wind's proposed activity.

Level A Harassment—NMFS' Technical Guidance for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammal Hearing (Version 2.0) (Technical Guidance, 2018) identifies dual criteria to assess auditory injury (Level A harassment) to five different marine mammal groups (based on hearing sensitivity) as a result of exposure to noise from two different types of sources (impulsive or non-impulsive). For more information, see NMFS' 2018 Technical Guidance, which may be accessed at www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​national/​marine-mammal-protection/​marine-mammal-acoustic-technical-guidance.

Ocean Wind's proposed activity includes the use of impulsive (i.e., sparkers and boomers) and non-impulsive (e.g., CHIRP SBP) sources. However, as discussed above, NMFS has concluded that Level A harassment is not a reasonably likely outcome for marine mammals exposed to noise through use of the sources proposed for use here, and the potential for Level A harassment is not evaluated further in this document. Please see Ocean Wind's application for details of a quantitative exposure analysis exercise, i.e., calculated Level A harassment isopleths and estimated Level A harassment exposures. Maximum estimated Level A harassment isopleths were less than 5 m for all sources and hearing groups with the exception of an estimated 37 m zone calculated for high-frequency cetaceans during use of the GeoPulse 5430 CHIRP SBP (see Table 1 for source characteristics). Ocean Wind did not request authorization of take by Level A harassment, and no take by Level A harassment is proposed for authorization by NMFS.

Ensonified Area

NMFS has developed a user-friendly methodology for estimating the extent of the Level B harassment isopleths associated with relevant HRG survey equipment (NMFS, 2020). This methodology incorporates frequency and directionality to refine estimated ensonified zones. For acoustic sources that operate with different beamwidths, the maximum beamwidth was used, and the lowest frequency of the source was used when calculating the frequency-dependent absorption coefficient (Table 1).

NMFS considers the data provided by Crocker and Fratantonio (2016) to represent the best available information on source levels associated with HRG equipment and, therefore, recommends that source levels provided by Crocker and Fratantonio (2016) be incorporated in the method described above to estimate isopleth distances to harassment thresholds. In cases when the source level for a specific type of HRG equipment is not provided in Crocker and Fratantonio (2016), NMFS recommends that either the source levels provided by the manufacturer be used, or, in instances where source levels provided by the manufacturer are unavailable or unreliable, a proxy from Crocker and Fratantonio (2016) be used instead. Table 1 shows the HRG equipment types that may be used during the proposed surveys and the source levels associated with those HRG equipment types.

Results of modeling using the methodology described above indicated that, of the HRG survey equipment planned for use by Ocean Wind that has the potential to result in Level B harassment of marine mammals, the Applied Acoustics Dura-Spark UHD and GeoMarine Geo-Source sparkers would produce the largest Level B harassment isopleth (141 m; please see Table 4 of Ocean Wind's application). Estimated Level B harassment isopleths associated with the boomer and CHIRP SBP systems planned for use are estimated as 34 and 48 m, respectively. Although Ocean Wind does not expect to use sparker sources on all planned survey days, it proposes to assume for purposes of analysis that the sparker would be used on all survey days. This is a conservative approach, as the actual sources used on individual survey days may produce smaller harassment distances.

Marine Mammal Occurrence

In this section, NMFS provides information about the presence, density, or group dynamics of marine mammals that informs the take calculations.

Habitat-based density models produced by the Duke University Marine Geospatial Ecology Laboratory (Roberts et al., 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020) represent the best available information regarding marine mammal densities in the survey area. The density data presented by Roberts et al. (2016, 2017, 2018, 2020) incorporates aerial and shipboard line-transect survey data from NMFS and other organizations and incorporates data from 8 physiographic and 16 dynamic oceanographic and biological covariates, and controls for the influence of sea state, group size, Start Printed Page 17793availability bias, and perception bias on the probability of making a sighting. These density models were originally developed for all cetacean taxa in the U.S. Atlantic (Roberts et al., 2016). In subsequent years, certain models have been updated based on additional data as well as certain methodological improvements. More information is available online at seamap.env.duke.edu/models/Duke-EC-GOM-2015/. Marine mammal density estimates in the survey area (animals/km2) were obtained using the most recent model results for all taxa (Roberts et al., 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020). The updated models incorporate additional sighting data, including sightings from NOAA's Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species (AMAPPS) surveys.

For the exposure analysis, density data from Roberts et al. (2016, 2017, 2018, 2020) were mapped using a geographic information system (GIS). Density grid cells that included any portion of the proposed survey area were selected for all survey months (see Figure 3 in Ocean Wind's application).

