Atlantic Highly Migratory Species; Exempted Fishing Permits, 37566-37574 [2017-16990]

Download as PDF 37566 Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 154 / Friday, August 11, 2017 / Notices antidumping and/or countervailing duties prior to liquidation of the relevant entries during this review period. Failure to comply with this requirement could result in the Secretary’s presumption that reimbursement of antidumping and/or countervailing duties occurred and the subsequent assessment of doubled antidumping duties. Notification Regarding Administrative Protective Orders This notice also serves as a reminder to parties subject to administrative protective order (APO) of their responsibility concerning the return or destruction of proprietary information disclosed under APO in accordance with 19 CFR 351.305, which continues to govern business proprietary information in this segment of the proceeding. Timely written notification of the return/destruction of APO materials or conversion to judicial protective order is hereby requested. Failure to comply with the regulations and terms of an APO is a violation which is subject to sanction. This notice is issued and published in accordance with sections 751 and 777(i)(1) of the Act, and 19 CFR 351.213(d)(4). Dated: August 7, 2017. James Maeder, Senior Director performing the duties of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Antidumping and Countervailing Duty Operations. [FR Doc. 2017–16995 Filed 8–10–17; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–DS–P DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration RIN 0648–XF086 Atlantic Highly Migratory Species; Exempted Fishing Permits National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Notice of availability of a final environmental assessment to issue an exempted fishing permit. AGENCY: NMFS announces the availability of a Final Environmental Assessment (EA) analyzing the impacts of issuing an exempted fishing permit (EFP) to Dr. David Kerstetter of Nova Southeastern University to evaluate pelagic longline (PLL) catch and bycatch rates from within two different subareas in the northern portion of the East Florida Coast (EFC) Pelagic Longline asabaliauskas on DSKBBXCHB2PROD with NOTICES SUMMARY: VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:18 Aug 10, 2017 Jkt 241001 (PLL) Closed Area (north and south of 29°50′ N. lat.) and compare those rates to rates obtained by authorized samplers from an area outside the EFC PLL Closed Area, with certain terms and conditions. The overall purpose of the research project is to evaluate the effectiveness of existing area closures at meeting current conservation and management goals under current conditions using standardized PLL gear on a specified number of commercial vessels. In response to terms and conditions established by NMFS, the research project is also structured to maximize the survival of shark species, collect data on shark species identification, collect data on PLL soak times to reduce bycatch mortality of species such as dusky sharks, and to increase the Agency’s understanding of data poor shark stocks to improve future management of these species. NMFS considered public comments and decided to issue the EFP given the need to assess and compare current catch and bycatch rates during normal commercial fishing operations from areas inside and outside the EFC PLL Closed Area. DATES: The Final EA will be available on August 11, 2017. ADDRESSES: A copy of the Final EA may be requested by contacting Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Management Division (F/SF1), NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Craig Cockrell at (301) 427–8503 or Rick Pearson at (727) 824–5399. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Background NMFS published a notice of intent to issue EFPs, Scientific Research Permits, Letters of Acknowledgement, and Chartering Permits for Atlantic highly migratory species (HMS) in 2017 (81 FR 80646, November 16, 2016). Although that notice anticipated a variety of such applications, it also stated that occasionally NMFS receives applications for research activities that were not anticipated, or for research that is outside the scope of general scientific sampling and tagging of Atlantic HMS, or rarely, for research that is particularly controversial and that NMFS will provide additional opportunity for public comment, consistent with the regulations at 50 CFR 600.745 if that were to occur. As discussed in the November 2016 notice of intent to issue EFPs and related permits, issuance of EFPs and related permits are necessary because HMS regulations (e.g., fishing seasons, prohibited species, authorized gear, closed areas, and minimum sizes) PO 00000 Frm 00010 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 sometimes otherwise prohibit activities that could be undertaken for scientific data collection or other valuable purposes. Thus, under 50 CFR 635.32, and consistent with 50 CFR 600.745, the Director of the Office of Sustainable Fisheries may, through issuance of an EFP, authorize for certain purposes the target or incidental harvest of species managed under a Fishery Management Plan (FMP) or fishery regulations that would otherwise be prohibited. Among the purposes of EFPs are the ‘‘conduct of scientific research, the acquisition of information and data, . . . [and] the investigation of bycatch, economic discard and regulatory discard.’’ 50 CFR 635.32(a)(1). These permits exempt permit holders from the specific portions of the regulations (e.g., fishing seasons, prohibited species, authorized gear, closed areas, and minimum sizes) that may otherwise prohibit the collection of HMS for public education, public display, or scientific research. The terms and conditions of individual permits are unique. EFPs and related permits are issued under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) (16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.) and/or the Atlantic Tunas Convention Act (ATCA) (16 U.S.C. 971 et seq.). NMFS closed the EFC area to PLL gear year-round in early 2001 (65 FR 47213, August 1, 2000). The closure was implemented to reduce bycatch and incidental catch of overfished and protected species by PLL fishermen who target HMS because there was a noticeable difference in the bycatch of some non-target species (mainly undersized swordfish) between the EFC area and open areas. At the time, Atlantic blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, West Atlantic bluefin tuna, North Atlantic albacore tuna, and swordfish were overfished with overfishing occurring, and bycatch reduction was a component of rebuilding efforts. In particular, the United States was implementing a 1999 swordfish rebuilding plan, and the closure helped reduce bycatch of undersized swordfish. Several other laws required that NMFS address bycatch in the HMS fisheries, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which required reductions in sea turtle bycatch in the PLL fishery. National Standard 9 of the MSA also requires that fishery management plans minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality to the extent practicable. The closure has been in place for more than 15 years now and, since 2001, a number of changes in stock status and fishery management E:\FR\FM\11AUN1.SGM 11AUN1 asabaliauskas on DSKBBXCHB2PROD with NOTICES Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 154 / Friday, August 11, 2017 / Notices measures have occurred. Specifically, North Atlantic swordfish and North Atlantic albacore tuna have been rebuilt, current international assessments of white marlin and West Atlantic sailfish indicate that overfishing is likely not occurring, and Western Atlantic bluefin tuna is not subject to overfishing, Additionally, the PLL fishery has been required since 2004 to use circle hooks instead of J-hooks to reduce sea turtle bycatch, and individual bluefin tuna quota (IBQ) allocations were implemented in the PLL fishery through Amendment 7 to the 2006 Consolidated HMS Fishery Management Plan in 2014 (79 FR 71509, December 2, 2014). Allowing limited access to the EFC PLL Closed Area for research purposes via an EFP would provide important data from the closed area under these changed conditions. NMFS has not obtained scientific data related to catch and bycatch rates from this area since 2010, and that data suggested that more research was needed due to the small sample size and poor spatial distribution of PLL sets in the research area conducted from 2008–2010. The data resulting from the research under this EFP would be used to assess current bycatch rates during typical commercial fishing operations and to evaluate the effectiveness of the closed area in continuing to reduce bycatch of nontarget species (e.g., billfish, undersized swordfish, prohibited species, and protected species). It would also provide more current data about the socioeconomic impact of reduced catches of target species (swordfish and tunas) as a result of the closure, assess changes in species availability and distribution over time, and contribute to future stock assessments or other fishery management measures. Among the purposes of EFPs in the regulations are the ‘‘conduct of scientific research, the acquisition of information and data . . ., [and] the investigation of bycatch, economic discard and regulatory discard,’’ and such an EFP would be in furtherance of those purposes (§ 635.32(a)(1)). NMFS received an application to conduct research from within two different sub-areas in the northern portion of the EFC PLL Closed Area (north and south of 29°50′ N. lat.) and compare those rates to rates obtained from one portion of the open area (for comparative purposes) and published a notice of availability in the Federal Register for a Draft EA and a 30-day public comment period (82 FR 4856; January 17, 2017). On February 15, 2017 (82 FR 10746), NMFS extended the public comment period from February VerDate Sep<11>2014 18:01 Aug 10, 2017 Jkt 241001 16, 2017, until March 29, 2017. The EFP application is available for review on the HMS Management Division’s Web site at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/ hms/compliance/efp/index.html. Availability of a Final Environmental Assessment NMFS announces the availability of a Final EA that analyzes the potential impacts to the human environment of granting this EFP application for experimental PLL fishing within two sub-areas of the EFC PLL Closed Area and one area outside the Closed Area. Among other analyzed impacts, the Final EA projects the annual catches of all HMS species, as well as some nonHMS species interactions, from within two sub-areas of the EFC PLL Closed Area and one open area that could be expected to occur. Additionally, the Final EA describes NMFS’ rationale for the preferred alternative and other alternatives considered for this research and includes responses to public comments on the Draft EA. The Final EA may be found on the HMS Management Division’s Web site at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/hms/ compliance/efp/index.html. Response to Comments During the public comment period NMFS received over 500 comments. The majority of the comments were submitted by recreational fishing constituents opposed to the research project. These commenters stated that the current EFC Closed Area has been effective at rebuilding several fish stocks and increasing recreational fishing opportunities and that it should remained closed to maintain those results and benefits. Several environmental organizations were opposed to the research project primarily because of concerns about what they considered to be excessive levels of bycatch (sharks, billfish, and undersized swordfish) at the level of effort proposed by the EFP applicant, although some groups recognized the need for the research. Comments from HMS commercial fishing industry participants and organizations recognized the need for the research, but expressed reservations that only one company (Day Boat Seafood LLC) would conduct and benefit from the project. As described below, NMFS has made changes to the preferred alternative described in the Final EA, based in part on public comments. A. Purpose & Need for Proposed Research Project Comment 1: There is no legitimate need for the proposed research project PO 00000 Frm 00011 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 37567 because the effect of pelagic longline (PLL) fishing within the closed area (a nursery for juvenile swordfish) is wellknown. Conditions have not changed in the last 15 years. Response: The EFC PLL Closed Area has been in place for more than 15 years. Since 2001, a number of changes in stock status and fishery management measures have occurred. Specifically, North Atlantic swordfish has been rebuilt since 2009, current international assessments of white marlin and West Atlantic sailfish indicate that overfishing is likely not occurring, West Atlantic bluefin tuna is not subject to overfishing, and North Atlantic albacore tuna has been rebuilt. Additionally, the PLL fishery has been required since 2004 to use circle hooks instead of Jhooks to reduce sea turtle bycatch, and IBQ allocations were implemented in the PLL fishery through Amendment 7 to the 2006 Consolidated HMS FMP in 2014 (79 FR 71509, December 2, 2014). Environmental conditions may have changed thereby affecting migratory patterns and species distributions of Atlantic HMS. Allowing limited access to the EFC PLL Closed Area for research purposes through an EFP would provide important data from the closed area under all of these changed conditions. Thus, the purpose of the research project is to evaluate PLL catches and catch rates of target and non-target species within two sub-areas in the northern portion of the EFC PLL Closed Area and an open area to evaluate the effectiveness of existing area closures at meeting current conservation and management goals under current conditions using standardized PLL gear on a specified number of commercial vessels. Vessels participating in this project would be required to submit electronic logbooks at the end of each set to NOVA Southeastern University; and these data would be available to NMFS upon request. During the project period, 40 percent of all sets would be observed by NMFS-approved observers or scientific research staff. Finally, NMFS would review 100 percent of electronic video monitoring data for all sets conducted under this EFP. The research is of limited scope and would be conducted in only a portion of the EFC PLL Closed Area and, therefore, is not expected to negate the known conservation benefits of the closed area. Among the purposes of EFPs in federal regulations are ‘‘the investigation of bycatch, economic discard and regulatory discard,’’ and this EFP would be in furtherance of those purposes (50 CFR 635.32(a)). Comment 2: This scientific research project will help to revitalize the U.S. E:\FR\FM\11AUN1.SGM 11AUN1 37568 Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 154 / Friday, August 11, 2017 / Notices asabaliauskas on DSKBBXCHB2PROD with NOTICES highly migratory species (HMS) PLL fishery. It holds significant promise in evaluating responsible and sustainable ways to catch a larger percentage of swordfish quota allocated to the United States by ICCAT. We support efforts to assess the efficacy of the current closed areas and integrate new technologies into fisheries and fisheries research. Since the closure was implemented, many technological advances have been made in gear modifications, vessel monitoring, and bycatch mitigation tools and techniques that largely mitigate the duration and/or size of the PLL closed areas. Over the 15 years that the closure has been in place, little research has been conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of the existing closure in meeting current conservation and management goals. Response: In the short-term, this project is anticipated to provide economic benefit to the vessels participating in the research and could increase U.S. North Atlantic swordfish landings by approximately seven percent, thus more fully utilizing the U.S. North Atlantic swordfish quota. In the long-term, this project is anticipated to provide scientific fisheries data to assess current bycatch rates during normal commercial fishing operations and to evaluate the effectiveness of the closed area in continuing to reduce bycatch of non-target species (e.g., billfish, undersized swordfish, prohibited species, and protected species). It will also provide current data about the socio-economic impact of reduced catches of target species (swordfish and tunas) as a result of the closure, electronic vessel monitoring, changes in species availability and distribution over time, and contribute to future stock assessments or other fishery management measures. B. Support for