Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks, 10830-10842 [2016-04537]

Download as PDF 10830 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices email: maureen.hinman@trade.gov.) This meeting is physically accessible to people with disabilities. Requests for sign language interpretation or other auxiliary aids should be directed to OEEI at (202) 482–5225 no less than one week prior to the meeting. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The meeting will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. EDT. The general meeting is open to the public and time will be permitted for public comment from 3:00–3:30 p.m. EDT. Those interested in attending must provide notification by Tuesday, March 15, 2016 at 5:00 p.m. EDT, via the contact information provided above. Written comments concerning ETTAC affairs are welcome any time before or after the meeting. Minutes will be available within 30 days of this meeting. Topics to be considered: The agenda for this meeting will include discussion of priorities and objectives for the committee, trade promotion programs within the International Trade Administration, and subcommittee working meetings. Background: The ETTAC is mandated by Public Law 103–392. It was created to advise the U.S. government on environmental trade policies and programs, and to help it to focus its resources on increasing the exports of the U.S. environmental industry. ETTAC operates as an advisory committee to the Secretary of Commerce and the Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee (TPCC). ETTAC was originally chartered in May of 1994. It was most recently re-chartered until August 2016. Dated: February 25, 2016. Man Cho, Acting Office Director, Office of Energy and Environmental Industries. [FR Doc. 2016–04607 Filed 3–1–16; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–DR–P DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration RIN 0648–XA937 Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Notice of availability; response to comments. mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES AGENCY: NMFS has incorporated public comments into revisions of the SUMMARY: VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 guidelines for preparing stock assessment reports (SARs) pursuant to section 117 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The revised guidelines are now complete and available to the public. ADDRESSES: Electronic copies of the guidelines are available on the Internet at the following address: http:// www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/sars/ guidelines.htm. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Shannon Bettridge, Office of Protected Resources, 301–427–8402, Shannon.Bettridge@noaa.gov. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Background Section 117 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) (16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.) requires NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to prepare stock assessments for each stock of marine mammals occurring in waters under the jurisdiction of the United States. These reports must contain information regarding the distribution and abundance of the stock, population growth rates and trends, estimates of annual human-caused mortality and serious injury from all sources, descriptions of the fisheries with which the stock interacts, and the status of the stock. Initial stock assessment reports (SARs, or Reports) were first completed in 1995. NMFS convened a workshop in June 1994, including representatives from NMFS, FWS, and the Marine Mammal Commission (Commission), to develop draft guidelines for preparing SARs. The report of this workshop (Barlow et al., 1995) included the guidelines for preparing SARs and a summary of the discussions upon which the guidelines were based. The draft guidelines were made available, along with the initial draft SARs, for public review and comment (59 FR 40527, August 9, 1994), and were finalized August 25, 1995 (60 FR 44308). In 1996, NMFS convened a second workshop (referred to as the Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks, or ‘‘GAMMS,’’ workshop) to review the guidelines and to recommend changes to them, if appropriate. Workshop participants included representatives from NMFS, FWS, the Commission, and the three regional scientific review groups (SRGs). The report of that workshop (Wade and Angliss, 1997) summarized the discussion at the workshop and contained revised guidelines. The revised guidelines represented minor changes from the initial version. The revised guidelines were made available for public review PO 00000 Frm 00004 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 and comment along with revised stock assessment reports on January 21, 1997 (62 FR 3005) and later finalized. In September 2003, NMFS again convened a workshop (referred to as GAMMS II) to review the guidelines and again recommend minor changes to them. Participants at the workshop included representatives of NMFS, FWS, the Commission, and the regional SRGs. Changes to the guidelines resulting from the 2003 workshop were directed primarily toward identifying population stocks and estimating Potential Biological Removal (PBR) for declining stocks of marine mammals. The revised guidelines were made available for public review and comment on November 18, 2004 (69 FR 67541) and finalized on June 20, 2005 (70 FR 35397, NMFS 2005). In February 2011, NMFS convened another workshop (referred to as GAMMS III) to review the guidelines and again recommend changes to them. Participants at the workshop included representatives from NMFS, FWS, the Commission, and the three regional SRGs. The objectives of the GAMMS III workshop were to (1) consider methods for assessing stock status (i.e., how to apply the PBR framework) when abundance data are outdated, nonexistent, or only partially available; (2) develop policies on stock identification and application of the PBR framework to small stocks, transboundary stocks, and situations where stocks mix; and (3) develop consistent national approaches to a variety of other issues, including reporting mortality and serious injury information in assessments. Nine specific topics were discussed at the workshop. The deliberations of these nine topics resulted in a series of recommended modifications to the current guidelines (NMFS, 2005). The main body of the GAMMS III workshop report includes summaries of the presentations and discussions for each of the nine agenda topics, as well as recommended revisions to individual sections of the guidelines (Moore and Merrick, 2011). Appendices to the workshop report provide a variety of supporting documents, including the full proposed revision of the guidelines (Appendix IV). On January 24, 2012 (77 FR 3450), NMFS made the GAMMS III workshop report available for public review, and requested comment on the proposed revisions in Appendix IV. The report is available at http:// www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/pdfs/sars/ gamms3_nmfsopr47.pdf. E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES Revisions to the Guidelines for Preparing Stock Assessment Reports The paragraphs below describe the proposed guideline revisions that were recommended by the GAMMS III workshop participants, as well as a summary of how NMFS has or has not incorporated those proposed revisions into the final revised guidelines. They are organized by topic, as outlined in Appendix IV of the GAMMS III workshop report. Topic 1: PBR calculations with outdated abundance estimates. For an increasing number of marine mammal stocks, the most recent abundance estimates are more than 8 years old. Under existing guidelines (NMFS, 2005), these are considered to be outdated and thus not used to calculate PBR. The current practice is to consider the PBR for a stock to be ‘‘undetermined’’ after supporting survey information is more than eight years old, unless there is compelling evidence that the stock has not declined during that time. The workshop participants recommended and the proposed guidelines included the following revisions to calculate PBRs for stocks with old abundance information: (1) During years 1–8 after the most recent abundance survey, ‘‘uncertainty projections’’ would be used, based on uniform distribution assumptions, to serially reduce the minimum abundance estimate (Nmin) by a small increment each year; (2) after eight years, and assuming no new abundance estimate has become available, a worst-case scenario would be assumed (i.e., a plausible 10-percent decline per year since the most recent survey), and so a retroactive 10-percent decline per year would be applied; and (3) if data to estimate a population trend model are available, such a model could have been used to influence the uncertainty projections during the first