Densities from each of the selected density blocks were averaged for each month available to provide monthly density estimates for each species (when available based on the temporal resolution of the model products), along with the average annual density. Please see Tables 7 and 8 of Ocean Wind's application for density values used in the exposure estimation process for the Lease Area and the potential ECRs, respectively. Note that no density estimates are available for the portion of the ECR area in Delaware Bay, so the marine mammal densities from the density models of Roberts et al. were assumed to apply to this area. Additional data regarding average group sizes from survey effort in the region was considered to ensure adequate take estimates are evaluated.

Take Calculation and Estimation

Here NMFS describes how the information provided above is brought together to produce a quantitative take estimate. In order to estimate the number of marine mammals predicted to be exposed to sound levels that would result in harassment, radial distances to predicted isopleths corresponding to Level B harassment thresholds are calculated, as described above. The maximum distance (i.e., 141 m distance associated with sparkers) to the Level B harassment criterion and the estimated trackline distance traveled per day by a given survey vessel (i.e., 70 km) are then used to calculate the daily ensonified area, or zone of influence (ZOI) around the survey vessel.

The ZOI is a representation of the maximum extent of the ensonified area around a sound source over a 24-hr period. The ZOI for each piece of equipment operating below 200 kHz was calculated per the following formula:

ZOI = (Distance/day × 2r) + πr2

Where r is the linear distance from the source to the harassment isopleth.

ZOIs associated with all sources with the expected potential to cause take of marine mammals are provided in Table 6 of Ocean Wind's application. The largest daily ZOI (19.8 km2), associated with the various sparkers proposed for use, was applied to all planned survey days.

Potential Level B harassment exposures are estimated by multiplying the average annual density of each species within either the Lease Area or potential ECR area by the daily ZOI. That product is then multiplied by the number of operating days expected for the survey in each area assessed, and the product is rounded to the nearest whole number. These results are shown in Table 4.

Table 4—Summary of Take Numbers Proposed for Authorization

SpeciesAbundanceLevel B harassment takes 1Max percent population
North Atlantic right whale41292.18
Fin whale6,80260.09
Sei whale6,2920 (1)0.02
Minke whale21,96820.01
Humpback whale1,39320.14
Sperm whale 34,3490 (3)0.07
Atlantic white-sided dolphin93,233160.02
Atlantic spotted dolphin39,92130.01
Common bottlenose dolphin: 2
Offshore Stock62,8512620.42
Migratory Stock6,6391,41021.24
Pilot Whales: 3
Short-finned pilot whale28,92420.01
Long-finned pilot whale39,21520.01
Risso's dolphin35,4930 (30)0.08
Common dolphin172,9741240.07
Harbor porpoise95,543910.10
Seals: 4
Gray seal451,431110.00
Harbor seal75,834110.01
1 Parentheses denote proposed take authorization where different from calculated take estimates. Increases from calculated values are based on assumed average group size for the species; sei whale, Kenney and Vigness-Raposa, 2010; sperm whale and Risso's dolphin, Barkaszi and Kelly, 2018.
2 Roberts et al. (2016) does not provide density estimates for individual stocks of common bottlenose dolphins; therefore, stock densities were delineated using the 20-m isobath. Coastal migratory stock dolphins are assumed to occur inshore of this line and offshore stock dolphins are assumed to occur offshore of this line.
3 Roberts (2018) only provides density estimates for pilot whales as a guild. The pilot whale density values were applied to both species of pilot whale; therefore, the total take number proposed for authorization for pilot whales (4) is double the estimated take number for the guild.
4 Roberts (2018) only provides density estimates for seals without differentiating by species. Harbor seals and gray seals are assumed to occur equally; therefore, density values were split evenly between the two species, i.e., total estimated take for “seals” is 22.
Start Printed Page 17794

The take numbers shown in Table 4 are those requested by Ocean Wind. NMFS concurs with the requested take numbers and proposes to authorize them. Previous monitoring data compiled by Ocean Wind (available online at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​action/​incidental-take-authorization-ocean-wind-marine-site-characterization-surveys-offshore-new) suggests that the proposed take numbers for authorization are sufficient.

Proposed 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 the activity, and other means of effecting the least practicable impact on the species or stock and its habitat, paying particular attention to rookeries, mating grounds, and areas of similar significance, and on the availability of the 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 the 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 and impact on operations.

Mitigation for Marine Mammals and Their Habitat

NMFS proposes the following mitigation measures be implemented during Ocean Wind's proposed marine site characterization surveys.