Alternative 1 (No Action) Comment 3: The recovery of a onceoverfished species (swordfish) does not warrant returning to the kind of fishing that caused overfishing (excessive harvest of juveniles) and created the need for closures in the first place. If closing the EFC area to PLL gear resulted in a stock rebound, then that area is obviously vital to the overall Western Atlantic swordfish stock and should remain permanently closed to PLL vessels. Response: Issuance of this EFP would not represent a return to the level of fishing that contributed to overfishing of swordfish (including excessive harvest of juveniles). Specifically, this project is limited to six PLL vessels and 720 sets (with 480 sets distributed between two sub-areas of the EFC PLL Closed Area VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:18 Aug 10, 2017 Jkt 241001 and the remainder occurring in the open area). Additionally, a historical comparison of the PLL fishery prior to 2001 to current conditions indicates a very different situation. The overall number of vessels landing swordfish has declined from 168 in 2001 to 90 vessels in 2016/2017 (to date). There has also been a decline in the number of PLL hooks fished from 7.6 million to 5.8 million. Several other time/area closures and gear restricted areas (GRAs) have been implemented since 2001, including the Desoto Canyon, Charleston Bump, and Northeastern closures, and the Cape Hatteras and Gulf of Mexico GRAs. Circle hooks now are required throughout the PLL fishery and weak hooks are required in the Gulf of Mexico. Electronic video monitoring systems (EM) are installed and must be utilized on all PLL vessels. Finally the individual bluefin quota (IBQ) program, which requires that sufficient IBQ be possessed prior to PLL fishing, may further limit effort in some circumstances. As described in Section 8.5 of the 2016 HMS SAFE Report, the result is that reported numbers of swordfish kept and discarded, large coastal sharks kept, and BAYS tunas kept from 2005–2015 decreased by more than the predicted values developed in Regulatory Amendment 1 to the 1999 FMP. Reported discards of pelagic sharks and all billfish also declined by more than the predicted values developed in Regulatory Amendment 1 to the 1999 FMP (swordfish kept: ¥41 percent; swordfish disc. ¥63 percent; LCS kept: ¥93 percent; BAYS kept: ¥36 percent; pelagic sharks disc. ¥32 percent; billfish disc. ¥53 percent). Comment 4: NMFS should support conservation and sustainable fishing activities related to recreational fishing. Please do not reverse the progress that the EFC PLL Closed Area has made to recreational fisheries. Response: Fishing activity conducted under this EFP is not anticipated to reduce recreational fishing opportunities for Atlantic HMS or to adversely affect the stocks that are recreationally fished. Recreational fishermen will still be able to go fishing off the eastern Florida coast, and the limited activities in this EFP are not expected to result in negative effects for recreationally-fished stocks. Successful recreational and commercial PLL fishing activities currently occur simultaneously in many areas of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and U.S. Caribbean. PO 00000 Frm 00012 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 C. Range of Alternatives in Draft Environmental Assessment Comment 5: The Draft EA has not evaluated or discussed a number of possible reasonable alternatives that would meet the purpose and the need of the research project and could have less adverse impact to the human environment. The duration of the research should be reduced and data combined with data from the research conducted in the closed area from 2008– 2010. The research project should be limited to the minimal number of sets and hooks necessary for statistical validity. Response: NMFS analyzed a reasonable range of alternatives that are feasible to accomplish the purpose and need of the project, which is to evaluate PLL catches and catch rates of target and non-target species within two sub-areas of the northern portion of the EFC PLL Closed Area and compare those to an open area. These included not issuing an EFP (no action) and a smaller and larger geographic area (Alternatives 2 and 3, respectively). NMFS also analyzed both the level of effort proposed by the applicant and a lesser amount of fishing effort commensurate with current fishing effort. In the Final EA and EFP, NMFS has reduced the number of sets authorized from the requested (and previously-preferred) level of 1,080 sets/year to 720 sets/year and the number of hooks per set from 750 hooks/set to 600 hooks/set. These numbers are commensurate with current levels of fishing effort by the participating vessels. A reduction in the duration of the project would not provide adequate sampling over time to account for seasonal variations in environmental conditions that may occur and thus would not meet the purpose and need of the EFP. Analysis of research data collected from 2008–2010 was used to develop projections for this EFP; however, changes in conditions since 2008–2010 prevent the combination of data sets. Although the previous research did obtain some significant results, the sample size was small and the spatial distribution of sets was poor. These results suggested that additional research was needed, and the current project size was designed to correct the errors in sample size and spatial distribution in the previous research. D. Utilization of U.S Swordfish Quota Comment 6: There is an implication that if the United States does not catch every swordfish allotted to it, then it will lose its quota to other nations. Although this argument has been E:\FR\FM\11AUN1.SGM 11AUN1 Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 154 / Friday, August 11, 2017 / Notices asabaliauskas on DSKBBXCHB2PROD with NOTICES around for years, the United States has not lost any swordfish quota. Response: The United States has, to date, been successful in protecting its North Atlantic swordfish quota at ICCAT, despite significant underharvest of the quota in recent years. The United States has argued that restrictions on the U.S. fishery, such as the required use of circle hooks, contributed significantly to the stock’s rebuilding and that in light of those sacrifices and the strict conservation measures that benefitted all countries fishing on the stock, the United States should be given some time to revitalize its fishery. The threat of losing quota to other countries without the same conservation measures remains real, and NMFS continues to work with stakeholders to find ways to revitalize the stock while effectively managing the stock and other affected species. NMFS also is required under ATCA and the Magnuson-Stevens Act to provide U.S. fishing vessels with a reasonable opportunity to harvest the ICCAT-recommended quota. In 2016, preliminary data indicate that approximately 37 percent of the U.S. swordfish baseline quota and 33 percent of the adjusted quota was landed. Thus, the commenter’s suggestion that our concern is catching ‘‘every fish’’ mischaracterizes and understates the quota issue. In the short-term, this research project provides an additional opportunity to harvest the swordfish quota while providing economic benefit to the vessels participating in the research. It is projected to increase U.S. landings of swordfish by approximately seven percent, thus more fully utilizing the U.S. North Atlantic swordfish quota. This is not the primary reason for issuing the EFP, which will gather much-needed research from the EFC PLL Closed Area, but the project will help revitalize the North Atlantic swordfish fishery in the near-term. E. Project Design Comment 7: If this EFP is authorized, it would allow more than 1,000 longlines to be set per year, with over 750 hooks per longline. This means that over 2.25 million additional hooks will be floating off of Florida’s coast. Response: While the preferred alternative in the Draft EA would have authorized up to 1,080 sets per year with 750 hooks per longline, NMFS has modified the preferred alternative in the Final EA and EFP to limit the number of sets to be commensurate with current effort in the open area. NMFS would authorize 720 longline sets per year with up to 600 hooks per set under this EFP. Of those, 480 sets would be authorized to be deployed between two VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:18 Aug 10, 2017 Jkt 241001 sub-areas in the EFC PLL Closed Area. Thus, 288,000 hooks would be authorized in the EFC PLL Closed Area. NMFS emphasizes that these hooks would not be ‘‘additional’’ hooks, as they would otherwise be deployed in areas currently open off Florida’s east coast. This EFP only authorizes an amount of fishing effort commensurate with current levels of effort by participating vessels. Comment 8: An initial adjustment period should be provided for fishermen participating in the study area to allow them to learn how to fish the Gulf Stream waters and ‘normalize’ techniques and catches before data are collected or used for the purposes of the study. This will allow data to be reflective of experienced fishing practices in the EFC PLL Closed Area, rather than being influenced by data collected while fishermen are learning how to fish in the area. Response: The vessels and captains authorized to participate in this research project are experienced with fishing in areas immediately adjacent to the EFC PLL Closed Area. It would not be prudent to authorize fishing activities in the closed area without collecting the resultant data. NMFS believes that the participating captains will more quickly adjust their fishing practices while fishing under the provisions and terms and conditions of the EFP, rather being allowed to fish in the closed area without the EFP restrictions. In addition, pending annual review, if the EFP is authorized for an additional two years, variations between years could be recorded to see if changes in catch or bycatch rates occur due to improvements in fishing techniques. Comment 9: Data collection during this study should be at as high a resolution as possible in order to determine fine-scale differences in catch and bycatch in time and space. Response: Vessels participating in this project would be required to submit electronic logbooks, including date, time, location, and basic oceanographic conditions, at the end of each set to the research applicant at NOVA Southeastern University. These data would be available to NMFS upon request. The electronic logbook data would be audited every three months by the researcher who would compare randomly selected capture events in the electronic logbook to these events as recorded by electronic video data. NMFS will review one hundred percent of the electronic video data during the project. In addition, all existing reporting requirements would apply to participating vessels including logbook reporting and observer coverage PO 00000 Frm 00013 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 37569 requirements, which include latitude and longitude fields. Comment 10: We recommend a maximum mainline length of 5 miles, allowable soak times no longer than 3– 4 hours, and retrieval of the gear in the order in which it was deployed. Reducing the amount of time that hooks are in the water could enhance the survival of fish and other animals caught incidentally or that must be released according to regulation. Response: The purpose of this study is to collect commercial fishery data from PLL vessels using normal fishing methods to effectively assess the difference between the closed and open area effects during such operations. Reducing the mainline length and soak times would not be representative of how commercial PLL vessels normally fish their gear. However, research investigating shorter mainline lengths, soak times, and gear retrieval techniques would be valuable and NMFS will consider these recommendations for future research. F. Observer Coverage Rates and Vessel Monitoring Comment 11: Some commenters stated that, if the project were to take place, it should have an unbiased observer coverage rate of 100 percent of all sets and that the EA must be supplemented with a defensible observer coverage rate to support the proposed project. Conversely, other commenters stated that the level of monitoring is excessive, because observer coverage is expensive, and a 33 percent coverage rate, in addition to 100 percent electronic video monitoring, may unnecessarily increase project costs and create an expensive precedent for future similar research. Response: We recognize that authorizing access to the EFC PLL Closed Area by commercial fishing vessels to conduct research warrants a high degree of oversight and monitoring. NMFS believes that an observer coverage rate of 40 percent is appropriate, given that additional funding has been obtained to ensure that 100 percent of electronic video monitoring data for all sets conducted under this EFP would be reviewed and the costs of 100 percent observer coverage would be prohibitive. Furthermore, 100 percent observer coverage is unnecessary given the other monitoring measures in place for this project. Forty percent observer coverage in addition to these other measures will ensure sufficient monitoring and accurate data collection and verification. E:\FR\FM\11AUN1.SGM 11AUN1 37570 Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 154 / Friday, August 11, 2017 / Notices asabaliauskas on DSKBBXCHB2PROD with NOTICES Comment 12: Some commenters stated that this project should evaluate expanding the use of EM to all catch and bycatch species. Optimizing the configuration of EM for all catch could improve the reliability of data collected, especially for bycatch species like sharks, and ultimately allow for additional accountability at a reduced cost. Conversely, other commenters stated that this project is not sufficient in scale or scope to support any future decision by NMFS to use EM to record and analyze all catch and bycatch for the purpose of managing the PLL fishery as a whole in open areas. Yet other commenters stated that the project will also evaluate electronic logbooks for more streamlined and real-time reporting that combines catch data with oceanographic information. These data could help better understand where and under what conditions bycatch species occur and how fishermen can best avoid them. Response: EM equipment became required on all HMS PLL vessels on June 1, 2015. Thus, NMFS has approximately two years’ worth of experience using the equipment and analyzing the data. In this project, NMFS will be reviewing one hundred percent of electronic video (EM) data. Thus the project will provide additional experience and data that could help better evaluate the effectiveness and limitations of EM data in recording and identifying all species of catch and bycatch. G. Project Participation Comment 13: This EFP would give the applicant a distinct competitive market advantage with respect to some species, which other boats in the PLL fleet will not have during the project period. Response: The research project is temporary and relatively short in duration (one year, with a possibility to renew annually twice pending annual review). The vessels fishing in this project would be fishing in the open areas absent this EFP, and there are costs associated with participation in this project. Some increased catch in target species is expected and will, in part, compensate the vessel owners for their participation in the project. Any financial advantages will be limited. The research applicant, not NMFS, selected and worked with the commercial fishing entity to develop this particular research project. Other entities may submit similar applications for EFPs at any time for consideration by NMFS. Such applications would be reviewed and evaluated for merit, based upon a sound scientific study design and other criteria. VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:18 Aug 10, 2017 Jkt 241001 Comment 14: This project should engage the participation of captains and crew with the greatest level of experience, including especially those that have prior experience fishing in this EFC area before it was closed. Failure to do this may generate catch and bycatch results that are not truly representative of the entire U.S. HMS PLL fleet. NMFS should allow other vessels or companies to apply and compete for the privilege to participate in the fishing activity specified in the EFP. Response: The EFP application indicates that experienced PLL fishermen would participate in the project. These vessels and captains are currently fishing in areas immediately adjacent to the EFC PLL Closed Area. NMFS did not select the participating vessels. The EFP applicant and principal investigator selected the participants based upon their experience and