eight years. NMFS received a number of comments expressing strenuous objection to/concern with the proposed framework for stocks with outdated abundance estimates, which has led us to reevaluate the topic. As such, NMFS is not finalizing these recommended changes related to Topic 1 at this time. Rather, we will be further analyzing this issue, and should we contemplate changes to the guidelines regarding this topic, NMFS will propose them and solicit public comment in a separate action. Topic 2: Improving stock identification. For most marine mammal species, few stock definition changes have been made since the initial SARs VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 were written. The proposed guidelines directed that each Report state in the ‘‘Stock Definition and Geographic Range’’ section whether it is plausible the stock contains multiple demographically independent populations that should be separate stocks, along with a brief rationale. If additional structure is plausible and human-caused mortality or serious injury is concentrated within a portion of the range of the stock, the Reports should identify the portion of the range in which the mortality or serious injury occurs. These revisions to the guidelines have been made. The GAMMS III workshop also addressed the terms ‘‘demographic isolation’’ and ‘‘reproductive isolation.’’ Workshop participants agreed that the intended meaning of these terms when originally included in the guidelines was not of complete isolation, which implies that there should be no interchange between stocks. Therefore, they recommended and the proposed guidelines included clarification of terminology by replacing references to ‘‘demographic isolation’’ and ‘‘reproductive isolation’’ with ‘‘demographic independence’’ and ‘‘reproductive independence,’’ respectively. These revisions to the guidelines have been made. Related to this topic, the workshop participants also recommended that NMFS convene a national workshop to systematically review the status of stock identification efforts and to identify and prioritize the information needed to improve stock identification. NMFS convened such a workshop in August 2014 (Martien et al., 2015). See response to Comment 10. Topic 3a: Assessment of very small stocks. The PBR estimate for some stocks may be very small (just a few animals or even less than one). In such cases, low levels of observer coverage may introduce substantial small-sample bias in bycatch estimates. The proposed guideline revisions included a table in the Technical Details section that provides guidance on the amount of sampling effort (observer coverage and/ or number of years of data pooling) required to limit small-sample bias, given a certain PBR level. If suggested sampling goals (per the table) cannot be met, the proposed guidelines instructed that mortality should be estimated and reported, but the estimates should be qualified in the SARs by stating they could be biased. NMFS has incorporated this language into the revised guidelines. The proposed guidelines suggested removing the following sentence from the Status of Stocks section: ‘‘In the PO 00000 Frm 00005 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 10831 complete absence of any information on sources of mortality, and without guidance from the Scientific Review Groups, the precautionary principle should be followed and the default stock status should be strategic until information is available to demonstrate otherwise.’’ NMFS has incorporated this revision into the guidelines, as NMFS does not consider the original text to be consistent with the MMPA’s definition of ‘‘strategic.’’ Topic 3b: Assessment of small endangered stocks. Some endangered species, like Hawaiian monk seals, are declining with little to no direct humancaused mortality, and the stock’s dynamics therefore do not conform to the underlying model for calculating PBR. Thus, PBR estimates for some endangered species stocks have not been included or have been considered ‘‘undetermined’’ in SARs. The proposed guidelines instructed that in such cases, if feasible, PBR should still be calculated and included in the SARs to comply with the MMPA. In situations where a stock’s dynamics do not conform to the underlying model for calculating PBR, a qualifying statement should accompany the PBR estimate in the SAR. NMFS has incorporated this language into the revised guidelines. Topic 4: Apportioning PBR across feeding aggregations, allocating mortality for mixed stocks, and estimating PBR for transboundary stocks. Feeding aggregations: Given the definition that a population stock consists of individuals in common spatial arrangements that interbreed when mature, population stocks of species that have discrete feeding and breeding grounds (e.g., humpback whales) have generally been defined based on breeding ground stocks. However, given the strong maternal fidelity to feeding grounds, migratory species such as humpback whales can have feeding aggregations that are demographically independent with limited movement of individuals between feeding aggregations. Such feeding aggregations can consist of a portion of one breeding population, or of portions of multiple breeding populations, and can represent a single demographically-independent unit, or a mix of two or more demographicallyindependent units. Although this approach of identifying stocks based on feeding aggregations seemed feasible, workshop participants felt this approach added significant complexity without providing substantial management advantages. The workshop participants did not recommend any such changes to the guidelines at this point. None were E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES 10832 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices included in the proposed guidelines nor have any been made in the final revisions. Allocating mortality for mixed stocks: In some cases, mortality and serious injury occur in areas where more than one stock of marine mammals occurs. The proposed guidelines specify that when biological information is sufficient to identify the stock from which a dead or seriously injured animal came, the mortality or serious injury should be associated only with that stock. When one or more deaths or serious injuries cannot be assigned directly to a stock, then those deaths or serious injuries may be partitioned among stocks within the appropriate geographic area, provided there is sufficient information to support such partitioning. In those cases, Reports should discuss the potential for over- or under-estimating stock-specific mortality and serious injury. In cases where mortalities and serious injuries cannot be assigned directly to a stock and available information is not sufficient to support partitioning those deaths and serious injuries among stocks, the proposed guidelines instruct that the total unassigned mortality and serious injuries should be assigned to each stock within the appropriate geographic area. When deaths and serious injuries are assigned to each overlapping stock in this manner, the Reports should discuss the potential for over-estimating stock-specific mortality and serious injury. NMFS has incorporated this language into the revised guidelines. Transboundary stocks: The proposed guidelines strengthen the language regarding transboundary stocks, cautioning against extrapolating abundance estimates from one surveyed area to another unsurveyed area to estimate range-wide PBR. They state that informed interpolation (e.g., based on habitat associations) may be used, as appropriate and supported by existing data, to fill gaps in survey coverage and estimate abundance and PBR over broader areas. If estimates of mortality or abundance from outside the U.S. EEZ cannot be determined, PBR calculations should be based on abundance in the EEZ and compared to mortality within the EEZ. NMFS has incorporated this language into the revised guidelines and has provided a footnote defining informed interpolation. Topic 5: Clarifying reporting of mortality and serious injury incidental to commercial fishing. Currently, SARs do not consistently summarize mortality and serious injury incidental to commercial fishing. The proposed guidelines specified that SARs should VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 include a summary of all human-caused mortality and serious injury including information on all sources of mortality and serious injury. Additionally, a summary of mortality and serious injury incidental to U.S. commercial fisheries should be presented in a table, while mortality and serious injury from other sources (e.g., recreational fisheries, other sources of human-caused mortality and serious injury within the U.S. EEZ, foreign fisheries on the high seas) should be clearly distinguished from U.S. commercial fishery-related mortality. Finally, the proposed guidelines contained the addition of a subsection summarizing the most prevalent potential human-caused mortality and serious injury threats that are unquantified in the SARs, and the SARs should also indicate if there are no known major sources of unquantifiable human-caused mortality and serious injury. NMFS has incorporated this language into the revised guidelines. Topic 6: When stock declines are sufficient for a strategic designation. The proposed guidelines included the following: ‘‘Stocks that have evidence suggesting at least a 50 percent decline, either based on previous abundance estimates or historical abundance estimated by back-calculation, should be noted in the Status of Stocks section as likely to be below OSP. The choice of 50 percent does not mean that OSP is at 50 percent of historical numbers, but rather that a population below this level would be below OSP with high probability. Similarly, a stock that has increased back to levels pre-dating the known decline may be within OSP; however, additional analyses may determine a population is within OSP prior to reaching historical levels.’’ NMFS has incorporated this language into the revised guidelines. Additionally, the workshop participants recommended and the proposed guidelines included the following interpretation of the definition of a strategic stock: ‘‘A stock shall be designated as strategic if it is declining and has a greater than 50 percent probability of a continuing decline of at least five percent per year. Such a decline, if not stopped, would result in a 50 percent decline in 15 years and would likely lead to the stock being listed as threatened. The estimate of trend should be based on data spanning at least eight years. Alternative thresholds for decline rates and duration, as well as alternative data criteria, may also be used if sufficient rationale is provided to indicate that the decline is likely to result in the stock being listed as threatened within the PO 00000 Frm 00006 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 foreseeable future. Stocks that have been designated as strategic due to a population decline may be designated as non-strategic if the decline is stopped and the stock is not otherwise strategic.’’ NMFS received comments expressing concern with the proposed interpretation of ‘‘likely to be listed as a threatened species under the ESA within the foreseeable future’’ (sec. 3(19)(B) of the MMPA). NMFS is not finalizing the proposed changes related to this topic at this time. Rather, we will further analyze this issue. Should we contemplate changes to the guidelines regarding this topic, NMFS will propose them and solicit public comment in a separate action. The proposed guidelines included the following direction regarding recovery factors for declining stocks: ‘‘A stock that is strategic because, based on the best available scientific information, it is declining and is likely to be listed as a threatened species under the ESA within the foreseeable future (sec. 3(19)(B) of the MMPA) should use a recovery factor between 0.1 and 0.5.’’ As we are not finalizing the recommended changes regarding strategic stock designation (sec. 3(19)(B) of the MMPA), above, we have decided not to revise the guidelines regarding recovery factors under such situations at this time. Should changes to the guidelines regarding the above be contemplated, NMFS will include the recommended recovery factors when we solicit public comment on that action. Therefore, NMFS is not finalizing the recommended change related to this paragraph at this time. Topic 7: Assessing stocks without abundance estimates or PBR. For many stocks, data are so sparse that it is not possible to produce an Nmin and not possible to estimate PBR. When mortality and/or population abundance estimates are unavailable, the PBR approach cannot be used to assess populations, in spite of a statutory mandate to do so. The proposed guidelines included the following addition to the Status of Stocks section: ‘‘Likewise, trend monitoring can help inform the process of determining strategic status.’’ NMFS has incorporated this language into the revised guidelines. Topic 8: Characterizing uncertainty in key SAR elements. It is difficult to infer the overall uncertainty for key parameters as they are currently reported in the SARs. The proposed guidelines direct that the Stock Definition and Geographic Range, Elements of the PBR Formula, Population Trend, Annual HumanCaused Mortality and Serious Injury, E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES and Status of the Stock sections include a description of key uncertainties associated with parameters in these sections and an evaluation of the effects of these uncertainties associated with parameters in these sections. NMFS has incorporated this language into the revised guidelines with some minor revisions. Topic 9: Including non-serious injuries and disturbance in SARs. Currently, many Reports include information on human-related mortality and serious injury from all known sources (not just from commercial fisheries) but do not include information on human-related nonserious injury or disturbance. The workshop participants concluded that the guidelines, with respect to the scope of content considered by the SARs, could be retained as they currently stand. However, they encouraged authors to routinely consider including information in the Reports about what ‘‘other factors’’ may cause a decline or impede recovery of a particular stock. A final recommended revision to the guidelines was the addition of the following italicized text: ‘‘The MMPA requires for strategic stocks a consideration of other factors that may be causing a decline or impeding recovery of the stock, including effects on marine mammal habitat and prey, or other lethal or non-lethal factors.’’ However, this italicized text is not contained in the MMPA, and therefore, as proposed could be misconstrued as being required by the MMPA. Therefore, the revision to the guidelines has been reworded for clarity. Comments and Responses NMFS solicited public comments on the proposed revisions to the guidelines (January 24, 2012, 77 FR 3450), contained in Appendix IV of the GAMMS III workshop report. NMFS received comments from the Commission, the three regional SRGs, two non-governmental environmental organizations (Humane Society of the United States and Center for Biological Diversity), representatives from the fishing industry (Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, Garden State Seafood Association, Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Hawaii Longline Association, Cape Cod Hook Fishermen’s Association, and two individuals), the American Veterinary Medical Association, the States of Maine and Massachusetts, the Makah Indian Tribe, the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, representatives from the oil and gas industry (American Petroleum Institute, International Association of Geophysical Contractors, VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 and Alaska Oil and Gas Association), and one individual. NMFS received a number of comments supporting its efforts to improve stock identification (topic 2). Many commenters urged NMFS to prioritize conducting regular surveys for those species with the greatest humancaused mortality or oldest survey data. Many commenters disagreed with NMFS’ proposals to use a precautionary approach with aging abundance estimates (topic 1) and apportion PBR and serious injuries and mortalities (topic 4). Comments on actions not related to the GAMMS (e.g., convening a Take Reduction Team or listing a marine mammal species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)), or on items not related to portions of the guidelines finalized in this action, are not included below. Comments and responses are organized below according to the relevant workshop topics outlined in Appendix IV of the report. Comments on General Issues Comment 1: The Commission recommended that NMFS continue to encourage more exchange between regional SRGs to ensure consistency where needed and to promote useful and informative exchange among them. Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment and will continue to encourage exchange between SRGs and strive to ensure consistency among the groups and among the SARs. To that end, we are convening a joint meeting of the three SRGs in February 2016, in addition to individual SRG meetings. Comment 2: The Commission recommended that NMFS consider requiring a brief summary paragraph or table on the historical trend of each stock in the SARs, where appropriate, to combat the tendency to exclude important stock dynamics or allow for the shifting baselines phenomenon. Response: It is unclear from the comment what historical trend information, specifically, the Commission is referencing that is not already provided in the SARs. Where able, we provide historical abundance data and estimate trends in abundance (see for example, the California sea lion SAR, which provides abundance data for the prior four decades). With respect to bycatch, we do not think it is feasible or appropriate to provide trends in bycatch rates over decades, as fisheries and monitoring programs change too frequently. The status of each stock is informed by current parameters, such as ESA listing status and relationship to OSP and PBR. Additionally, the statute specifies that the SARs provide current PO 00000 Frm 00007 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 10833 population trend information. We will continue to endeavor to provide as much historical abundance, trend, and human-related removal information (for example, historical whaling data as it relates to stock recovery and OSP, see Eastern North Pacific blue whale report) as possible, but at this time will not require a summary table or paragraph in each SAR. Comment 3: NMFS should secure adequate support and funding to conduct marine mammal abundance surveys in the region at least every five years. Alternative cost-effective approaches to determining Nmin, such as trend data from index sites, should be developed and specified as acceptable methods in the guidelines. Response: NMFS agrees that such a schedule would be ideal, but we do not currently have the resources to accomplish this. We continue to develop and implement strategies to support more efficient use of ship time through multi-species ecosystem studies, better survey designs and sampling technologies, and leveraging inter- and intra-agency resources. NMFS is also exploring alternative approaches for assessing stock status (e.g., through use of unmanned systems and acoustic technologies) apart from reliance on abundance survey data, in regions where regular surveys are costprohibitive. As noted in the workshop report, such approaches could include trend monitoring at index sites. Developing guidelines for alternative assessment methods was not a focus of the GAMMS III workshop, and so this does not appear in the revisions finalized here. However, NMFS will make efforts to consider how alternative sets of information could be used to aid its marine mammal stock assessments. Comment 4: The effective management of marine mammals requires timely and accurate stock status information that is currently lacking. The proposed assumption that the existing measures protecting marine mammal species are failing to achieve management objectives and the continued use of old data to assess the status of stocks are unacceptable and fail to acknowledge collective efforts to reconcile marine mammal protection with varied ocean uses. NMFS should more frequently assess the status of marine mammal stocks and incorporate this new information into management actions. Response: NMFS agrees that management of marine mammal stocks depends on timely and accurate stock information, and in many cases up-todate stock assessments are not available, nor are the resources necessary to E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES 10834 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices conduct the assessment. NMFS acknowledges that the reliability of abundance estimates for calculating PBR is reduced over time. The proposed approach to calculating PBR with outdated abundance information assumed the worst-case scenario, but we are not finalizing that approach at this time. Accordingly, NMFS is analyzing methods to calculate PBRs for stocks with outdated abundance information as well as developing methods to collect data more efficiently and cost effectively. See response to Comment 3. Comment 5: The Alaska SRG expressed concern that very different approaches are taken for PBR and mortality components of SARs. A great deal of modeling effort and simulations has gone into making the PBR calculations conservative, but there is no similar concern for the mortality and serious injury data. In some of the Alaska SARs, 20+ year-old observer data are the only mortality data for a particular fishery. The nature of Alaska fisheries can change quite quickly, so Alaska SRG members strongly object to using such old data. The reliability of removals data is just as important as population data when assessing stock status. This issue merits serious attention, and as a first step, the quality of removals data should be thoroughly and explicitly evaluated when uncertainty in SARs is evaluated. Response: NMFS acknowledges that many of the data related to Alaska marine mammal stocks are dated. NMFS continues to rely upon and incorporate the best available data in the SARs, but in some cases these data are many years old. The revised guidelines instruct SAR authors to describe uncertainties in key factors, including human-caused mortality and serious injury, and to evaluate the effects of those uncertainties. Comment 6: The proposed changes do not reflect an agency commitment to generating best available science upon which to base its decisions. In fact, this rule contains no statements as to what the agency intends to do with respect to old or non-existent assessments other than to reduce PBR. We request the agency comment for the record specifically how NOAA intends to address the GAMMS III stated need for accurate and timely census data. Response: The MMPA requires that NMFS and FWS use the best available scientific information in its assessment and management of marine mammal stocks. NMFS strives to collect the data necessary for timely stock assessments in a cost-efficient manner, but agency resources are limited, and there are instances where data are either too old VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 or non-existent. We are currently analyzing how to calculate PBR when data are outdated. Comment 7: We appreciate NMFS’ efforts to improve stock identification, small stock biases, non-serious injuries, and institute other SAR enhancements, and encourage NMFS to incorporate veterinary expertise relative to marine mammal population, health, and ecosystem conservation status. Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment. NMFS continues to incorporate and rely upon veterinary expertise in activities related to stock assessment; for example, the development of the serious injury determination policy and procedures, and response to stranded animals and UMEs. Comment 8: Several of the GAMMS III recommendations require more explanations and verbiage to be added to the SARs (e.g., Topics 2, 5, 8, and 9). Response: NMFS recognizes that the recommendations require additional text to be added to the SARs. We strive to maintain the conciseness of the SARs while providing best available science and meeting the directive of MMPA section 117(a). Comment 9: NMFS should produce a record showing that the guidelines and GAMMS Report comply with the Information Quality Act (IQA) Predissemination review requirements as follows: (1) All models that the guidelines or GAMMS Report use should be peer reviewed in order to determine their compliance with Council for Regulatory Environmental Modeling Guidance; (2) the method used by the guidelines and GAMMS Report to estimate population uncertainty violates the IQA accuracy and reliability requirement; and (3) the guidelines and GAMMS Report violate the IQA accuracy and reliability requirements by telling staff to make up abundance data and PBR when measured data do not exist (‘‘informed interpolation’’). In addition, NMFS should revise the guidelines and GAMMS Report to delete any suggestion that marine mammal SARs should discuss oil and gas seismic effects, as oil and gas seismic operations do not cause mortality or serious injury to marine mammals and do not cause a decline or impede recovery of any strategic stock. Response: The GAMMS report referenced by the commenter is a summary of the proceedings of a workshop and was reviewed for accuracy prior to dissemination. We did not solicit comments nor are we responding to comments on the workshop report itself. The guidelines also underwent IQA pre-dissemination PO 00000 Frm 00008 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 review prior to being finalized and released to the public. There is no requirement under the NOAA or OMB Information Quality Guidance to explain within the guidelines themselves how they have met IQA requirements. The marine mammal SARs are based on the best available science. NMFS strives to use peer-reviewed data as the basis for reports. However, in some cases, the best available science may not have been published or subjected to a juried professional journal review, as this process can take months or years to complete. In other cases, data pertinent to assessments of stocks are routinely collected and analyzed but