Marine Mammal Exclusion Zones and Harassment Zones

Marine mammal exclusion zones (EZ) would be established around the HRG survey equipment and monitored by protected species observers (PSOs):

  • 500 m EZ for North Atlantic right whales during use of all acoustic sources.
  • 100 m EZ for all marine mammals, with certain exceptions specified below, during operation of impulsive acoustic sources (boomer and/or sparker).

If a marine mammal is detected approaching or entering the EZs during the HRG survey, the vessel operator would adhere to the shutdown procedures described below to minimize noise impacts on the animals. These stated requirements will be included in the site-specific training to be provided to the survey team.

Pre-Clearance of the Exclusion Zones

Ocean Wind would implement a 30-minute pre-clearance period of the exclusion zones prior to the initiation of ramp-up of HRG equipment. During this period, the exclusion zone will be monitored by the PSOs, using the appropriate visual technology. Ramp-up may not be initiated if any marine mammal(s) is within its respective exclusion zone. If a marine mammal is observed within an exclusion zone during the pre-clearance period, ramp-up may not begin until the animal(s) has been observed exiting its respective exclusion zone or until an additional time period has elapsed with no further sighting (i.e., 15 minutes for small odontocetes and seals, and 30 minutes for all other species).

Ramp-Up of Survey Equipment

When technically feasible, a ramp-up procedure would be used for HRG survey equipment capable of adjusting energy levels at the start or restart of survey activities. The ramp-up procedure would be used at the beginning of HRG survey activities in order to provide additional protection to marine mammals near the survey area by allowing them to vacate the area prior to the commencement of survey equipment operation at full power.

A ramp-up would begin with the powering up of the smallest acoustic HRG equipment at its lowest practical power output appropriate for the survey. When technically feasible, the power would then be gradually turned up and other acoustic sources would be added.

Ramp-up activities will be delayed if a marine mammal(s) enters its respective exclusion zone. Ramp-up will continue if the animal has been observed exiting its respective exclusion zone or until an additional time period has elapsed with no further sighting (i.e, 15 minutes for small odontocetes and seals and 30 minutes for all other species).

Activation of survey equipment through ramp-up procedures may not occur when visual observation of the pre-clearance zone is not expected to be effective (i.e., during inclement conditions such as heavy rain or fog).

Shutdown Procedures

An immediate shutdown of the impulsive HRG survey equipment would be required if a marine mammal is sighted entering or within its respective exclusion zone. The vessel operator must comply immediately with any call for shutdown by the Lead PSO. Any disagreement between the Lead PSO and vessel operator should be discussed only after shutdown has occurred. Subsequent restart of the survey equipment can be initiated if the animal has been observed exiting its respective exclusion zone or until an additional time period has elapsed (i.e., 30 minutes for all other species).

If a species for which authorization has not been granted, or, a species for which authorization has been granted but the authorized number of takes have been met, approaches or is observed within the Level B harassment zone (48 m, non-impulsive; 141 m impulsive), shutdown would occur.

If the acoustic source is shut down for reasons other than mitigation (e.g., mechanical difficulty) for less than 30 minutes, it may be activated again without ramp-up if PSOs have maintained constant observation and no detections of any marine mammal have occurred within the respective exclusion zones. If the acoustic source is shut down for a period longer than 30 minutes and PSOs have maintained constant observation, then pre-clearance and ramp-up procedures will be initiated as described in the previous section.

The shutdown requirement would be waived for small delphinids of the following genera: Delphinus, Lagenorhynchus, Stenella, and Tursiops and seals. Specifically, if a delphinid from the specified genera or a pinniped is visually detected approaching the vessel (i.e., to bow ride) or towed equipment, shutdown is not required. Furthermore, if there is uncertainty regarding identification of a marine mammal species (i.e., whether the Start Printed Page 17795observed marine mammal(s) belongs to one of the delphinid genera for which shutdown is waived), PSOs must use best professional judgement in making the decision to call for a shutdown. Additionally, shutdown is required if a delphinid or pinniped detected in the exclusion zone and belongs to a genus other than those specified.