the amount of fishing effort and methods needed to accomplish the objectives of the research. H. Catch and Bycatch Impacts Comment 15: Allowing PLL vessels in the EFC Closed Area will likely drive down stock abundance by killing dusky sharks, white sharks, undersized swordfish, marlin, sailfish, sea turtles, marine mammals, and many other species. PLL fishing is indiscriminate and was a major cause of the collapse of the swordfish fishery over 20 years ago. Response: NMFS received many comments expressing concern about excessive levels of bycatch that could occur as a result of issuing the EFP. Given the size, scope, duration, and strict research protocols associated with the research project, NMFS does not anticipate that issuance of the EFP would result in any significant ecological economic impacts. The participating vessels are already fishing in areas that are currently open. The EFP would authorize the same amount of fishing effort compared to the baseline of normal operations that occur in open areas. There would be no overall increase in fishing effort as a result of the project, although fishing would occur in different areas and certain catches and interactions would be expected to increase. None of these increases are expected to adversely affect the stocks or to have significant environmental impacts. The management measures that have been implemented in the PLL fishery since 2001, (including, but not limited to, circle hooks, gear restrictions, careful release equipment and training, PO 00000 Frm 00014 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 individual bluefin tuna quotas, catch quotas, prohibited species, and electronic video monitoring) in combination with the strict research protocols associated with the research project are expected to mitigate any unforeseen ecological impacts such as unexpected bycatch levels. Discards of blue and white marlin are projected to remain largely unchanged. The amount of sailfish catch projected for this research project (226 individual sailfish) is not expected to lead to overfishing or have negative effects on the stock, as the overall TAC recommended by ICCAT (Rec. 16–11) for this stock is 1,030 mt. Similarly, the amount of swordfish projected to be caught is not expected to lead to overfishing as it would remain well within the 2017 adjusted U.S. North Atlantic swordfish quota which is expected to be 3,359.4 mt (equivalent to the 2016 adjusted quota). Although discards (dead and alive) of undersized swordfish are projected to increase, this would not be desirable for the vessel captain who would likely change fishing areas and modify fishing techniques to avoid such bycatch. NMFS intends to monitor this project carefully, and will consider the amount of undersized swordfish and other bycatch captured during annual review of the EFP. NMFS has added additional terms and conditions to the EFP, including individual vessel limits, to address dusky shark and other shark bycatch. While a commenter noted concerns about white shark interactions, no interactions with white sharks are expected. If white shark interactions do occur, they are not expected to have ecological impacts as recent research indicates white shark populations are apparently increasing in abundance since the 1990s when a variety of conservation measures were implemented. This also would be considered during annual review of the EFP. Sea turtle bycatch is projected to be reduced and marine mammal bycatch is expected to remain unchanged. Comment 16: Allowing research fishing in depths of 100 fathoms and less will likely lead to interactions with unwanted and undersized species. Response: Historically, some fishermen working with the principal investigator have fished a portion of their longline gear in slower water on the west side of the Gulf Stream and a portion of their longline gear in the faster moving waters of the Gulf Stream. This allows their gear to ‘‘swing’’ with the current. The principal investigator has indicated that the slower water along the west side of the Gulf Stream is in proximity to the 100 fathom contour. A purpose of the project is to E:\FR\FM\11AUN1.SGM 11AUN1 Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 154 / Friday, August 11, 2017 / Notices asabaliauskas on DSKBBXCHB2PROD with NOTICES collect data about PLL catch and bycatch that will help address questions such as the one mentioned in this comment. The answer would not be known until fishery data are collected and analyzed through this research project. I. Support for Bycatch Limits Comment 17: The EFP must include bycatch limits, either individual vessels or fleetwide, for target and non-target finfish species including shark and billfish species. EFP investigators should be required to cease operations if and when any species-specific catch limit is reached. Response: Bycatch limits are applied as a precautionary measure for certain shark species due to the current stock status of dusky sharks and problems of misidentification with silky and night sharks. Bycatch limits for other species are not necessary because of differences in stock status (i.e., not overfished, no overfishing), low projected catches, or easier identification during monitoring. However, NMFS will closely monitor the catches during the project duration and has the ability to modify the conditions of the EFP, and to end the research project, to address bycatch as warranted. Comment 18: The EFP must include limits on interactions, takes and catches of species protected under the ESA and/ or the MMPA. Response: Sea turtle interactions are projected to decline and marine mammal interactions are projected to remain the same under this EFP, versus if all fishing effort were in the open area. All existing ESA and MMPA requirements otherwise applicable to PLL fishing are applicable to the fishing activities conducted under this EFP. The PLL fishery is governed by the ITS contained in the 2004 PLL BiOp. Sea turtle interactions (all species) have remained well below the incidental take statement (ITS) established in the 2004 PLL BiOp since its implementation. With regards to marine mammals, the PLL fishery must comply with the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan and the Pelagic Longline Take Reduction Plan. These plans include broad-based gear modifications and time/area closures. Comment 19: What bycatch numbers will be deemed acceptable? The levels of acceptable bycatch must be at or below those achieved by the closures. Response: Any bycatch derived from within the EFC PLL Closed Area under this EFP would be above the level achieved by the closure because there is currently no PLL fishing activity in the area. NMFS has not determined the VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:18 Aug 10, 2017 Jkt 241001 level of bycatch that would be considered acceptable, except for dusky sharks which are overfished and may be confused with other shark species. A general benchmark for fish species would be the likely projected annual catch levels analyzed in chapter four of the Final EA. However, these would also need to be assessed on an event by event basis. NMFS, in cooperation with the principal investigator, would determine if the catch of a certain species was unusually large and/or unexpected. The use of electronic logbooks, 100 percent video monitoring, increased observer coverage (40 percent), and communication with the principal investigator would help enable this determination. Then, it would be necessary to assess whether the catch could lead to, or exacerbate, overfishing of the species. Extra precaution would be necessary for currently overfished species including blue and white marlin and certain shark species. Based upon this information, the principal investigator and NMFS would coordinate an appropriate response (e.g., relocation, soak time reduction, temporary or permanent suspension of fishing activities). NMFS will closely monitor catches during the project duration and has the ability to modify the conditions of the EFP, and to end the research project, to address bycatch as warranted. J. Economic Impacts Comment 20: The issuance of an EFP would have an adverse indirect socioecological effect resulting from a reduction in catches of HMS and other species. This adverse indirect impact would affect recreational billfish anglers, recreational tournament operators, and all of those industries which are connected to the recreational fishery (marinas, tackle stores, boat manufacturers, etc.). The money spent on recreational fishing far outweighs any benefit commercial fishing may bring. Response: Issuance of an EFP is not anticipated to cause or contribute to overfishing of HMS or other species as described in the ecological effects analysis in the Final EA. Recreational fishing for HMS is an important social and economic activity. Mandatory reporting of recreational swordfish and billfish landings became effective in 2001. However, a comparatively small amount of swordfish and billfish were reported as landed from recreational anglers in the state of Florida in 2016. Data indicate that 290 swordfish, 102 sailfish, 2 blue marlin, and 1 white marlin were reported landed. Reporting of releases is optional, but only 1 blue PO 00000 Frm 00015 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 37571 marlin was reportedly released in Florida in 2016. Collecting commercial fisheries data under this EFP is not anticipated to reduce the economic benefits of recreational fishing. Comment 21: Data derived from the issuance of an EFP could benefit the U.S. PLL fleet. The PLL closures have had profound economic impacts on the fishery. Response: This research project could benefit the management of all U.S. HMS fisheries by allowing for improved management decision making based upon current and accurate information. Comment 22: The Draft EA does not provide adequate information and/or a determination whether a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) can be made. The Draft EA determined that the proposed activity will have a potential adverse socioeconomic impact due to gear conflicts and a reduction in recreational catch. This adverse impact does not support a FONSI. Response: A determination that there could be adverse indirect socioeconomic impacts to the recreational fishing community does not, by itself, indicate that the overall impact of the research project is significant. NMFS anticipates that these impacts should be partially mitigated because the research area is located far offshore, and well north of where the vast majority of Florida anglers are concentrated. Also, the strict research protocols and limits associated with the research project should mitigate impacts on recreational anglers. Thus, the finding of no significant impact was warranted. K. Gear Conflicts With Other Fisheries Comment 23: There is an overlap of the areas in the EFP and areas utilized in the royal red shrimp, rock shrimp, golden crab, and golden tilefish fisheries. These fisheries employ trawl, trap, and bottom longline gear respectively that are not compatible with the presence of pelagic longlines. Similarly, PLL gear fished in the same area where recreational and commercial hook-and-line fishing activity is occurring for dolphin or wahoo could create user conflicts, both through potential interaction with the PLL gear as well as a real or perceived localized depletion of these and other pelagic species. Response: This EFP would authorize a limited number of PLL sets by up to six vessels at one time in the project area. This level of fishing effort is not anticipated to result in a substantial number of interactions with fishing gears in other fisheries. These other fisheries also occur in other areas of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico where PLL E:\FR\FM\11AUN1.SGM 11AUN1 37572 Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 154 / Friday, August 11, 2017 / Notices asabaliauskas on DSKBBXCHB2PROD with NOTICES fishing occurs, and these other fisheries occurred in the EFC area prior to its closure to PLL gear. In those areas and times, fishermen on the vessels have been able to communicate and work to minimize the potential for gear interactions. NMFS anticipates that this communication and coordination will continue to occur during the EFP project period. L. Impacts on ESA & MMPA Listed Species Comment 24: The Draft EA does not include a detailed assessment of the potential impacts of the proposed action on ESA-listed species or marine mammals. Interactions with marine mammals must be carefully considered by the agency to ensure that the project is consistent with the existing Take Reduction Plan for this fishery and the requirements of the MMPA to manage fisheries interactions with marine mammals. Response: Interactions with listed species and marine mammals were considered by the agency to ensure that the research project is consistent with the existing Take Reduction Plan for this fishery and the requirements of the MMPA. As described in the response to Comment 18, all requirements otherwise applicable to PLL fishing are applicable to fishing activities conducted under this EFP. Although a limited amount of fishing effort under this EFP would occur in areas currently closed to PLL gear, the analysis in the EA shows that sea turtle interactions are projected to decline and marine mammal interactions are projected to remain the same under either Alternative 2 and Preferred Alternative 3 of this EFP, with effort relocated to the closed area versus if fishing effort were to occur solely in the open area. The level of fishing activity that would be authorized under this EFP in Preferred Alternative 3 does not represent any increase in fishing effort or methods other than those currently deployed in the U.S. PLL fishery, as analyzed in the 2004 PLL BiOp. Relocating part of the effort to the closed area does not alter that analysis. No additional take or quota use beyond that already authorized and analyzed in previous consultations on the PLL fishery is authorized by this permit. Similarly, the PLL fishery must comply with the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan and the Pelagic Longline Take Reduction Plan. These plans include broad-based gear modifications and time/area closures. Additionally, the terms and conditions of the EFP require that any interactions with sea turtles or marine mammals must immediately be reported to the HMS VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:18 Aug 10, 2017 Jkt 241001 Management Division, and the project terms and conditions may be altered or the project stopped if interactions are at problematic levels in relation to the established limits and protections. Comment 25: The EFP should include a full discussion of consideration of reinitiating ESA Section 7 Consultation to consider the effect of the proposed EFP on the findings of the 2004 PLL Biological Opinion (BiOp). Response: Fishing activity authorized under this EFP would be conducted using the same fishing methods and at the same level of fishing effort as currently exists outside of the project area. Furthermore, catches of sea turtles are projected to decrease as a result of this EFP. The 2004 PLL BiOp states that if the fishing type is similar, and the associated fishing effort does not represent a significant increase over the effort levels for the overall fishery considered in this BiOp, then issuance of some EFPs would be expected to fall within the level of effort and impacts considered in the BiOp. For example, issuance of an EFP to an active commercial vessel likely does not add additional effects than would otherwise accrue from the vessel’s normal commercial activities. Thus, this research project is consistent with the findings of the 2004 BiOp. M. Cumulative Impacts Assessment Comment 26: NMFS has not demonstrated its methodology or Region of Influence (ROI) for conducting its cumulative impacts analysis for the proposed action. As the ROI for HMS includes the south Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico (recent swordfish tag data from The Billfish Foundation shows juvenile swordfish migrating from the DeSoto Canyon to the Atlantic coast of south Florida), other actions in the ROI such as Department of Defense and offshore oil & gas operations should be addressed as part of the cumulative impacts analysis. Response: Cumulative impacts are the impacts on the environment which result from the incremental impacts of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions. Cumulative impacts can result from individually minor but collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time (40 CFR 1508.7). The cumulative impacts assessment contained in the draft EA for this research project describes all past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions for all fish stocks interacting with PLL gear