are not suitable for a stand-alone external peerreviewed publication. Therefore, NMFS often relies on science that has been through a NMFS Science Center’s internal expert review process and/or has been subjected to other internal or external expert review to ensure that information is not only high quality but is available for management decisions in a timely fashion. In these cases, all NOAA-authored literature should meet, at the least, the standards for Fundamental Research Communications established by the NOAA Research Council and by NMFS. NMFS may rely on the SRGs to provide independent expert reviews of particular components of new science to be incorporated into the SARs to ensure that these components constitute the best available scientific information. Likewise, upon SRG review of these components and the draft SARs themselves, NMFS considers the SRG review of the draft SARs to constitute peer review and to meet the requirements of the OMB Peer Review Bulletin and the Information Quality Act. The proposed method for projecting uncertainty in abundance estimates (topic 1) is not being finalized at this time (see below). Any models that are employed in the SARs have been peer reviewed, as is their specific application to the SARs, and therefore meet the requirements of the IQA. Regarding the use of informed interpolation to estimate abundance within a study area based on habitat modeling or similar approaches (i.e., model-based abundance estimation), this approach is commonly applied in ecology. The International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee recently acknowledged the strength and utility of model-based abundance estimation methods and is planning a workshop to formulate revisions to its guidelines for conducting surveys and analyzing data to include guidance on the use of these methods in management (IWC, 2015). E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices Model-based estimation of density is based on survey data and habitat or other covariates, which is entirely science based. To suggest we are directing staff to ‘‘make up abundance data and PBR’’ is a mischaracterization of what is contained in the revised guidelines. We have added a footnote to the guidelines to clarify the definition of ‘‘informed interpolation.’’ Regarding oil and gas activities, nowhere in the proposed guidelines are oil and gas or seismic activities specifically discussed. The guidelines do not direct the inclusion of oil and gas activities in the SARs; however, if oil and gas activities are found to be having a detrimental effect on a stock or its habitat, we would include it in the report, as we would with any other activity. The final revised guidelines (very slightly revised from the proposed guidelines) state: ‘‘The MMPA requires for strategic stocks a consideration of other factors that may be causing a decline or impeding recovery of the stock, including effects on marine mammal habitat and prey. In practice, interpretation of ‘‘other factors’’ may include lethal or non-lethal factors other than effects on habitat and prey. Therefore, such issues should be summarized in the Status of the Stock section for all strategic stocks. If substantial issues regarding the habitat of the stock are important, a separate section titled ‘‘Habitat Issues’’ should be used. If data exist that indicate a problem, they should be summarized and included in the Report. If there are no known habitat issues or other factors causing a decline or impeding recovery, this should be stated in the Status of the Stock section.’’ mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES Comments on Topic 1: Assessing Stocks With Outdated Abundance Estimates NMFS received a number of comments expressing strenuous objection to/concern with the proposed framework for stocks with outdated abundance estimates. As such, NMFS is not finalizing the proposed revisions related to Topic 1 at this time. Rather, we will further analyze this issue. Should we contemplate changes to the guidelines regarding this topic, NMFS will propose them and solicit public comment in a separate action. Comments on Topic 2: Improving Stock Identification Comment 10: The Commission recommended that NMFS convene a national workshop to systematically review the status of stock identification efforts and to identify and prioritize the information needed to improve stock identification. VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 Response: In August 2014, NMFS convened a workshop on the use of multiple lines of evidence to delineate demographically independent populations (Martien et al., 2015). The meeting participants agreed that the best way to provide guidance on the use of multiple lines of evidence when delineating demographically independent populations for marine mammals was to produce a Stock Delineation Handbook that can serve as a guide for future demographicallyindependent population delineation efforts. Development of the handbook is currently underway. Subsequent to the 2014 workshop, NMFS began developing an internal procedure for identifying and prioritizing stocks in need of examination for potential revisions that would complement and be integrated into the stock delineation workshop outputs and the existing SAR process. Comment 11: The GAMMS III workshop report makes several very good recommendations for improving stock identification, and the Alaska SRG and the Humane Society of the United States agree with all of them. Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment. Comment 12: The Pacific SRG recommends that NMFS focus on the role of genetics in determining marine mammal stock structure and in defining the terms ‘‘stock’’ and ‘‘population.’’ Response: Although the guidelines are clear that genetic evidence is not the sole evidence that could be used to define stocks, changes in stock definition have relied on genetic data as the primary line of evidence, and species for which genetic evidence are not available have not had new stocks defined. The MMPA uses the term ‘‘population stock.’’ The guidelines have a lengthy section on ‘‘Definition of stock’’ that has been discussed in each of the GAMMS workshops and in a special workshop devoted to stock definition (see response to Comment (10). The language that interprets ‘‘population stock’’ has remained largely unchanged since the first set of guidelines despite much discussion. Comment 13: The Pacific SRG would like to have the following questions addressed: How do we integrate the MMPA’s goal of maintaining a population as a functioning part of the ecosystem with the statute’s definition of a stock (that emphasizes breeding interchange)? In a continuum of levels of genetic exchange, where does one draw the line between what is a stock and what is not? How will the proposed use of eco-regions be practically implemented in stock determination PO 00000 Frm 00009 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 10835 and how will migratory stocks that feed in one region and breed in another be treated under this proposal? How do we balance the conservation concerns resulting from stocks being defined very broadly versus the costs and management concerns resulting from stocks being defined very finely? Response: The definition of ‘‘population stock’’ as ‘‘a group of marine mammals of the same species or smaller taxa in a common spatial arrangement, that interbreed when mature’’ is vague from a biological perspective. To some degree, all ‘‘groups’’ within a species interbreed when mature or else they would be considered different species according to the biological species concept. Clearly, population stock was intended to mean interbreeding at some greater level but that level is not specified. Interpretation becomes more difficult when considering known cases of migratory species with strong fidelity to both feeding and breeding grounds. Consider, for example, humpback whales that feed in Southeast Alaska and breed in Hawaii. These individuals can interbreed when mature but can (and do) interbreed with individuals that feed in other areas. If a threat occurred within Southeast Alaska that resulted in unsustainable deaths in that area, then if the ‘‘Southeast Alaska whales’’ were a stock, that stock’s PBR could be used as an indicator that management efforts to mitigate that threat were warranted. In contrast, if ‘‘interbreed when mature’’ considered all the whales in Hawaii, then the human-caused mortality in Southeast Alaska may never exceed the PBR based on Hawaii, and eventually the ecosystem in Southeast Alaska would cease to have humpback whales as a functioning part. Such cases result in an apparent conflict between the words ‘‘interbreed when mature’’ and the goal to maintain population stocks as functioning elements of their ecosystem. Often, changes to stock delineations in the SARs have relied on interpretation of genetic data. The Pacific SRG asks where one draws the line on what level of genetic exchange suffices to qualify as a stock. Interpretation has been based on the guidelines: ‘‘Demographic independence means that the population dynamics of the affected group is more a consequence of births and deaths within the group (internal dynamics) rather than immigration or emigration (external dynamics). Thus, the exchange of individuals between population stocks is not great enough to prevent the depletion of one of the populations as E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES 10836 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices a result of increased mortality or lower birth rates.’’ To date, accepted ‘‘new’’ stocks have been strongly differentiated, indicating such low levels of exchange that immigration is relatively trivial. There will be, however, borderline cases. Such is the nature of imposing discrete categories on continuous processes. The recommendations from the GAMMS III workshop do not propose basing stocks on eco-regions. Ecoregions were discussed during the workshop in two contexts: (1) In a working paper that demonstrated that most stocks are currently defined at a very large scale often encompassing several eco-regions, and (2) that ecoregions may highlight stocks that may deserve consideration in a stock definition meeting because that stock may be at too large a scale and could encompass multiple demographically independent populations. Comment 14: In the SARs, a concise statement concerning uncertainty in stock structure could be included in the section on uncertainty discussed under Topic 8. Details should be provided only when publications are not yet available. The Pacific SRG questions the usefulness of repeating in nearly every SAR the sentence ‘‘It is plausible that there are multiple demographicallyindependent populations within this stock.’’ Response: The Pacific SRG requested that the reader of a SAR be able to readily assess the level of confidence that can be ascribed to the PBR calculation. A critical part of that calculation is abundance, which can be severely biased if stock definition is incorrect. We recognize that many SARs will include the same statement about the plausibility of multiple demographically independent populations within the stock, but we consider it necessary to better inform the reader’s understanding of areas of uncertainty. Comment 15: NMFS received a number of comments related to stock definition and stock delineation based on feeding aggregations. Such as: The revised guidelines should address whether, and under what circumstances, a feeding aggregation can be identified as a stock consistently with the MMPA’s statutory definition of a stock. One commenter stated that it is not clear whether or how the definition of a stock in the proposed guidelines relates to the definition of a stock in the MMPA. One commenter suggested that the revised guidelines should clarify the meaning of ‘‘internal dynamics’’ and explain how it relates to the statutory interbreeding requirement. Another VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 suggestion was that the revised guidelines should address the workshop participants’ suggestion ‘‘that humancaused mortality on the feeding grounds be monitored and evaluated against a PBR calculation made for the feeding aggregation and that the feeding-ground PBR, mortality, and evaluation results be reported in the SARs, as is currently done for Pacific humpback stocks.’’ Response: The workshop participants discussed the possibility of basing stocks on feeding aggregations. Although workshop participants considered this approach to be feasible, they believed it added significant complexity without providing substantial management advantages, and did not recommend revisions to the guidelines at this time. Therefore, this revision of the guidelines does not specifically discuss identification of stocks based on feeding aggregations. We recognize and acknowledge these comments related to feeding aggregations and stock definition, but as they do not relate to the current revisions to the guidelines, we are not addressing them in this action. If the issue is further considered by the agency in a separate action, we will address those comments in the development of that action. Comment 16: In the proposed guidelines, NMFS suggests that it may delineate marine mammal stocks based upon human factors such as incidental take as a result of human-caused mortality. However, the MMPA does not permit the determination of stock status based on human-related factors. Accordingly, when delineating stocks, NMFS can only consider the demographic and biological characteristics of the species at issue. Carving out stocks in areas where human-caused mortality is high, as NMFS proposes, would violate the MMPA. Response: The guidelines state: ‘‘For example, it is common to have humancaused mortality restricted to a portion of a species’ range. Such concentrated mortality (if of a large magnitude) could lead to population fragmentation, a reduction in range, or even the loss of undetected populations, and would only be mitigated by high immigration rates from adjacent areas.’’ They caution that serious consideration should be given to areas with concentrated high human-caused mortality, but that actual stock definition should be based on biological considerations. In other words, high-localized human-caused mortality should highlight the need for stock identification scrutiny but not the lines of evidence used. PO 00000 Frm 00010 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 Comment 17: If it cannot be demonstrated with normal genetic analysis, then it is unwarranted to establish populations or subpopulations based on behavior or distribution. To split existing populations into smaller units only invites the development of fragmented PBRs with an aggregate value that will likely be lower than that of the whole population. Response: Genetic data are certainly useful when attainable, but in many cases genetic samples (of sufficient quantity to draw sound inferences) cannot be obtained. There are many other lines of evidence that can be informative to determining stock structure, including behavior and distribution and also movement data from photographic identification or tagging. Genetic data are sometimes sufficient but are not exclusively needed to make sound inferences concerning stock structure. In 2014, NMFS convened a workshop to review the use of other lines of evidence, as consistency and accuracy in delineating stocks for species with limited data would be improved if guidelines were available on both the strengths of different lines of evidence and how to evaluate multiple lines together (Martien et al., 2015). As a result of this workshop, NMFS is developing a handbook for identification of demographically independent populations, which includes genetic information as well as other lines of evidence. Comment 18: The revised guidelines should acknowledge that factors other than demographic independence, such as a localized disease or a localized change in prey availability, might cause different population responses between geographic regions. In light of such factors, the revised guidelines should discuss under what circumstances it is appropriate to designate stocks solely on the basis of different population responses between geographic regions. Response: Demographic independence is defined in terms of birth and death rates within the population and immigrations from outside the population. Presumably, the response of a population to ‘localized disease or localized change in prey availability’ would be changes in the birth and/or death rates. Thus, it would seem that the concern above is already accounted for in the guidelines. Comment 19: If the revised guidelines continue to define a stock as a demographically-independent biological population, they should explain more clearly the circumstances under which a group of marine mammals can be designated as a stock even in the E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES absence of evidence that the group comprises a demographically independent biological population. Are such circumstances limited to those in which ‘‘mortality is greater than a PBR calculated from the abundance just within the oceanographic region where the human-caused mortality occurs,’’ as suggested in the GAMMS III Report? Or can stocks be designated in other circumstances in the absence of evidence of demographic independence? If so, what other circumstances are contemplated? Response: The section on definition of stocks in the guidelines seeks to clarify the practical process of definition given biological complexity and different types and qualities of available data. This section was contained in