Vessel Strike Avoidance

Ocean Wind will ensure that vessel operators and crew maintain a vigilant watch for cetaceans and pinnipeds and slow down or stop their vessels to avoid striking these species. Survey vessel crew members responsible for navigation duties will receive site-specific training on marine mammals sighting/reporting and vessel strike avoidance measures. Vessel strike avoidance measures would include the following, except under circumstances when complying with these requirements would put the safety of the vessel or crew at risk:

  • Vessel operators and crews must maintain a vigilant watch for all protected species and slow down, stop their vessel, or alter course, as appropriate and regardless of vessel size, to avoid striking any protected species. A visual observer aboard the vessel must monitor a vessel strike avoidance zone based on the appropriate separation distance around the vessel (distances stated below). Visual observers monitoring the vessel strike avoidance zone may be third-party observers (i.e., PSOs) or crew members, but crew members responsible for these duties must be provided sufficient training to (1) distinguish protected species from other phenomena and (2) broadly to identify a marine mammal as a right whale, other whale (defined in this context as sperm whales or baleen whales other than right whales), or other marine mammal.
  • All survey vessels, regardless of size, must observe a 10-knot speed restriction in specific areas designated by NMFS for the protection of North Atlantic right whales from vessel strikes including seasonal management areas (SMAs) and dynamic management areas (DMAs) when in effect;
  • All vessels greater than or equal to 19.8 m in overall length operating from November 1 through April 30 will operate at speeds of 10 knots or less while transiting to and from Project Area;
  • All vessels must reduce their speed to 10 knots or less when mother/calf pairs, pods, or large assemblages of cetaceans are observed near a vessel.
  • All vessels must maintain a minimum separation distance of 500 m from right whales. If a whale is observed but cannot be confirmed as a species other than a right whale, the vessel operator must assume that it is a right whale and take appropriate action.
  • All vessels must maintain a minimum separation distance of 100 m from sperm whales and all other baleen whales.
  • All vessels must, to the maximum extent practicable, attempt to maintain a minimum separation distance of 50 m from all other marine mammals, with an understanding that at times this may not be possible (e.g., for animals that approach the vessel).
  • When marine mammals are sighted while a vessel is underway, the vessel shall take action as necessary to avoid violating the relevant separation distance (e.g., attempt to remain parallel to the animal's course, avoid excessive speed or abrupt changes in direction until the animal has left the area). If marine mammals are sighted within the relevant separation distance, the vessel must reduce speed and shift the engine to neutral, not engaging the engines until animals are clear of the area. This does not apply to any vessel towing gear or any vessel that is navigationally constrained.
  • These requirements do not apply in any case where compliance would create an imminent and serious threat to a person or vessel or to the extent that a vessel is restricted in its ability to maneuver and, because of the restriction, cannot comply.

Members of the monitoring team will consult NMFS North Atlantic right whale reporting system and Whale Alert, as able, for the presence of North Atlantic right whales throughout survey operations, and for the establishment of a DMA. If NMFS should establish a DMA in the survey area during the survey, the vessels will abide by speed restrictions in the DMA.

Project-specific training will be conducted for all vessel crew prior to the start of a survey and during any changes in crew such that all survey personnel are fully aware and understand the mitigation, monitoring, and reporting requirements. Prior to implementation with vessel crews, the training program will be provided to NMFS for review and approval. Confirmation of the training and understanding of the requirements will be documented on a training course log sheet. Signing the log sheet will certify that the crew member understands and will comply with the necessary requirements throughout the survey activities.

Based on our evaluation of the applicant's proposed measures, as well as other measures considered by NMFS, NMFS has 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.

Proposed 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 proposed 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 Start Printed Page 17796physical components of marine mammal habitat); and
  • Mitigation and monitoring effectiveness.

Proposed Monitoring Measures

Visual monitoring will be performed by qualified, NMFS-approved PSOs, the resumes of whom will be provided to NMFS for review and approval prior to the start of survey activities. Ocean Wind would employ independent, dedicated, trained PSOs, meaning that the PSOs must (1) be employed by a third-party observer provider, (2) have no tasks other than to conduct observational effort, collect data, and communicate with and instruct relevant vessel crew with regard to the presence of marine mammals and mitigation requirements (including brief alerts regarding maritime hazards), and (3) have successfully completed an approved PSO training course appropriate for their designated task. On a case-by-case basis, non-independent observers may be approved by NMFS for limited, specific duties in support of approved, independent PSOs on smaller vessels with limited crew capacity operating in nearshore waters.

The PSOs will be responsible for monitoring the waters surrounding each survey vessel to the farthest extent permitted by sighting conditions, including exclusion zones, during all HRG survey operations. PSOs will visually monitor and identify marine mammals, including those approaching or entering the established exclusion zones during survey activities. It will be the responsibility of the Lead PSO on duty to communicate the presence of marine mammals as well as to communicate the action(s) that are necessary to ensure mitigation and monitoring requirements are implemented as appropriate.