across the range of those stocks (or their region of influence) which, for many, includes the entire Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of PO 00000 Frm 00016 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 Mexico. Although offshore oil and gas operations and Department of Defense activities may affect HMS, the incremental effect of authorizing a limited number of commercial PLL vessels that are currently fishing in open areas to fish and conduct research in two sub-areas of the EFC PLL Closed Area, when added to these other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions, is not expected to produce adverse significant cumulative impacts. N. Impacts on Dolphin Fishery Comment 27: A reasonable trip limit of no more than 4,000 lbs of dolphin should be applied to the participating vessels while fishing in this area under the EFP. This will prevent the EFP fishery from using an excessive amount of the commercial dolphin quota before the rest of the PLL fleet has an opportunity when the Charleston Bump area opens on May 1st. Further, this will minimize conflicts with the interests of the recreational fishery. Finally, this is consistent with the trip limit currently applied to the commercial dolphin harvest when landings reach 75 percent of the commercial quota. NMFS should also implement a limit of 25,000 pound whole weight on the total amount of dolphin that can be landed with PLL gear from the EFC PLL Closed Area. Response: Under 50 CFR part 622.274, if pelagic longline gear is on board a vessel, a person aboard such vessel may not fish for or retain a dolphin or wahoo in the EFC PLL Closed Area. An exemption from this regulation has been submitted to the Southeast Regional Office (SERO) of NMFS under their EFP requirements to enable vessels to retain dolphin and wahoo during research operations, subject to otherwise applicable commercial fishing restrictions for the stocks. As recommended by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC), a dolphin and wahoo exemption has been approved by the SERO Regional Administrator pending approval of this EFP by the HMS Management Division. Participating vessels would be limited to a 4,000 pound whole weight trip limit for dolphin when any portion of the trip occurs in the EFC PLL Closed Area. Additionally, participating vessels would be limited to the existing 500pound trip limit for wahoo specified at 50 CFR 622.278(a)(1)(i). All other commercial dolphin and wahoo regulations, including the requirement to be issued a commercial dolphinwahoo permit, would also apply. The environmental effects of this exemption have been analyzed in the Final EA. NMFS has determined that issuance of E:\FR\FM\11AUN1.SGM 11AUN1 Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 154 / Friday, August 11, 2017 / Notices asabaliauskas on DSKBBXCHB2PROD with NOTICES the EFP should not affect dolphin or wahoo in any way not already considered and analyzed under the Fishery Management Plan for the Dolphin and Wahoo Fishery of the Atlantic and it would not result in exceeding the annual catch limits for those species. Thus, the 25,000 pound whole weight total dolphin landing limit requested by the commenter is determined to not be necessary at this time. Comment 28: If the Charleston Bump area continues to be closed from February 1st to April 30th, there should be no special access during that same time frame given to the area immediately south of the 31 °N. Lat. line where all the HMS are migrating from unless the Charleston Bump was reopened at the same time. Response: The purpose of this research project is to evaluate PLL catches and catch rates of target and non-target species within a portion of the EFC PLL Closed Area on a yearround basis to evaluate the effectiveness of existing area closures at meeting current conservation and management goals. Therefore, prohibiting research activities in the area for three months would prevent the collection of important seasonal catch rate information that could potentially be used to address this issue in the future. O. Essential Fish Habitat Comment 29: The Draft EA notes that essential fish habitat (EFH) for HMS (including species targeted by PLL gear) exists within the EFC PLL Closed Area, but no EFH Assessment has been completed for the proposed action. NMFS must conduct an EFH Assessment in order to determine if the proposed action would adversely affect EFH. Both alternatives would co-occur within the Stetson Miami Terrace coral habitat area of particular concern (CHAPC) and Preferred Alternative 3 would also overlap with the Oculina Bank CHAPC. If PLL gear fished in these areas unintentionally comes into contact with the bottom, the gear may damage this fragile coral habitat. The Oculina Bank and Stetson Miami Terrance are considered EFH–HAPC. Response: An EFH assessment has been conducted for the proposed and final actions. As stated in the EFH assessment in the Draft and Final EA, issuance of the EFP is not anticipated to have an impact on EFH. The only gear to be deployed is PLL gear which has minimal or no impact on EFH for HMS or other species. PLL gear is typically fished in the water column where it does not come into contact with the benthic substrate. Thus, no impacts to VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:18 Aug 10, 2017 Jkt 241001 benthic habitat or other EFH are anticipated. P. Suggestions for Additional Research Comment 30: NMFS should develop a hook and line survey to collect important population dynamics information from recreational and forhire anglers. Response: NMFS appreciates this comment; however it is outside the scope of alternatives addressed in the Draft EA. NMFS notes that the current Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) collects some of this information. Comment 31: NMFS should conduct research into shorter sets and soak-times for longlines and how they might enhance survival of incidentally-caught fish and undersize target fish. Response: NMFS appreciates this comment and agrees that research investigating shorter mainline lengths, soak times, and gear retrieval techniques would be valuable. In a document entitled ‘‘Atlantic HMS Management Based Research Needs and Priorities’’ (2014), examining the feasibility of gear alternatives in Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean to reduce bycatch while maintaining target catch was identified as a high priority. Description of Preferred Alternative in Final Environmental Assessment The research conducted within the EFC PLL Closed Area and in the open area would be carried out by no more than six PLL vessels at any one time. An additional six ‘‘backup’’ vessels could be used to conduct research as replacements if any mechanical or technical issues arise on the other six vessels. The research project would be authorized for 12 months and, pending annual analysis review for any changed environmental conditions or impacts and of catches and catch rates of all species, as well as individual vessel performance, may be re-authorized for two additional 12-month periods. A maximum of 720 sets per year (12 months) would be authorized to occur between the six vessels, and sets would be distributed evenly between two subareas of the EFC PLL Closed Area and the open area. Each set would consist of a maximum of 600 16/0 or larger circle hooks. During the research project, 40 percent of sets occurring in both portions of the EFC PLL Closed Area and in the open area would be observed by scientific research staff or NMFSapproved observers. The commercial vessels that would be participating in this EFP project are otherwise authorized to fish and, absent this EFP, would be conducting normal PO 00000 Frm 00017 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 37573 PLL fishing operations in open areas consistent with their past practices. NMFS conducted an analysis that compared projected catches if the vessels were to continue fishing only in open areas (i.e., all effort in open areas) versus projected catches from fishing operations under the EFP (i.e., 2/3 effort in closed areas and 1/3 effort in the open area). The analysis indicated that fishing operations under the EFP could result in comparatively higher interactions with dusky, silky, and night sharks, whether fishing occurred at the level requested by the applicant or at the reduced level commensurate with past fishing activity. Therefore, many of the terms and conditions in the EFP are structured to limit interactions with and maximize the survival of these shark species, collect data on shark species identification, collect data on PLL soak times to reduce bycatch mortality, such as dusky sharks, and to increase the Agency’s understanding of these data poor stocks to improve future management of these species. The terms and conditions include: • NMFS would review 100 percent of electronic monitoring data for 100 percent of sets occurring in both portions of the EFC PLL Closed Area and in the open area. • After three dusky sharks are caught dead at haulback by a vessel participating in the EFP, that vessel or its replacement vessel would be required to reduce the soak time of the gear to no longer than 10 hours when conducting fishing operations under the EFP. If, after reducing the soak time to no longer than 10 hours, an additional three dusky sharks are caught dead at haulback, then that vessel or its replacement vessel would no longer be authorized to fish in the EFC PLL Closed Area under this EFP, if issued, for the remainder of the 12-month project period, unless otherwise permitted by NMFS. • All live sharks caught but not being retained must be safely sampled (e.g., fin clip) and photographed without removing the shark from the water. All fin clips and photographs would be sent to the Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) for identification purposes. • All sharks that are dead at haulback, including prohibited species, and all sharks being retained for sale must be biologically sampled (i.e., vertebra and reproductive organs removed) to facilitate species identification and collection of life history information. All biological samples would be sent to an address specified by the SEFSC. E:\FR\FM\11AUN1.SGM 11AUN1 37574 Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 154 / Friday, August 11, 2017 / Notices • Sets inside and outside of the two sub-areas of the EFC PLL Closed Area would be equipped with hook timers, in accordance with protocols established by NMFS, to determine when animals were captured and when mortality occurs. This will help determine appropriate PLL soak time to minimize dusky and other shark mortality. • To assist in current research efforts on shortfin mako sharks, observers are requested to place a specified number of pop-up satellite archival tags (PSATS) on shortfin mako sharks that are released alive. • NMFS will closely monitor the catches during the project duration and has the ability to modify the conditions of the EFP, and end the research project, to address bycatch as warranted. Authority: 16 U.S.C. 971 et seq. and 16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq. Dated: August 4, 2017. Emily H. Menashes, Acting Director, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, National Marine Fisheries Service. [FR Doc. 2017–16990 Filed 8–10–17; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration RIN 0648–XF592 Marine Mammals; File No. 21158 National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Notice; receipt of application. AGENCY: Notice is hereby given that Robert Garrott, Ph.D., Montana State University, 310 Lewis Hall, Bozeman, MT 59717, has applied in due form for a permit to conduct research on Weddell seals (Leptoncychotes weddellii). DATES: Written, telefaxed, or email comments must be received on or before September 11, 2017. ADDRESSES: The application and related documents are available for review by selecting ‘‘Records Open for Public Comment’’ from the ‘‘Features’’ box on the Applications and Permits for Protected Species (APPS) home page, https://apps.nmfs.noaa.gov, and then selecting File No. 21158 from the list of available applications. These documents are also available upon written request or by appointment in the Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Room asabaliauskas on DSKBBXCHB2PROD with NOTICES SUMMARY: VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:18 Aug 10, 2017 Jkt 241001 13705, Silver Spring, MD 20910; phone (301) 427–8401; fax (301) 713–0376. Written comments on this application should be submitted to the Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, at the address listed above. Comments may also be submitted by facsimile to (301) 713–0376, or by email to NMFS.Pr1Comments@noaa.gov. Please include the File No. in the subject line of the email comment. Those individuals requesting a public hearing should submit a written request to the Chief, Permits and Conservation Division at the address listed above. The request should set forth the specific reasons why a hearing on this application would be appropriate. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Sara Young or Carrie Hubard, (301) 427– 8401. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The subject permit is requested under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, as amended (MMPA; 16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.) and the regulations governing the taking and importing of marine mammals (50 CFR part 216). The applicant proposes to continue long-term studies of the Erebus Bay, Antarctica, Weddell seal population to evaluate how temporal variation in the marine environment affects individual life histories and the population dynamics of long-lived mammal. Research involves the annual capture of up to 675 Weddell seal pups at 1–4 days after birth, flipper tagging, and release. A maximum of 150 of these pups would also receive a temperature recording flipper tag, be physically weighed, and have a skin biopsy taken for genetics when initially tagged. These pups would be re-captured again at 20 days of age to be weighed, and again at weaning for weighing and to remove the temperature tags. The applicant also proposes to capture up to 285 adults Weddell seals using the head-bagging technique to flipper tag previously untagged seals or replace lost or damaged tags of previously tagged individuals. An additional 100 previously tagged adult Weddell seals would be captured to obtain a skin biopsy for genetics. Up to 75 adult female Weddell seals would be photographed on the 3 occasions when their pup is weighed to obtained an estimate of the mother’s mass through photogrammetry. An additional 15 females would be physically weighed when their pups were initially tagged and weighed. The applicant proposes to conduct up to eight mark-resight surveys, approaching animals to read their flipper tags. The applicant also PO 00000 Frm 00018 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 requests incidental take of crabeater seals (Lobodon carcinophagus) and leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) that may be unintentionally harassed. This permit would be valid for five years. In compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.), an initial determination has been made that the activity proposed is categorically excluded from the requirement to prepare an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. Concurrent with the publication of this notice in the Federal Register, NMFS is forwarding copies of the application to the Marine Mammal Commission and its Committee of Scientific Advisors. Dated: August 8, 2017. Julia Harrison, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service. [FR Doc. 2017–16985 Filed 8–10–17; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration RIN 0648–XF596 Fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico; Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR); Post Data-Workshop Webinar Gulf of Mexico Gray Snapper; Public Meetings National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Notice of SEDAR 51 assessment webinar II for Gulf of Mexico gray snapper. AGENCY: The SEDAR 51 assessment process of Gulf of Mexico gray snapper will consist of a Data Workshop, a series of assessment webinars, and a Review Workshop. SUMMARY: The SEDAR 51 assessment webinar II will be held August 21, 2017 from 1 p.m.–3 p.m. Eastern Time. ADDRESSES: The meeting will be held via webinar. The webinar is open to members of the public. Those interested in participating should contact Julie A. Neer at SEDAR (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT) to request an invitation providing webinar access information. Please request webinar invitations at least 24 hours in advance of each webinar. SEDAR address: 4055 Faber Place Drive, Suite 201, North Charleston, SC 29405. DATES: E:\FR\FM\11AUN1.SGM 11AUN1