During all HRG survey operations (e.g., any day on which use of an HRG source is planned to occur), a minimum of one PSO must be on duty during daylight operations on each survey vessel, conducting visual observations at all times on all active survey vessels during daylight hours (i.e., from 30 minutes prior to sunrise through 30 minutes following sunset). Two PSOs will be on watch during nighttime operations. The PSO(s) would ensure 360° visual coverage around the vessel from the most appropriate observation posts and would conduct visual observations using binoculars and/or night vision goggles and the naked eye while free from distractions and in a consistent, systematic, and diligent manner. PSOs may be on watch for a maximum of 4 consecutive hours followed by a break of at least 2 hours between watches and may conduct a maximum of 12 hours of observation per 24-hr period. In cases where multiple vessels are surveying concurrently, any observations of marine mammals would be communicated to PSOs on all nearby survey vessels.

PSOs must be equipped with binoculars and have the ability to estimate distance and bearing to detect marine mammals, particularly in proximity to exclusion zones. Reticulated binoculars must also be available to PSOs for use as appropriate based on conditions and visibility to support the sighting and monitoring of marine mammals. During nighttime operations, night-vision goggles with thermal clip-ons and infrared technology would be used. Position data would be recorded using hand-held or vessel GPS units for each sighting.

During good conditions (e.g., daylight hours; Beaufort sea state (BSS) 3 or less), to the maximum extent practicable, PSOs would also conduct observations when the acoustic source is not operating for comparison of sighting rates and behavior with and without use of the active acoustic sources. Any observations of marine mammals by crew members aboard any vessel associated with the survey would be relayed to the PSO team. Data on all PSO observations would be recorded based on standard PSO collection requirements. This would include dates, times, and locations of survey operations; dates and times of observations, location and weather; details of marine mammal sightings (e.g., species, numbers, behavior); and details of any observed marine mammal behavior that occurs (e.g., noted behavioral disturbances).

Proposed Reporting Measures

Within 90 days after completion of survey activities or expiration of this IHA, whichever comes sooner, a final technical report will be provided to NMFS that fully documents the methods and monitoring protocols, summarizes the data recorded during monitoring, summarizes the number of marine mammals observed during survey activities (by species, when known), summarizes the mitigation actions taken during surveys (including what type of mitigation and the species and number of animals that prompted the mitigation action, when known), and provides an interpretation of the results and effectiveness of all mitigation and monitoring. Any recommendations made by NMFS must be addressed in the final report prior to acceptance by NMFS. All draft and final marine mammal and acoustic monitoring reports must be submitted to PR.ITP.MonitoringReports@noaa.gov and ITP.Laws@noaa.gov. The report must contain at minimum, the following:

  • PSO names and affiliations;
  • Dates of departures and returns to port with port name;
  • Dates and times (Greenwich Mean Time) of survey effort and times corresponding with PSO effort;
  • Vessel location (latitude/longitude) when survey effort begins and ends; vessel location at beginning and end of visual PSO duty shifts;
  • Vessel heading and speed at beginning and end of visual PSO duty shifts and upon any line change;
  • Environmental conditions while on visual survey (at beginning and end of PSO shift and whenever conditions change significantly), including wind speed and direction, Beaufort sea state, Beaufort wind force, swell height, weather conditions, cloud cover, sun glare, and overall visibility to the horizon;
  • Factors that may be contributing to impaired observations during each PSO shift change or as needed as environmental conditions change (e.g., vessel traffic, equipment malfunctions); and
  • Survey activity information, such as type of survey equipment in operation, acoustic source power output while in operation, and any other notes of significance (i.e., pre-clearance survey, ramp-up, shutdown, end of operations, etc.).

If a marine mammal is sighted, the following information should be recorded:

  • Watch status (sighting made by PSO on/off effort, opportunistic, crew, alternate vessel/platform);
  • PSO who sighted the animal;
  • Time of sighting;
  • Vessel location at time of sighting;
  • Water depth;
  • Direction of vessel's travel (compass direction);
  • Direction of animal's travel relative to the vessel;
  • Pace of the animal;
  • Estimated distance to the animal and its heading relative to vessel at initial sighting;
  • Identification of the animal (e.g., genus/species, lowest possible taxonomic level, or unidentified); also note the composition of the group if there is a mix of species;
  • Estimated number of animals (high/low/best);
  • Estimated number of animals by cohort (adults, yearlings, juveniles, calves, group composition, etc.);Start Printed Page 17797
  • Description (as many distinguishing features as possible of each individual seen, including length, shape, color, pattern, scars or markings, shape and size of dorsal fin, shape of head, and blow characteristics);
  • Detailed behavior observations (e.g., number of blows, number of surfaces, breaching, spyhopping, diving, feeding, traveling; as explicit and detailed as possible; note any observed changes in behavior);
  • Animal's closest point of approach and/or closest distance from the center point of the acoustic source;
  • Platform activity at time of sighting (e.g., deploying, recovering, testing, data acquisition, other); and
  • Description of any actions implemented in response to the sighting (e.g., delays, shutdown, ramp-up, speed or course alteration, etc.) and time and location of the action.