Agencies

[Federal Register Volume 82, Number 154 (Friday, August 11, 2017)]
[Notices]
[Pages 37566-37574]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2017-16990]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

RIN 0648-XF086


Atlantic Highly Migratory Species; Exempted Fishing Permits

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

ACTION: Notice of availability of a final environmental assessment to 
issue an exempted fishing permit.

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SUMMARY: NMFS announces the availability of a Final Environmental 
Assessment (EA) analyzing the impacts of issuing an exempted fishing 
permit (EFP) to Dr. David Kerstetter of Nova Southeastern University to 
evaluate pelagic longline (PLL) catch and bycatch rates from within two 
different sub-areas in the northern portion of the East Florida Coast 
(EFC) Pelagic Longline (PLL) Closed Area (north and south of 29[deg]50' 
N. lat.) and compare those rates to rates obtained by authorized 
samplers from an area outside the EFC PLL Closed Area, with certain 
terms and conditions. The overall purpose of the research project is to 
evaluate the effectiveness of existing area closures at meeting current 
conservation and management goals under current conditions using 
standardized PLL gear on a specified number of commercial vessels. In 
response to terms and conditions established by NMFS, the research 
project is also structured to maximize the survival of shark species, 
collect data on shark species identification, collect data on PLL soak 
times to reduce bycatch mortality of species such as dusky sharks, and 
to increase the Agency's understanding of data poor shark stocks to 
improve future management of these species. NMFS considered public 
comments and decided to issue the EFP given the need to assess and 
compare current catch and bycatch rates during normal commercial 
fishing operations from areas inside and outside the EFC PLL Closed 
Area.

DATES: The Final EA will be available on August 11, 2017.

ADDRESSES: A copy of the Final EA may be requested by contacting 
Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Management Division (F/SF1), NMFS, 
1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Craig Cockrell at (301) 427-8503 or 
Rick Pearson at (727) 824-5399.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 

Background

    NMFS published a notice of intent to issue EFPs, Scientific 
Research Permits, Letters of Acknowledgement, and Chartering Permits 
for Atlantic highly migratory species (HMS) in 2017 (81 FR 80646, 
November 16, 2016). Although that notice anticipated a variety of such 
applications, it also stated that occasionally NMFS receives 
applications for research activities that were not anticipated, or for 
research that is outside the scope of general scientific sampling and 
tagging of Atlantic HMS, or rarely, for research that is particularly 
controversial and that NMFS will provide additional opportunity for 
public comment, consistent with the regulations at 50 CFR 600.745 if 
that were to occur.
    As discussed in the November 2016 notice of intent to issue EFPs 
and related permits, issuance of EFPs and related permits are necessary 
because HMS regulations (e.g., fishing seasons, prohibited species, 
authorized gear, closed areas, and minimum sizes) sometimes otherwise 
prohibit activities that could be undertaken for scientific data 
collection or other valuable purposes. Thus, under 50 CFR 635.32, and 
consistent with 50 CFR 600.745, the Director of the Office of 
Sustainable Fisheries may, through issuance of an EFP, authorize for 
certain purposes the target or incidental harvest of species managed 
under a Fishery Management Plan (FMP) or fishery regulations that would 
otherwise be prohibited. Among the purposes of EFPs are the ``conduct 
of scientific research, the acquisition of information and data, . . . 
[and] the investigation of bycatch, economic discard and regulatory 
discard.'' 50 CFR 635.32(a)(1). These permits exempt permit holders 
from the specific portions of the regulations (e.g., fishing seasons, 
prohibited species, authorized gear, closed areas, and minimum sizes) 
that may otherwise prohibit the collection of HMS for public education, 
public display, or scientific research. The terms and conditions of 
individual permits are unique. EFPs and related permits are issued 
under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and 
Management Reauthorization Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) (16 U.S.C. 1801 
et seq.) and/or the Atlantic Tunas Convention Act (ATCA) (16 U.S.C. 971 
et seq.).
    NMFS closed the EFC area to PLL gear year-round in early 2001 (65 
FR 47213, August 1, 2000). The closure was implemented to reduce 
bycatch and incidental catch of overfished and protected species by PLL 
fishermen who target HMS because there was a noticeable difference in 
the bycatch of some non-target species (mainly undersized swordfish) 
between the EFC area and open areas. At the time, Atlantic blue marlin, 
white marlin, sailfish, West Atlantic bluefin tuna, North Atlantic 
albacore tuna, and swordfish were overfished with overfishing 
occurring, and bycatch reduction was a component of rebuilding efforts. 
In particular, the United States was implementing a 1999 swordfish 
rebuilding plan, and the closure helped reduce bycatch of undersized 
swordfish. Several other laws required that NMFS address bycatch in the 
HMS fisheries, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which 
required reductions in sea turtle bycatch in the PLL fishery. National 
Standard 9 of the MSA also requires that fishery management plans 
minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality to the extent practicable.
    The closure has been in place for more than 15 years now and, since 
2001, a number of changes in stock status and fishery management

[[Page 37567]]

measures have occurred. Specifically, North Atlantic swordfish and 
North Atlantic albacore tuna have been rebuilt, current international 
assessments of white marlin and West Atlantic sailfish indicate that 
overfishing is likely not occurring, and Western Atlantic bluefin tuna 
is not subject to overfishing, Additionally, the PLL fishery has been 
required since 2004 to use circle hooks instead of J-hooks to reduce 
sea turtle bycatch, and individual bluefin tuna quota (IBQ) allocations 
were implemented in the PLL fishery through Amendment 7 to the 2006 
Consolidated HMS Fishery Management Plan in 2014 (79 FR 71509, December 
2, 2014). Allowing limited access to the EFC PLL Closed Area for 
research purposes via an EFP would provide important data from the 
closed area under these changed conditions. NMFS has not obtained 
scientific data related to catch and bycatch rates from this area since 
2010, and that data suggested that more research was needed due to the 
small sample size and poor spatial distribution of PLL sets in the 
research area conducted from 2008-2010. The data resulting from the 
research under this EFP would be used to assess current bycatch rates 
during typical commercial fishing operations and to evaluate the 
effectiveness of the closed area in continuing to reduce bycatch of 
non-target species (e.g., billfish, undersized swordfish, prohibited 
species, and protected species). It would also provide more current 
data about the socio-economic impact of reduced catches of target 
species (swordfish and tunas) as a result of the closure, assess 
changes in species availability and distribution over time, and 
contribute to future stock assessments or other fishery management 
measures. Among the purposes of EFPs in the regulations are the 
``conduct of scientific research, the acquisition of information and 
data . . ., [and] the investigation of bycatch, economic discard and 
regulatory discard,'' and such an EFP would be in furtherance of those 
purposes (Sec.  635.32(a)(1)).
    NMFS received an application to conduct research from within two 
different sub-areas in the northern portion of the EFC PLL Closed Area 
(north and south of 29[deg]50' N. lat.) and compare those rates to 
rates obtained from one portion of the open area (for comparative 
purposes) and published a notice of availability in the Federal 
Register for a Draft EA and a 30-day public comment period (82 FR 4856; 
January 17, 2017). On February 15, 2017 (82 FR 10746), NMFS extended 
the public comment period from February 16, 2017, until March 29, 2017. 
The EFP application is available for review on the HMS Management 
Division's Web site at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/hms/compliance/efp/index.html.

Availability of a Final Environmental Assessment

    NMFS announces the availability of a Final EA that analyzes the 
potential impacts to the human environment of granting this EFP 
application for experimental PLL fishing within two sub-areas of the 
EFC PLL Closed Area and one area outside the Closed Area. Among other 
analyzed impacts, the Final EA projects the annual catches of all HMS 
species, as well as some non-HMS species interactions, from within two 
sub-areas of the EFC PLL Closed Area and one open area that could be 
expected to occur. Additionally, the Final EA describes NMFS' rationale 
for the preferred alternative and other alternatives considered for 
this research and includes responses to public comments on the Draft 
EA. The Final EA may be found on the HMS Management Division's Web site 
at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/hms/compliance/efp/index.html.

Response to Comments

    During the public comment period NMFS received over 500 comments. 
The majority of the comments were submitted by recreational fishing 
constituents opposed to the research project. These commenters stated 
that the current EFC Closed Area has been effective at rebuilding 
several fish stocks and increasing recreational fishing opportunities 
and that it should remained closed to maintain those results and 
benefits. Several environmental organizations were opposed to the 
research project primarily because of concerns about what they 
considered to be excessive levels of bycatch (sharks, billfish, and 
undersized swordfish) at the level of effort proposed by the EFP 
applicant, although some groups recognized the need for the research. 
Comments from HMS commercial fishing industry participants and 
organizations recognized the need for the research, but expressed 
reservations that only one company (Day Boat Seafood LLC) would conduct 
and benefit from the project. As described below, NMFS has made changes 
to the preferred alternative described in the Final EA, based in part 
on public comments.

A. Purpose & Need for Proposed Research Project

    Comment 1: There is no legitimate need for the proposed research 
project because the effect of pelagic longline (PLL) fishing within the 
closed area (a nursery for juvenile swordfish) is well-known. 
Conditions have not changed in the last 15 years.
    Response: The EFC PLL Closed Area has been in place for more than 
15 years. Since 2001, a number of changes in stock status and fishery 
management measures have occurred. Specifically, North Atlantic 
swordfish has been rebuilt since 2009, current international 
assessments of white marlin and West Atlantic sailfish indicate that 
overfishing is likely not occurring, West Atlantic bluefin tuna is not 
subject to overfishing, and North Atlantic albacore tuna has been 
rebuilt. Additionally, the PLL fishery has been required since 2004 to 
use circle hooks instead of J-hooks to reduce sea turtle bycatch, and 
IBQ allocations were implemented in the PLL fishery through Amendment 7 
to the 2006 Consolidated HMS FMP in 2014 (79 FR 71509, December 2, 
2014). Environmental conditions may have changed thereby affecting 
migratory patterns and species distributions of Atlantic HMS. Allowing 
limited access to the EFC PLL Closed Area for research purposes through 
an EFP would provide important data from the closed area under all of 
these changed conditions. Thus, the purpose of the research project is 
to evaluate PLL catches and catch rates of target and non-target 
species within two sub-areas in the northern portion of the EFC PLL 
Closed Area and an open area to evaluate the effectiveness of existing 
area closures at meeting current conservation and management goals 
under current conditions using standardized PLL gear on a specified 
number of commercial vessels. Vessels participating in this project 
would be required to submit electronic logbooks at the end of each set 
to NOVA Southeastern University; and these data would be available to 
NMFS upon request. During the project period, 40 percent of all sets 
would be observed by NMFS-approved observers or scientific research 
staff. Finally, NMFS would review 100 percent of electronic video 
monitoring data for all sets conducted under this EFP. The research is 
of limited scope and would be conducted in only a portion of the EFC 
PLL Closed Area and, therefore, is not expected to negate the known 
conservation benefits of the closed area. Among the purposes of EFPs in 
federal regulations are ``the investigation of bycatch, economic 
discard and regulatory discard,'' and this EFP would be in furtherance 
of those purposes (50 CFR 635.32(a)).
    Comment 2: This scientific research project will help to revitalize 
the U.S.

[[Page 37568]]

highly migratory species (HMS) PLL fishery. It holds significant 
promise in evaluating responsible and sustainable ways to catch a 
larger percentage of swordfish quota allocated to the United States by 
ICCAT. We support efforts to assess the efficacy of the current closed 
areas and integrate new technologies into fisheries and fisheries 
research. Since the closure was implemented, many technological 
advances have been made in gear modifications, vessel monitoring, and 
bycatch mitigation tools and techniques that largely mitigate the 
duration and/or size of the PLL closed areas. Over the 15 years that 
the closure has been in place, little research has been conducted to 
evaluate the effectiveness of the existing closure in meeting current 
conservation and management goals.
    Response: In the short-term, this project is anticipated to provide 
economic benefit to the vessels participating in the research and could 
increase U.S. North Atlantic swordfish landings by approximately seven 
percent, thus more fully utilizing the U.S. North Atlantic swordfish 
quota. In the long-term, this project is anticipated to provide 
scientific fisheries data to assess current bycatch rates during normal 
commercial fishing operations and to evaluate the effectiveness of the 
closed area in continuing to reduce bycatch of non-target species 
(e.g., billfish, undersized swordfish, prohibited species, and 
protected species). It will also provide current data about the socio-
economic impact of reduced catches of target species (swordfish and 
tunas) as a result of the closure, electronic vessel monitoring, 
changes in species availability and distribution over time, and 
contribute to future stock assessments or other fishery management 
measures.

B. Support for Alternative 1 (No Action)

    Comment 3: The recovery of a once-overfished species (swordfish) 
does not warrant returning to the kind of fishing that caused 
overfishing (excessive harvest of juveniles) and created the need for 
closures in the first place. If closing the EFC area to PLL gear 
resulted in a stock rebound, then that area is obviously vital to the 
overall Western Atlantic swordfish stock and should remain permanently 
closed to PLL vessels.
    Response: Issuance of this EFP would not represent a return to the 
level of fishing that contributed to overfishing of swordfish 
(including excessive harvest of juveniles). Specifically, this project 
is limited to six PLL vessels and 720 sets (with 480 sets distributed 
between two sub-areas of the EFC PLL Closed Area and the remainder 
occurring in the open area). Additionally, a historical comparison of 
the PLL fishery prior to 2001 to current conditions indicates a very 
different situation. The overall number of vessels landing swordfish 
has declined from 168 in 2001 to 90 vessels in 2016/2017 (to date). 
There has also been a decline in the number of PLL hooks fished from 
7.6 million to 5.8 million. Several other time/area closures and gear 
restricted areas (GRAs) have been implemented since 2001, including the 
Desoto Canyon, Charleston Bump, and Northeastern closures, and the Cape 
Hatteras and Gulf of Mexico GRAs. Circle hooks now are required 
throughout the PLL fishery and weak hooks are required in the Gulf of 
Mexico. Electronic video monitoring systems (EM) are installed and must 
be utilized on all PLL vessels. Finally the individual bluefin quota 
(IBQ) program, which requires that sufficient IBQ be possessed prior to 
PLL fishing, may further limit effort in some circumstances. As 
described in Section 8.5 of the 2016 HMS SAFE Report, the result is 
that reported numbers of swordfish kept and discarded, large coastal 
sharks kept, and BAYS tunas kept from 2005-2015 decreased by more than 
the predicted values developed in Regulatory Amendment 1 to the 1999 
FMP. Reported discards of pelagic sharks and all billfish also declined 
by more than the predicted values developed in Regulatory Amendment 1 
to the 1999 FMP (swordfish kept: -41 percent; swordfish disc. -63 
percent; LCS kept: -93 percent; BAYS kept: -36 percent; pelagic sharks 
disc. -32 percent; billfish disc. -53 percent).
    Comment 4: NMFS should support conservation and sustainable fishing 
activities related to recreational fishing. Please do not reverse the 
progress that the EFC PLL Closed Area has made to recreational 
fisheries.
    Response: Fishing activity conducted under this EFP is not 
anticipated to reduce recreational fishing opportunities for Atlantic 
HMS or to adversely affect the stocks that are recreationally fished. 
Recreational fishermen will still be able to go fishing off the eastern 
Florida coast, and the limited activities in this EFP are not expected 
to result in negative effects for recreationally-fished stocks. 
Successful recreational and commercial PLL fishing activities currently 
occur simultaneously in many areas of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and 
U.S. Caribbean.

C. Range of Alternatives in Draft Environmental Assessment

    Comment 5: The Draft EA has not evaluated or discussed a number of 
possible reasonable alternatives that would meet the purpose and the 
need of the research project and could have less adverse impact to the 
human environment. The duration of the research should be reduced and 
data combined with data from the research conducted in the closed area 
from 2008-2010. The research project should be limited to the minimal 
number of sets and hooks necessary for statistical validity.
    Response: NMFS analyzed a reasonable range of alternatives that are 
feasible to accomplish the purpose and need of the project, which is to 
evaluate PLL catches and catch rates of target and non-target species 
within two sub-areas of the northern portion of the EFC PLL Closed Area 
and compare those to an open area. These included not issuing an EFP 
(no action) and a smaller and larger geographic area (Alternatives 2 
and 3, respectively). NMFS also analyzed both the level of effort 
proposed by the applicant and a lesser amount of fishing effort 
commensurate with current fishing effort. In the Final EA and EFP, NMFS 
has reduced the number of sets authorized from the requested (and 
previously-preferred) level of 1,080 sets/year to 720 sets/year and the 
number of hooks per set from 750 hooks/set to 600 hooks/set. These 
numbers are commensurate with current levels of fishing effort by the 
participating vessels.
    A reduction in the duration of the project would not provide 
adequate sampling over time to account for seasonal variations in 
environmental conditions that may occur and thus would not meet the 
purpose and need of the EFP. Analysis of research data collected from 
2008-2010 was used to develop projections for this EFP; however, 
changes in conditions since 2008-2010 prevent the combination of data 
sets. Although the previous research did obtain some significant 
results, the sample size was small and the spatial distribution of sets 
was poor. These results suggested that additional research was needed, 
and the current project size was designed to correct the errors in 
sample size and spatial distribution in the previous research.

D. Utilization of U.S Swordfish Quota

    Comment 6: There is an implication that if the United States does 
not catch every swordfish allotted to it, then it will lose its quota 
to other nations. Although this argument has been

[[Page 37569]]

around for years, the United States has not lost any swordfish quota.
    Response: The United States has, to date, been successful in 
protecting its North Atlantic swordfish quota at ICCAT, despite 
significant underharvest of the quota in recent years. The United 
States has argued that restrictions on the U.S. fishery, such as the 
required use of circle hooks, contributed significantly to the stock's 
rebuilding and that in light of those sacrifices and the strict 
conservation measures that benefitted all countries fishing on the 
stock, the United States should be given some time to revitalize its 
fishery. The threat of losing quota to other countries without the same 
conservation measures remains real, and NMFS continues to work with 
stakeholders to find ways to revitalize the stock while effectively 
managing the stock and other affected species. NMFS also is required 
under ATCA and the Magnuson-Stevens Act to provide U.S. fishing vessels 
with a reasonable opportunity to harvest the ICCAT-recommended quota. 
In 2016, preliminary data indicate that approximately 37 percent of the 
U.S. swordfish baseline quota and 33 percent of the adjusted quota was 
landed. Thus, the commenter's suggestion that our concern is catching 
``every fish'' mischaracterizes and understates the quota issue. In the 
short-term, this research project provides an additional opportunity to 
harvest the swordfish quota while providing economic benefit to the 
vessels participating in the research. It is projected to increase U.S. 
landings of swordfish by approximately seven percent, thus more fully 
utilizing the U.S. North Atlantic swordfish quota. This is not the 
primary reason for issuing the EFP, which will gather much-needed 
research from the EFC PLL Closed Area, but the project will help 
revitalize the North Atlantic swordfish fishery in the near-term.

E. Project Design

    Comment 7: If this EFP is authorized, it would allow more than 
1,000 longlines to be set per year, with over 750 hooks per longline. 
This means that over 2.25 million additional hooks will be floating off 
of Florida's coast.
    Response: While the preferred alternative in the Draft EA would 
have authorized up to 1,080 sets per year with 750 hooks per longline, 
NMFS has modified the preferred alternative in the Final EA and EFP to 
limit the number of sets to be commensurate with current effort in the 
open area. NMFS would authorize 720 longline sets per year with up to 
600 hooks per set under this EFP. Of those, 480 sets would be 
authorized to be deployed between two sub-areas in the EFC PLL Closed 
Area. Thus, 288,000 hooks would be authorized in the EFC PLL Closed 
Area. NMFS emphasizes that these hooks would not be ``additional'' 
hooks, as they would otherwise be deployed in areas currently open off 
Florida's east coast. This EFP only authorizes an amount of fishing 
effort commensurate with current levels of effort by participating 
vessels.
    Comment 8: An initial adjustment period should be provided for 
fishermen participating in the study area to allow them to learn how to 
fish the Gulf Stream waters and `normalize' techniques and catches 
before data are collected or used for the purposes of the study. This 
will allow data to be reflective of experienced fishing practices in 
the EFC PLL Closed Area, rather than being influenced by data collected 
while fishermen are learning how to fish in the area.
    Response: The vessels and captains authorized to participate in 
this research project are experienced with fishing in areas immediately 
adjacent to the EFC PLL Closed Area. It would not be prudent to 
authorize fishing activities in the closed area without collecting the 
resultant data. NMFS believes that the participating captains will more 
quickly adjust their fishing practices while fishing under the 
provisions and terms and conditions of the EFP, rather being allowed to 
fish in the closed area without the EFP restrictions. In addition, 
pending annual review, if the EFP is authorized for an additional two 
years, variations between years could be recorded to see if changes in 
catch or bycatch rates occur due to improvements in fishing techniques.
    Comment 9: Data collection during this study should be at as high a 
resolution as possible in order to determine fine-scale differences in 
catch and bycatch in time and space.
    Response: Vessels participating in this project would be required 
to submit electronic logbooks, including date, time, location, and 
basic oceanographic conditions, at the end of each set to the research 
applicant at NOVA Southeastern University. These data would be 
available to NMFS upon request. The electronic logbook data would be 
audited every three months by the researcher who would compare randomly 
selected capture events in the electronic logbook to these events as 
recorded by electronic video data. NMFS will review one hundred percent 
of the electronic video data during the project. In addition, all 
existing reporting requirements would apply to participating vessels 
including logbook reporting and observer coverage requirements, which 
include latitude and longitude fields.
    Comment 10: We recommend a maximum mainline length of 5 miles, 
allowable soak times no longer than 3-4 hours, and retrieval of the 
gear in the order in which it was deployed. Reducing the amount of time 
that hooks are in the water could enhance the survival of fish and 
other animals caught incidentally or that must be released according to 
regulation.
    Response: The purpose of this study is to collect commercial 
fishery data from PLL vessels using normal fishing methods to 
effectively assess the difference between the closed and open area 
effects during such operations. Reducing the mainline length and soak 
times would not be representative of how commercial PLL vessels 
normally fish their gear. However, research investigating shorter 
mainline lengths, soak times, and gear retrieval techniques would be 
valuable and NMFS will consider these recommendations for future 
research.

F. Observer Coverage Rates and Vessel Monitoring

    Comment 11: Some commenters stated that, if the project were to 
take place, it should have an unbiased observer coverage rate of 100 
percent of all sets and that the EA must be supplemented with a 
defensible observer coverage rate to support the proposed project. 
Conversely, other commenters stated that the level of monitoring is 
excessive, because observer coverage is expensive, and a 33 percent 
coverage rate, in addition to 100 percent electronic video monitoring, 
may unnecessarily increase project costs and create an expensive 
precedent for future similar research.
    Response: We recognize that authorizing access to the EFC PLL 
Closed Area by commercial fishing vessels to conduct research warrants 
a high degree of oversight and monitoring. NMFS believes that an 
observer coverage rate of 40 percent is appropriate, given that 
additional funding has been obtained to ensure that 100 percent of 
electronic video monitoring data for all sets conducted under this EFP 
would be reviewed and the costs of 100 percent observer coverage would 
be prohibitive. Furthermore, 100 percent observer coverage is 
unnecessary given the other monitoring measures in place for this 
project. Forty percent observer coverage in addition to these other 
measures will ensure sufficient monitoring and accurate data collection 
and verification.