If a North Atlantic right whale is observed at any time by PSOs or personnel on any project vessels, during surveys or during vessel transit, Ocean Wind must immediately report sighting information to the NMFS North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Advisory System: (866) 755-6622. North Atlantic right whale sightings in any location may also be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard via channel 16.

In the event that Ocean Wind personnel discover an injured or dead marine mammal, Ocean Wind will report the incident to the NMFS Office of Protected Resources (OPR) and the NMFS New England/Mid-Atlantic Stranding Coordinator as soon as feasible. The report would include the following information:

  • Time, date, and location (latitude/longitude) of the first discovery (and updated location information if known and applicable);
  • Species identification (if known) or description of the animal(s) involved;
  • Condition of the animal(s) (including carcass condition if the animal is dead);
  • Observed behaviors of the animal(s), if alive;
  • If available, photographs or video footage of the animal(s); and
  • General circumstances under which the animal was discovered.

In the unanticipated event of a ship strike of a marine mammal by any vessel involved in the activities covered by the IHA, Ocean Wind would report the incident to the NMFS OPR and the NMFS New England/Mid-Atlantic Stranding Coordinator as soon as feasible. The report would include the following information:

  • Time, date, and location (latitude/longitude) of the incident;
  • Species identification (if known) or description of the animal(s) involved;
  • Vessel's speed during and leading up to the incident;
  • Vessel's course/heading and what operations were being conducted (if applicable);
  • Status of all sound sources in use;
  • Description of avoidance measures/requirements that were in place at the time of the strike and what additional measures were taken, if any, to avoid strike;
  • Environmental conditions (e.g., wind speed and direction, Beaufort sea state, cloud cover, visibility) immediately preceding the strike;
  • Estimated size and length of animal that was struck;
  • Description of the behavior of the marine mammal immediately preceding and following the strike;
  • If available, description of the presence and behavior of any other marine mammals immediately preceding the strike;
  • Estimated fate of the animal (e.g., dead, injured but alive, injured and moving, blood or tissue observed in the water, status unknown, disappeared); and
  • To the extent practicable, photographs or video footage of the animal(s).

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. NMFS also assesses 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).

To avoid repetition, our analysis applies to all the species listed in Table 4, given that NMFS expects the anticipated effects of the proposed survey to be similar in nature. Where there are meaningful differences between species or stocks—as is the case of the North Atlantic right whale—they are included as separate subsections below. NMFS does not anticipate that serious injury or mortality would occur as a result from HRG surveys, even in the absence of mitigation, and no serious injury or mortality is proposed to be authorized. As discussed in the Potential Effects section, non-auditory physical effects and vessel strike are not expected to occur. NMFS expects that all potential takes would be in the form of short-term Level B behavioral harassment in the form of temporary avoidance of the area or decreased foraging (if such activity was occurring), reactions that are considered to be of low severity and with no lasting biological consequences (e.g., Southall et al., 2007). Even repeated Level B harassment of some small subset of an overall stock is unlikely to result in any significant realized decrease in viability for the affected individuals, and thus would not result in any adverse impact to the stock as a whole. As described above, Level A harassment is not expected to occur given the nature of the operations, the estimated size of the Level A harassment zones, and the required shutdown zones for certain activities.

In addition to being temporary, the maximum expected harassment zone around a survey vessel is 141 m. Although this distance is assumed for all survey activity in estimating take numbers proposed for authorization and evaluated here, in reality much of the survey activity would involve use of non-impulsive acoustic sources with a reduced acoustic harassment zone of 48 m, producing expected effects of particularly low severity. Therefore, the ensonified area surrounding each vessel is relatively small compared to the overall distribution of the animals in the area and their use of the habitat. Feeding behavior is not likely to be significantly impacted as prey species are mobile and are broadly distributed throughout the survey area; therefore, marine mammals that may be temporarily displaced during survey Start Printed Page 17798activities are expected to be able to resume foraging once they have moved away from areas with disturbing levels of underwater noise. Because of the temporary nature of the disturbance and the availability of similar habitat and resources in the surrounding area, the impacts to marine mammals and the food sources that they utilize are not expected to cause significant or long-term consequences for individual marine mammals or their populations.