[[Page 37570]]

    Comment 12: Some commenters stated that this project should 
evaluate expanding the use of EM to all catch and bycatch species. 
Optimizing the configuration of EM for all catch could improve the 
reliability of data collected, especially for bycatch species like 
sharks, and ultimately allow for additional accountability at a reduced 
cost. Conversely, other commenters stated that this project is not 
sufficient in scale or scope to support any future decision by NMFS to 
use EM to record and analyze all catch and bycatch for the purpose of 
managing the PLL fishery as a whole in open areas. Yet other commenters 
stated that the project will also evaluate electronic logbooks for more 
streamlined and real-time reporting that combines catch data with 
oceanographic information. These data could help better understand 
where and under what conditions bycatch species occur and how fishermen 
can best avoid them.
    Response: EM equipment became required on all HMS PLL vessels on 
June 1, 2015. Thus, NMFS has approximately two years' worth of 
experience using the equipment and analyzing the data. In this project, 
NMFS will be reviewing one hundred percent of electronic video (EM) 
data. Thus the project will provide additional experience and data that 
could help better evaluate the effectiveness and limitations of EM data 
in recording and identifying all species of catch and bycatch.

G. Project Participation

    Comment 13: This EFP would give the applicant a distinct 
competitive market advantage with respect to some species, which other 
boats in the PLL fleet will not have during the project period.
    Response: The research project is temporary and relatively short in 
duration (one year, with a possibility to renew annually twice pending 
annual review). The vessels fishing in this project would be fishing in 
the open areas absent this EFP, and there are costs associated with 
participation in this project. Some increased catch in target species 
is expected and will, in part, compensate the vessel owners for their 
participation in the project. Any financial advantages will be limited. 
The research applicant, not NMFS, selected and worked with the 
commercial fishing entity to develop this particular research project. 
Other entities may submit similar applications for EFPs at any time for 
consideration by NMFS. Such applications would be reviewed and 
evaluated for merit, based upon a sound scientific study design and 
other criteria.
    Comment 14: This project should engage the participation of 
captains and crew with the greatest level of experience, including 
especially those that have prior experience fishing in this EFC area 
before it was closed. Failure to do this may generate catch and bycatch 
results that are not truly representative of the entire U.S. HMS PLL 
fleet. NMFS should allow other vessels or companies to apply and 
compete for the privilege to participate in the fishing activity 
specified in the EFP.
    Response: The EFP application indicates that experienced PLL 
fishermen would participate in the project. These vessels and captains 
are currently fishing in areas immediately adjacent to the EFC PLL 
Closed Area. NMFS did not select the participating vessels. The EFP 
applicant and principal investigator selected the participants based 
upon their experience and the amount of fishing effort and methods 
needed to accomplish the objectives of the research.

H. Catch and Bycatch Impacts

    Comment 15: Allowing PLL vessels in the EFC Closed Area will likely 
drive down stock abundance by killing dusky sharks, white sharks, 
undersized swordfish, marlin, sailfish, sea turtles, marine mammals, 
and many other species. PLL fishing is indiscriminate and was a major 
cause of the collapse of the swordfish fishery over 20 years ago.
    Response: NMFS received many comments expressing concern about 
excessive levels of bycatch that could occur as a result of issuing the 
EFP. Given the size, scope, duration, and strict research protocols 
associated with the research project, NMFS does not anticipate that 
issuance of the EFP would result in any significant ecological economic 
impacts. The participating vessels are already fishing in areas that 
are currently open. The EFP would authorize the same amount of fishing 
effort compared to the baseline of normal operations that occur in open 
areas. There would be no overall increase in fishing effort as a result 
of the project, although fishing would occur in different areas and 
certain catches and interactions would be expected to increase. None of 
these increases are expected to adversely affect the stocks or to have 
significant environmental impacts. The management measures that have 
been implemented in the PLL fishery since 2001, (including, but not 
limited to, circle hooks, gear restrictions, careful release equipment 
and training, individual bluefin tuna quotas, catch quotas, prohibited 
species, and electronic video monitoring) in combination with the 
strict research protocols associated with the research project are 
expected to mitigate any unforeseen ecological impacts such as 
unexpected bycatch levels. Discards of blue and white marlin are 
projected to remain largely unchanged. The amount of sailfish catch 
projected for this research project (226 individual sailfish) is not 
expected to lead to overfishing or have negative effects on the stock, 
as the overall TAC recommended by ICCAT (Rec. 16-11) for this stock is 
1,030 mt. Similarly, the amount of swordfish projected to be caught is 
not expected to lead to overfishing as it would remain well within the 
2017 adjusted U.S. North Atlantic swordfish quota which is expected to 
be 3,359.4 mt (equivalent to the 2016 adjusted quota). Although 
discards (dead and alive) of undersized swordfish are projected to 
increase, this would not be desirable for the vessel captain who would 
likely change fishing areas and modify fishing techniques to avoid such 
bycatch. NMFS intends to monitor this project carefully, and will 
consider the amount of undersized swordfish and other bycatch captured 
during annual review of the EFP. NMFS has added additional terms and 
conditions to the EFP, including individual vessel limits, to address 
dusky shark and other shark bycatch. While a commenter noted concerns 
about white shark interactions, no interactions with white sharks are 
expected. If white shark interactions do occur, they are not expected 
to have ecological impacts as recent research indicates white shark 
populations are apparently increasing in abundance since the 1990s when 
a variety of conservation measures were implemented. This also would be 
considered during annual review of the EFP. Sea turtle bycatch is 
projected to be reduced and marine mammal bycatch is expected to remain 
unchanged.
    Comment 16: Allowing research fishing in depths of 100 fathoms and 
less will likely lead to interactions with unwanted and undersized 
species.
    Response: Historically, some fishermen working with the principal 
investigator have fished a portion of their longline gear in slower 
water on the west side of the Gulf Stream and a portion of their 
longline gear in the faster moving waters of the Gulf Stream. This 
allows their gear to ``swing'' with the current. The principal 
investigator has indicated that the slower water along the west side of 
the Gulf Stream is in proximity to the 100 fathom contour. A purpose of 
the project is to

[[Page 37571]]

collect data about PLL catch and bycatch that will help address 
questions such as the one mentioned in this comment. The answer would 
not be known until fishery data are collected and analyzed through this 
research project.

I. Support for Bycatch Limits

    Comment 17: The EFP must include bycatch limits, either individual 
vessels or fleetwide, for target and non-target finfish species 
including shark and billfish species. EFP investigators should be 
required to cease operations if and when any species-specific catch 
limit is reached.
    Response: Bycatch limits are applied as a precautionary measure for 
certain shark species due to the current stock status of dusky sharks 
and problems of misidentification with silky and night sharks. Bycatch 
limits for other species are not necessary because of differences in 
stock status (i.e., not overfished, no overfishing), low projected 
catches, or easier identification during monitoring. However, NMFS will 
closely monitor the catches during the project duration and has the 
ability to modify the conditions of the EFP, and to end the research 
project, to address bycatch as warranted.
    Comment 18: The EFP must include limits on interactions, takes and 
catches of species protected under the ESA and/or the MMPA.
    Response: Sea turtle interactions are projected to decline and 
marine mammal interactions are projected to remain the same under this 
EFP, versus if all fishing effort were in the open area. All existing 
ESA and MMPA requirements otherwise applicable to PLL fishing are 
applicable to the fishing activities conducted under this EFP. The PLL 
fishery is governed by the ITS contained in the 2004 PLL BiOp. Sea 
turtle interactions (all species) have remained well below the 
incidental take statement (ITS) established in the 2004 PLL BiOp since 
its implementation. With regards to marine mammals, the PLL fishery 
must comply with the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan and the 
Pelagic Longline Take Reduction Plan. These plans include broad-based 
gear modifications and time/area closures.
    Comment 19: What bycatch numbers will be deemed acceptable? The 
levels of acceptable bycatch must be at or below those achieved by the 
closures.
    Response: Any bycatch derived from within the EFC PLL Closed Area 
under this EFP would be above the level achieved by the closure because 
there is currently no PLL fishing activity in the area. NMFS has not 
determined the level of bycatch that would be considered acceptable, 
except for dusky sharks which are overfished and may be confused with 
other shark species. A general benchmark for fish species would be the 
likely projected annual catch levels analyzed in chapter four of the 
Final EA. However, these would also need to be assessed on an event by 
event basis. NMFS, in cooperation with the principal investigator, 
would determine if the catch of a certain species was unusually large 
and/or unexpected. The use of electronic logbooks, 100 percent video 
monitoring, increased observer coverage (40 percent), and communication 
with the principal investigator would help enable this determination. 
Then, it would be necessary to assess whether the catch could lead to, 
or exacerbate, overfishing of the species. Extra precaution would be 
necessary for currently overfished species including blue and white 
marlin and certain shark species. Based upon this information, the 
principal investigator and NMFS would coordinate an appropriate 
response (e.g., relocation, soak time reduction, temporary or permanent 
suspension of fishing activities). NMFS will closely monitor catches 
during the project duration and has the ability to modify the 
conditions of the EFP, and to end the research project, to address 
bycatch as warranted.

J. Economic Impacts

    Comment 20: The issuance of an EFP would have an adverse indirect 
socio-ecological effect resulting from a reduction in catches of HMS 
and other species. This adverse indirect impact would affect 
recreational billfish anglers, recreational tournament operators, and 
all of those industries which are connected to the recreational fishery 
(marinas, tackle stores, boat manufacturers, etc.). The money spent on 
recreational fishing far outweighs any benefit commercial fishing may 
bring.
    Response: Issuance of an EFP is not anticipated to cause or 
contribute to overfishing of HMS or other species as described in the 
ecological effects analysis in the Final EA. Recreational fishing for 
HMS is an important social and economic activity. Mandatory reporting 
of recreational swordfish and billfish landings became effective in 
2001. However, a comparatively small amount of swordfish and billfish 
were reported as landed from recreational anglers in the state of 
Florida in 2016. Data indicate that 290 swordfish, 102 sailfish, 2 blue 
marlin, and 1 white marlin were reported landed. Reporting of releases 
is optional, but only 1 blue marlin was reportedly released in Florida 
in 2016. Collecting commercial fisheries data under this EFP is not 
anticipated to reduce the economic benefits of recreational fishing.
    Comment 21: Data derived from the issuance of an EFP could benefit 
the U.S. PLL fleet. The PLL closures have had profound economic impacts 
on the fishery.
    Response: This research project could benefit the management of all 
U.S. HMS fisheries by allowing for improved management decision making 
based upon current and accurate information.
    Comment 22: The Draft EA does not provide adequate information and/
or a determination whether a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) 
can be made. The Draft EA determined that the proposed activity will 
have a potential adverse socioeconomic impact due to gear conflicts and 
a reduction in recreational catch. This adverse impact does not support 
a FONSI.
    Response: A determination that there could be adverse indirect 
socio-economic impacts to the recreational fishing community does not, 
by itself, indicate that the overall impact of the research project is 
significant. NMFS anticipates that these impacts should be partially 
mitigated because the research area is located far offshore, and well 
north of where the vast majority of Florida anglers are concentrated. 
Also, the strict research protocols and limits associated with the 
research project should mitigate impacts on recreational anglers. Thus, 
the finding of no significant impact was warranted.

K. Gear Conflicts With Other Fisheries

    Comment 23: There is an overlap of the areas in the EFP and areas 
utilized in the royal red shrimp, rock shrimp, golden crab, and golden 
tilefish fisheries. These fisheries employ trawl, trap, and bottom 
longline gear respectively that are not compatible with the presence of 
pelagic longlines. Similarly, PLL gear fished in the same area where 
recreational and commercial hook-and-line fishing activity is occurring 
for dolphin or wahoo could create user conflicts, both through 
potential interaction with the PLL gear as well as a real or perceived 
localized depletion of these and other pelagic species.
    Response: This EFP would authorize a limited number of PLL sets by 
up to six vessels at one time in the project area. This level of 
fishing effort is not anticipated to result in a substantial number of 
interactions with fishing gears in other fisheries. These other 
fisheries also occur in other areas of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico 
where PLL

[[Page 37572]]

fishing occurs, and these other fisheries occurred in the EFC area 
prior to its closure to PLL gear. In those areas and times, fishermen 
on the vessels have been able to communicate and work to minimize the 
potential for gear interactions. NMFS anticipates that this 
communication and coordination will continue to occur during the EFP 
project period.