There are no rookeries, mating or calving grounds known to be biologically important to marine mammals within the proposed survey area and there are no feeding areas known to be biologically important to marine mammals within the proposed survey area. There is no designated critical habitat for any ESA-listed marine mammals in the proposed survey area.

North Atlantic Right Whales

The status of the North Atlantic right whale population is of heightened concern and, therefore, merits additional analysis. As noted previously, elevated North Atlantic right whale mortalities began in June 2017 and there is an active UME. Overall, preliminary findings support human interactions, specifically vessel strikes and entanglements, as the cause of death for the majority of right whales. As noted previously, the proposed survey area overlaps a migratory corridor BIA for North Atlantic right whales. Due to the fact that the proposed survey activities are temporary and the spatial extent of sound produced by the survey would be very small relative to the spatial extent of the available migratory habitat in the BIA, right whale migration is not expected to be impacted by the proposed survey. Given the relatively small size of the ensonified area, it is unlikely that prey availability would be adversely affected by HRG survey operations. Required vessel strike avoidance measures will also decrease risk of ship strike during migration; no ship strike is expected to occur during Ocean Wind's proposed activities. Additionally, only very limited take by Level B harassment of North Atlantic right whales has been requested and is being proposed by NMFS as HRG survey operations are required to maintain a 500 m EZ and shutdown if a North Atlantic right whale is sighted at or within the EZ. The 500 m shutdown zone for right whales is conservative, considering the Level B harassment isopleth for the most impactful acoustic source (i.e., sparker) is estimated to be 141 m, and thereby minimizes the potential for behavioral harassment of this species. As noted previously, Level A harassment is not expected due to the small PTS zones associated with HRG equipment types proposed for use. NMFS does not anticipate North Atlantic right whales takes that would result from Ocean Wind's proposed activities would impact annual rates of recruitment or survival. Thus, any takes that occur would not result in population level impacts.

Other Marine Mammal Species With Active UMEs

As noted previously, there are several active UMEs occurring in the vicinity of Ocean Wind's proposed survey area. Elevated humpback whale mortalities have occurred along the Atlantic coast from Maine through Florida since January 2016. Of the cases examined, approximately half had evidence of human interaction (ship strike or entanglement). The UME does not yet provide cause for concern regarding population-level impacts. Despite the UME, the relevant population of humpback whales (the West Indies breeding population, or DPS) remains stable at approximately 12,000 individuals.

Beginning in January 2017, elevated minke whale strandings have occurred along the Atlantic coast from Maine through South Carolina, with highest numbers in Massachusetts, Maine, and New York. This event does not provide cause for concern regarding population level impacts, as the likely population abundance is greater than 20,000 whales.

Elevated numbers of harbor seal and gray seal mortalities were first observed in July 2018 and have occurred across Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Based on tests conducted so far, the main pathogen found in the seals is phocine distemper virus, although additional testing to identify other factors that may be involved in this UME are underway. The UME does not yet provide cause for concern regarding population-level impacts to any of these stocks. For harbor seals, the population abundance is over 75,000 and annual M/SI (350) is well below PBR (2,006) (Hayes et al., 2020). The population abundance for gray seals in the United States is over 27,000, with an estimated abundance, including seals in Canada, of approximately 450,000. In addition, the abundance of gray seals is likely increasing in the U.S. Atlantic as well as in Canada (Hayes et al., 2020).

The required mitigation measures are expected to reduce the number and/or severity of proposed takes for all species listed in Table 4, including those with active UMEs, to the level of least practicable adverse impact. In particular they would provide animals the opportunity to move away from the sound source throughout the survey area before HRG survey equipment reaches full energy, thus preventing them from being exposed to sound levels that have the potential to cause injury (Level A harassment) or more severe Level B harassment. No Level A harassment is anticipated, even in the absence of mitigation measures, or proposed for authorization.

NMFS expects that takes would be in the form of short-term Level B behavioral harassment by way of brief startling reactions and/or temporary vacating of the area, or decreased foraging (if such activity was occurring)—reactions that (at the scale and intensity anticipated here) are considered to be of low severity, with no lasting biological consequences. Since both the sources and marine mammals are mobile, animals would only be exposed briefly to a small ensonified area that might result in take. Additionally, required mitigation measures would further reduce exposure to sound that could result in more severe behavioral harassment.

In summary and as described above, the following factors primarily support our preliminary 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 mortality or serious injury is anticipated or proposed for authorization;
  • No Level A harassment (PTS) is anticipated, even in the absence of mitigation measures, or proposed for authorization;
  • Foraging success is not likely to be significantly impacted as effects on species that serve as prey species for marine mammals from the survey are expected to be minimal;
  • The availability of alternate areas of similar habitat value for marine mammals to temporarily vacate the survey area during the planned survey to avoid exposure to sounds from the activity;
  • Take is anticipated to be primarily Level B behavioral harassment consisting of brief startling reactions and/or temporary avoidance of the survey area;
  • While the survey area is within areas noted as a migratory BIA for North Atlantic right whales, the activities would occur in such a comparatively small area such that any avoidance of the survey area due to activities would Start Printed Page 17799not affect migration. In addition, mitigation measures to shutdown at 500 m to minimize potential for Level B behavioral harassment would limit any take of the species; and
  • The proposed mitigation measures, including visual monitoring and shutdowns, are expected to minimize potential impacts to marine mammals.

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 proposed monitoring and mitigation measures, NMFS preliminarily finds that the total marine mammal take from the proposed 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 sections 101(a)(5)(A) and (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. When the predicted number of individuals to be taken is fewer than one third of the species or stock abundance, the take is considered to be of small numbers. Additionally, other qualitative factors may be considered in the analysis, such as the temporal or spatial scale of the activities.

NMFS proposes to authorize incidental take of 16 marine mammal species (with 17 managed stocks). The total amount of takes proposed for authorization relative to the best available population abundance is less than 22 percent for one stock (bottlenose dolphin northern coastal migratory stock), less than 3 percent for the North Atlantic right whale, and less than 1 percent for all other species and stocks, which NMFS preliminarily finds are small numbers of marine mammals relative to the estimated overall population abundances for those stocks. See Table 4.

Based on the analysis contained herein of the proposed activity (including the proposed mitigation and monitoring measures) and the anticipated take of marine mammals, NMFS preliminarily 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

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 OPR consults internally whenever we propose to authorize take for endangered or threatened species, in this case with NMFS Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO).

The NMFS OPR is proposing to authorize the incidental take of four species of marine mammals which are listed under the ESA: The North Atlantic right, fin, sei, and sperm whales. NMFS OPR has requested initiation of section 7 consultation with NMFS GARFO for the issuance of this IHA. NMFS will conclude the ESA section 7 consultation prior to reaching a determination regarding the proposed issuance of the authorization.

Proposed Authorization

As a result of these preliminary determinations, NMFS proposes to issue an IHA to Ocean Wind for conducting marine site characterization surveys off the coast of New Jersey for one year from the date of issuance, provided the previously mentioned mitigation, monitoring, and reporting requirements are incorporated. A draft of the proposed IHA can be found at www.fisheries.noaa.gov/​permit/​incidental-take-authorizations-under-marine-mammal-protection-act.

Request for Public Comments

We request comment on our analyses, the proposed authorization, and any other aspect of this notice of proposed IHA for the proposed marine site characterization surveys. We also request at this time comment on the potential Renewal of this proposed IHA as described in the paragraph below. Please include with your comments any supporting data or literature citations to help inform decisions on the request for this IHA or a subsequent Renewal IHA.

On a case-by-case basis, NMFS may issue a one-time, one-year Renewal IHA following notice to the public providing an additional 15 days for public comments when (1) up to another year of identical or nearly identical, or nearly identical, activities as described in the Description of Proposed Activity section of this notice is planned or (2) the activities as described in the Description of Proposed Activity section of this notice would not be completed by the time the IHA expires and a Renewal would allow for completion of the activities beyond that described in the Dates and Duration section of this notice, provided all of the following conditions are met:

  • A request for renewal is received no later than 60 days prior to the needed Renewal IHA effective date (recognizing that the Renewal IHA expiration date cannot extend beyond one year from expiration of the initial IHA).
  • The request for renewal must include the following:

(1) An explanation that the activities to be conducted under the requested Renewal IHA are identical to the activities analyzed under the initial IHA, are a subset of the activities, or include changes so minor (e.g., reduction in pile size) that the changes do not affect the previous analyses, mitigation and monitoring requirements, or take estimates (with the exception of reducing the type or amount of take).

(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 will remain the same and appropriate, and the findings in the initial IHA remain valid.

Start Signature

Dated: March 31, 2021.

Catherine Marzin,

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

End Signature End Supplemental Information

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[FR Doc. 2021-07014 Filed 4-5-21; 8:45 am]

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