L. Impacts on ESA & MMPA Listed Species

    Comment 24: The Draft EA does not include a detailed assessment of 
the potential impacts of the proposed action on ESA-listed species or 
marine mammals. Interactions with marine mammals must be carefully 
considered by the agency to ensure that the project is consistent with 
the existing Take Reduction Plan for this fishery and the requirements 
of the MMPA to manage fisheries interactions with marine mammals.
    Response: Interactions with listed species and marine mammals were 
considered by the agency to ensure that the research project is 
consistent with the existing Take Reduction Plan for this fishery and 
the requirements of the MMPA. As described in the response to Comment 
18, all requirements otherwise applicable to PLL fishing are applicable 
to fishing activities conducted under this EFP. Although a limited 
amount of fishing effort under this EFP would occur in areas currently 
closed to PLL gear, the analysis in the EA shows that sea turtle 
interactions are projected to decline and marine mammal interactions 
are projected to remain the same under either Alternative 2 and 
Preferred Alternative 3 of this EFP, with effort relocated to the 
closed area versus if fishing effort were to occur solely in the open 
area. The level of fishing activity that would be authorized under this 
EFP in Preferred Alternative 3 does not represent any increase in 
fishing effort or methods other than those currently deployed in the 
U.S. PLL fishery, as analyzed in the 2004 PLL BiOp. Relocating part of 
the effort to the closed area does not alter that analysis. No 
additional take or quota use beyond that already authorized and 
analyzed in previous consultations on the PLL fishery is authorized by 
this permit. Similarly, the PLL fishery must comply with the Atlantic 
Large Whale Take Reduction Plan and the Pelagic Longline Take Reduction 
Plan. These plans include broad-based gear modifications and time/area 
closures. Additionally, the terms and conditions of the EFP require 
that any interactions with sea turtles or marine mammals must 
immediately be reported to the HMS Management Division, and the project 
terms and conditions may be altered or the project stopped if 
interactions are at problematic levels in relation to the established 
limits and protections.
    Comment 25: The EFP should include a full discussion of 
consideration of reinitiating ESA Section 7 Consultation to consider 
the effect of the proposed EFP on the findings of the 2004 PLL 
Biological Opinion (BiOp).
    Response: Fishing activity authorized under this EFP would be 
conducted using the same fishing methods and at the same level of 
fishing effort as currently exists outside of the project area. 
Furthermore, catches of sea turtles are projected to decrease as a 
result of this EFP. The 2004 PLL BiOp states that if the fishing type 
is similar, and the associated fishing effort does not represent a 
significant increase over the effort levels for the overall fishery 
considered in this BiOp, then issuance of some EFPs would be expected 
to fall within the level of effort and impacts considered in the BiOp. 
For example, issuance of an EFP to an active commercial vessel likely 
does not add additional effects than would otherwise accrue from the 
vessel's normal commercial activities. Thus, this research project is 
consistent with the findings of the 2004 BiOp.

M. Cumulative Impacts Assessment

    Comment 26: NMFS has not demonstrated its methodology or Region of 
Influence (ROI) for conducting its cumulative impacts analysis for the 
proposed action. As the ROI for HMS includes the south Atlantic and the 
Gulf of Mexico (recent swordfish tag data from The Billfish Foundation 
shows juvenile swordfish migrating from the DeSoto Canyon to the 
Atlantic coast of south Florida), other actions in the ROI such as 
Department of Defense and offshore oil & gas operations should be 
addressed as part of the cumulative impacts analysis.
    Response: Cumulative impacts are the impacts on the environment 
which result from the incremental impacts of the action when added to 
other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions. 
Cumulative impacts can result from individually minor but collectively 
significant actions taking place over a period of time (40 CFR 1508.7). 
The cumulative impacts assessment contained in the draft EA for this 
research project describes all past, present, and reasonably 
foreseeable future actions for all fish stocks interacting with PLL 
gear across the range of those stocks (or their region of influence) 
which, for many, includes the entire Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. 
Although offshore oil and gas operations and Department of Defense 
activities may affect HMS, the incremental effect of authorizing a 
limited number of commercial PLL vessels that are currently fishing in 
open areas to fish and conduct research in two sub-areas of the EFC PLL 
Closed Area, when added to these other past, present, and reasonably 
foreseeable future actions, is not expected to produce adverse 
significant cumulative impacts.

N. Impacts on Dolphin Fishery

    Comment 27: A reasonable trip limit of no more than 4,000 lbs of 
dolphin should be applied to the participating vessels while fishing in 
this area under the EFP. This will prevent the EFP fishery from using 
an excessive amount of the commercial dolphin quota before the rest of 
the PLL fleet has an opportunity when the Charleston Bump area opens on 
May 1st. Further, this will minimize conflicts with the interests of 
the recreational fishery. Finally, this is consistent with the trip 
limit currently applied to the commercial dolphin harvest when landings 
reach 75 percent of the commercial quota. NMFS should also implement a 
limit of 25,000 pound whole weight on the total amount of dolphin that 
can be landed with PLL gear from the EFC PLL Closed Area.
    Response: Under 50 CFR part 622.274, if pelagic longline gear is on 
board a vessel, a person aboard such vessel may not fish for or retain 
a dolphin or wahoo in the EFC PLL Closed Area. An exemption from this 
regulation has been submitted to the Southeast Regional Office (SERO) 
of NMFS under their EFP requirements to enable vessels to retain 
dolphin and wahoo during research operations, subject to otherwise 
applicable commercial fishing restrictions for the stocks. As 
recommended by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC), a 
dolphin and wahoo exemption has been approved by the SERO Regional 
Administrator pending approval of this EFP by the HMS Management 
Division. Participating vessels would be limited to a 4,000 pound whole 
weight trip limit for dolphin when any portion of the trip occurs in 
the EFC PLL Closed Area. Additionally, participating vessels would be 
limited to the existing 500-pound trip limit for wahoo specified at 50 
CFR 622.278(a)(1)(i). All other commercial dolphin and wahoo 
regulations, including the requirement to be issued a commercial 
dolphin-wahoo permit, would also apply. The environmental effects of 
this exemption have been analyzed in the Final EA. NMFS has determined 
that issuance of

[[Page 37573]]

the EFP should not affect dolphin or wahoo in any way not already 
considered and analyzed under the Fishery Management Plan for the 
Dolphin and Wahoo Fishery of the Atlantic and it would not result in 
exceeding the annual catch limits for those species. Thus, the 25,000 
pound whole weight total dolphin landing limit requested by the 
commenter is determined to not be necessary at this time.
    Comment 28: If the Charleston Bump area continues to be closed from 
February 1st to April 30th, there should be no special access during 
that same time frame given to the area immediately south of the 31 
[deg]N. Lat. line where all the HMS are migrating from unless the 
Charleston Bump was reopened at the same time.
    Response: The purpose of this research project is to evaluate PLL 
catches and catch rates of target and non-target species within a 
portion of the EFC PLL Closed Area on a year-round basis to evaluate 
the effectiveness of existing area closures at meeting current 
conservation and management goals. Therefore, prohibiting research 
activities in the area for three months would prevent the collection of 
important seasonal catch rate information that could potentially be 
used to address this issue in the future.

O. Essential Fish Habitat

    Comment 29: The Draft EA notes that essential fish habitat (EFH) 
for HMS (including species targeted by PLL gear) exists within the EFC 
PLL Closed Area, but no EFH Assessment has been completed for the 
proposed action. NMFS must conduct an EFH Assessment in order to 
determine if the proposed action would adversely affect EFH. Both 
alternatives would co-occur within the Stetson Miami Terrace coral 
habitat area of particular concern (CHAPC) and Preferred Alternative 3 
would also overlap with the Oculina Bank CHAPC. If PLL gear fished in 
these areas unintentionally comes into contact with the bottom, the 
gear may damage this fragile coral habitat. The Oculina Bank and 
Stetson Miami Terrance are considered EFH-HAPC.
    Response: An EFH assessment has been conducted for the proposed and 
final actions. As stated in the EFH assessment in the Draft and Final 
EA, issuance of the EFP is not anticipated to have an impact on EFH. 
The only gear to be deployed is PLL gear which has minimal or no impact 
on EFH for HMS or other species. PLL gear is typically fished in the 
water column where it does not come into contact with the benthic 
substrate. Thus, no impacts to benthic habitat or other EFH are 
anticipated.

P. Suggestions for Additional Research

    Comment 30: NMFS should develop a hook and line survey to collect 
important population dynamics information from recreational and for-
hire anglers.
    Response: NMFS appreciates this comment; however it is outside the 
scope of alternatives addressed in the Draft EA. NMFS notes that the 
current Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) collects some of 
this information.
    Comment 31: NMFS should conduct research into shorter sets and 
soak-times for longlines and how they might enhance survival of 
incidentally-caught fish and undersize target fish.
    Response: NMFS appreciates this comment and agrees that research 
investigating shorter mainline lengths, soak times, and gear retrieval 
techniques would be valuable. In a document entitled ``Atlantic HMS 
Management Based Research Needs and Priorities'' (2014), examining the 
feasibility of gear alternatives in Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean 
to reduce bycatch while maintaining target catch was identified as a 
high priority.

Description of Preferred Alternative in Final Environmental Assessment

    The research conducted within the EFC PLL Closed Area and in the 
open area would be carried out by no more than six PLL vessels at any 
one time. An additional six ``backup'' vessels could be used to conduct 
research as replacements if any mechanical or technical issues arise on 
the other six vessels. The research project would be authorized for 12 
months and, pending annual analysis review for any changed 
environmental conditions or impacts and of catches and catch rates of 
all species, as well as individual vessel performance, may be re-
authorized for two additional 12-month periods. A maximum of 720 sets 
per year (12 months) would be authorized to occur between the six 
vessels, and sets would be distributed evenly between two sub-areas of 
the EFC PLL Closed Area and the open area. Each set would consist of a 
maximum of 600 16/0 or larger circle hooks. During the research 
project, 40 percent of sets occurring in both portions of the EFC PLL 
Closed Area and in the open area would be observed by scientific 
research staff or NMFS-approved observers.
    The commercial vessels that would be participating in this EFP 
project are otherwise authorized to fish and, absent this EFP, would be 
conducting normal PLL fishing operations in open areas consistent with 
their past practices. NMFS conducted an analysis that compared 
projected catches if the vessels were to continue fishing only in open 
areas (i.e., all effort in open areas) versus projected catches from 
fishing operations under the EFP (i.e., 2/3 effort in closed areas and 
1/3 effort in the open area). The analysis indicated that fishing 
operations under the EFP could result in comparatively higher 
interactions with dusky, silky, and night sharks, whether fishing 
occurred at the level requested by the applicant or at the reduced 
level commensurate with past fishing activity. Therefore, many of the 
terms and conditions in the EFP are structured to limit interactions 
with and maximize the survival of these shark species, collect data on 
shark species identification, collect data on PLL soak times to reduce 
bycatch mortality, such as dusky sharks, and to increase the Agency's 
understanding of these data poor stocks to improve future management of 
these species. The terms and conditions include:
     NMFS would review 100 percent of electronic monitoring 
data for 100 percent of sets occurring in both portions of the EFC PLL 
Closed Area and in the open area.
     After three dusky sharks are caught dead at haulback by a 
vessel participating in the EFP, that vessel or its replacement vessel 
would be required to reduce the soak time of the gear to no longer than 
10 hours when conducting fishing operations under the EFP. If, after 
reducing the soak time to no longer than 10 hours, an additional three 
dusky sharks are caught dead at haulback, then that vessel or its 
replacement vessel would no longer be authorized to fish in the EFC PLL 
Closed Area under this EFP, if issued, for the remainder of the 12-
month project period, unless otherwise permitted by NMFS.
     All live sharks caught but not being retained must be 
safely sampled (e.g., fin clip) and photographed without removing the 
shark from the water. All fin clips and photographs would be sent to 
the Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) for identification 
purposes.
     All sharks that are dead at haulback, including prohibited 
species, and all sharks being retained for sale must be biologically 
sampled (i.e., vertebra and reproductive organs removed) to facilitate 
species identification and collection of life history information. All 
biological samples would be sent to an address specified by the SEFSC.

[[Page 37574]]

     Sets inside and outside of the two sub-areas of the EFC 
PLL Closed Area would be equipped with hook timers, in accordance with 
protocols established by NMFS, to determine when animals were captured 
and when mortality occurs. This will help determine appropriate PLL 
soak time to minimize dusky and other shark mortality.
     To assist in current research efforts on shortfin mako 
sharks, observers are requested to place a specified number of pop-up 
satellite archival tags (PSATS) on shortfin mako sharks that are 
released alive.
     NMFS will closely monitor the catches during the project 
duration and has the ability to modify the conditions of the EFP, and 
end the research project, to address bycatch as warranted.

    Authority:  16 U.S.C. 971 et seq. and 16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.

    Dated: August 4, 2017.
Emily H. Menashes,
Acting Director, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 2017-16990 Filed 8-10-17; 8:45 am]
 BILLING CODE 3510-22-P