GAMMS II (NMFS 2005) and was not revised in this current revision of the guidelines. The guidelines note that particular attention should be given to areas where mortality is greater than PBR but do not limit stock definition to those circumstances. The stock definition workshop (see above) was suggested as a forum to improve stock definition in data-poor cases. Comments on Topic 3: Assessment of Small and Endangered Stocks Comment 20: The Commission recommends that NMFS adopt the workshop recommendation to include, when appropriate, a statement in each assessment explaining that bycatch data are not sufficient to estimate the bycatch rate with acceptable precision. The Commission and another commenter recommended NMFS treat each such stock as strategic unless and until the data are sufficient to demonstrate that it is not. Response: NMFS agrees with the importance of including a statement in each stock assessment to indicate when bycatch estimates are prone to smallsample bias, though it should be noted that bias and precision are different issues. The guidelines recommend pooling years of information as necessary to achieve precision levels of CV less than 0.3. At this point, NMFS does not make the default assumption that a stock is strategic until demonstrated otherwise. The MMPA requires a determination of a stock’s status as being either strategic or non-strategic and does not include a category of unknown. The revised guidelines state, for non-ESA listed and/ or non-depleted stocks, ‘‘if abundance or human-related mortality levels are truly unknown (or if the fishery-related mortality level is only available from self-reported data), some judgment will be required to make this determination. VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 If the human-caused mortality is believed to be small relative to the stock size based on the best scientific judgment, the stock could be considered as non-strategic. If human-caused mortality is likely to be significant relative to stock size (e.g., greater than the annual production increment) the stock could be considered as strategic.’’ Comment 21: When calculating PBR, NMFS should err on the side of caution rather than allowing loosely defined flexibility that may be used to the detriment of the stock. With stocks such as the Cook Inlet belugas or Hawaiian monk seals, the documented decline in abundance would seem to challenge the assumption that net productivity occurs. Therefore, a PBR of zero is appropriate and would promote regional consistency. Response: NMFS recognizes that in some cases the dynamics of a stock do not comport with the underlying assumptions of the PBR framework. Given that Section 117 directs the agency to calculate PBR, the revised guidelines direct authors to calculate PBR but in such instances to qualify the calculation in the PBR section of the Report. Comment 22: We support the calculation of PBR even for small stocks with little human-caused mortality to comply with the MMPA. However, we do not support the exception to depart from the PBR requirement. Response: NMFS recognizes that, pursuant to Sec. 117 of the MMPA, each stock assessment report should include an estimate of the PBR for the stock. However, PBR is not always estimable. Most obviously, we lack abundance estimates for some stocks. Less obviously, the equation for estimating PBR makes assumptions about the underlying population growth model for marine mammals, and for stocks whose population dynamics do not appear to conform to these assumptions, the calculated PBR is considered unreliable as an estimate of the true potential biological removal. The revisions to the guidelines encourage reporting PBR for all stocks possible and qualifying in the SAR when the reported value is not considered reliable. Departure from this suggestion must be discussed fully within any affected report. Comment 23: The Commission recommends that NMFS require stock assessment authors to set PBR to zero in those cases that are not in accord with the commonly assumed PBR framework and involve stocks with no tolerance for additional human-related removals. Response: The revisions to the guidelines encourage reporting PBR for all stocks possible and qualifying in the PO 00000 Frm 00011 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 10837 stock assessment report when the reported value is not considered reliable or in cases where a stock’s dynamics do not conform to the underlying model for calculating PBR. At this point, the guidelines are not instructing authors to set PBR to zero. Comment 24: The Pacific SRG continues to support a decision not to report a PBR in the monk seal SAR. Response: By ecological theory, i.e., when the assumption of simple logistic population growth is reasonable and when a stock’s status can be attributed to direct anthropogenic impacts, a nonzero estimate of PBR is not unreasonable. In the case of Hawaiian monk seal, however, it is not apparent that these model assumptions hold. See response to Comment 22. Comment 25: The Alaska SRG preference would be to have an undetermined PBR when assessing endangered stocks. If numerical estimates of PBR are to be given in SARs, we recommend that language be included clarifying whether negligible impact determinations have been made, what they are, and if not, stating that no human-caused takes are authorized. We do not agree that this topic is beyond the scope of SARs and rather believe that inclusion of such information would help readers understand the actual meaning of PBR in this case. Response: NMFS disagrees with including negligible impact determinations (NIDs) under section 101(a)(5)(E) of the MMPA in the SARs. The five criteria (64 FR 28800, May 27, 1999) that NMFS may use for making a final determination and issuing 3-year incidental take authorizations to Category I and II fisheries are complex and may be difficult to relate to the data contained in the SARs, which often change on an annual basis. Furthermore, while some NIDs may use fisheries bycatch data from the past five years in making an assessment, other NID analyses may contain bycatch data from more than five years, depending on changes in fisheries, particularly regulatory changes such as time/area closures or mandatory bycatch reduction methods. In addition, NMFS may use the more recent observer data or stranding data, which may not yet be included in the most recent SARs, which may also confuse readers. Further, NMFS does not authorize (or prohibit) incidental mortalities through the SAR process. E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 10838 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES Comments on Topic 4: Apportioning PBR, Allocating Mortality, and Estimating PBR for Transboundary Stocks Comment 26: The Commission recommends that NMFS include in their stock assessments comparisons of PBR for feeding aggregations, and estimate or apportion mortality and serious injury levels for each aggregation. Response: The workshop participants discussed how feeding ground PBRs should be calculated for stocks where there was a desire to monitor potential risks to feeding aggregations; however, this was not reflected in the recommended revised text for the guidelines nor were comments solicited on this issue. NMFS is not including text regarding apportioning PBR among feeding aggregations in this revision of the guidelines. Comment 27: The Commission recommends that NMFS apply the total unassigned mortality and serious injury to each affected stock in both data-rich and data-poor cases involving taking of mixed stocks that cannot be or are not identified in the field. Doing so is the only way to be precautionary and also provides the appropriate incentive to develop better information about the affected stocks. Response: NMFS disagrees and believes that the guidelines are sufficiently conservative at this time. Comment 28: The Commission recommends that NMFS discourage the use of informed interpolation, require strong justification where it is used, and require that it be accompanied by reasonable measures of uncertainty associated with the interpolation. Response: The revised guidelines allow for the use of informed interpolation (i.e., model-based abundance estimation) as appropriate and supported by existing data. NMFS has added text to the guidelines specifying that when informed interpolation is employed, the Report should provide justification for its use and associated measure of uncertainty. As a point of clarification, informed interpolation is not a person making an informed judgement; it is a model that is informed by the covariation between habitat or other variables and density that is making the ‘‘judgement.’’ Comment 29: We support the recommendation of assigning the total unassigned mortalities and serious injuries to each stock within the appropriate geographic area. Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment. Comment 30: NMFS should not assign the ‘‘unassigned mortality and serious VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 injury’’ to each stock within the affected geographic area as it would effectively double count these human interactions and affect the PBR of multiple stocks. Instead, NMFS should develop methodology based on the best available data to assign the serious injury and mortality according to the relative abundance of the stocks. When this is not possible, serious injury and mortality should remain unassigned to avoid arbitrary determinations. Response: The revised guidelines direct that in data poor situations with mixed stocks, when relative abundances are unknown, the total unassigned mortality and serious injuries should be assigned to each stock within the appropriate geographic area. NMFS and workshop participants recognize that this approach effectively would repeatedly ‘‘count’’ the same deaths and serious injuries against multiple stocks. However, this approach is considered to be the most conservative in terms of ensuring that the most severe possible impacts were considered for each stock. The revised guidelines instruct that when deaths and serious injuries are assigned to each overlapping stock in this manner, the Reports will contain a discussion of the potential for overestimating stock-specific mortality and serious injury. Comment 31: NMFS’s proposal to identify transboundary or high seas stocks with no available population data is contrary to the MMPA. Response: NMFS did not propose to identify transboundary or high seas stocks with no available population data. Rather, the workshop discussions involved estimating range-wide abundance and PBR for transboundary stocks, and specifically, addressing the problem of managing transboundary marine mammal stocks for which PBR is estimated based on abundance from only a portion of each stock’s range (for example, PBR levels for transboundary stocks being estimated based on abundance surveys that occur only within the U.S. EEZ). Although it is inappropriate to simply extrapolate abundance estimates to an unsurveyed area, the revised guidelines allow for the use of model-based density estimation to fill gaps in survey coverage and estimate abundance and PBR over broader areas as appropriate and supported by existing data. In such cases, the Report should provide justification for use of interpolation and associated measure of uncertainty. Comment 32: NMFS must ensure that it prioritizes collection of data necessary to support interpolations when full assessments are not possible. In cases where a partial survey is conducted and PO 00000 Frm 00012 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 methods of interpolation or modeling are not incorporated, serious injuries and mortalities should only be counted if they occur in the portion of the stock that was surveyed. Response: NMFS agrees surveys should ideally cover the entirety of the stock range. When this is not possible, Nmin is defined under the MMPA as an estimate of the number of animals in a stock that provides reasonable assurance that the stock size is equal to or greater than the estimate, so a partial survey can be used to calculate Nmin and PBR. All human-caused mortality and serious injury needs to be accounted for under the MMPA, so injuries or deaths that are known to come from a stock must be apportioned to that stock even if the abundance is underestimated. The solution to this mismatch is not to ignore human-caused mortality and serious injury (which is contrary to the MMPA), but to conduct adequate surveys or develop models to obtain complete abundance estimates. Comment 33: The apportionment of PBR to foraging grounds between surveyed and un-surveyed areas appears to be a significant problem in the absence of data and lacks scientific justification. It appears that this will be based on untested assumptions regarding stock distributions. Assuming uniform distribution will have animals present where they may not exist or exist only seasonally. Response: NMFS agrees that it is not appropriate to assume uniform distribution between surveyed and unsurveyed areas, and as such discourages the use of extrapolation. The workshop participants discussed this issue, and the background paper on this topic suggested that informed modeling exercises may sometimes be appropriate or necessary for management decisions and to ensure that stocks remain as functioning elements of the ecosystem. Therefore, the revised guidelines state, ‘‘abundance or density estimates from one area should not be extrapolated to unsurveyed areas to estimate range-wide abundance (and PBR). But, informed interpolation (e.g., based on habitat associations) may be used to fill gaps in survey coverage and estimate abundance and PBR over broader areas as appropriate and supported by existing data.’’ Comment 34: Given the known lack of general data and uncertainty of existing data, it appears that it will be difficult to accurately use separate PBRs for marine mammal populations with multiple feeding grounds. To the extent that this is understood, information pertaining to separate feeding E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices aggregations should be noted in the stock assessment reports, but separate PBRs should not be used for stocks with multiple feeding grounds. There is a significant risk that ‘‘unassigned mortality and serious injury’’ could be wrongly assigned and result in erroneous estimates to one or more populations. To avoid arbitrary assignments, when this is not possible, serious injury and mortality should remain unassigned. Response: See response to Comment 26. Comment 35: The section on apportioning PBR among feeding aggregations does not provide clear guidance for cases like eastern Pacific gray whales and whether the Pacific Coast Feeding Group is a stock or not, a case where there may be mitochondrial differences between feeding areas but all animals go to a common breeding area. Response: The current Guideline revisions do not address apportioning PBR among feeding aggregations. See response to Comment 26. Comment 36: Separate PBRs for stocks with multiple feeding grounds should not be used. Separating PBR among feeding stocks is complicated and dataintensive, and is unlikely to improve management. NMFS is rarely able to adequately determine which portion of the stock was involved in a human interaction. Response: See response to Comment 26. Comment 37: There is concern that failure to estimate a population-wide PBR in the assessments will lead to the reliance on the proposed default of assuming the population is in decline. The agency should develop an assessment methodology based on the best available data and devise a statistically sound interpolation algorithm to fill in gaps in survey coverage and estimate abundance over the range of the population. If this is not developed then there is a very strong possibility that assessment scientists will discount or not utilize historical estimates derived from multiple surveys spanning multiple geographic regions in one year, and/or limited surveys the following year. Response: NMFS recognizes the need to estimate population-wide PBR for marine mammal stocks, which is why the revised guidelines allow for the use of informed interpolation (i.e., modelbased abundance estimation) to fill gaps in geographical survey coverage. Where interpolation is employed, the Reports should include a statement about the level of uncertainty surrounding the estimates. VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 Comment 38: Priority for research should be given to stocks for which serious injury and mortality exceeds PBR and for which additional management action is required under take reduction plans. In cases where this is not possible, NMFS must consider the availability of data for interpolation or informed modeling exercises to obtain abundance estimates for the full range of the stock. This strategy requires careful coordination with Canada for transboundary stocks. If timely and robust data are not available, NMFS should not make stock assessment determinations. Response: Staffs from NMFS Science Centers, Regional Offices, and Headquarters Offices communicate regularly to discuss science needed to support management and to help prioritize research efforts. This includes discussion of stocks for which humancaused mortality and serious injury exceed PBR and take reduction planning needs. The revised guidelines allow for the use of informed interpolation (e.g., based on habitat associations) to fill gaps in survey coverage and estimate abundance and PBR, as appropriate and when supported by existing data. Comments on Topic 5: Reporting of Mortality and Serious Injury Comment 39: The Commission recommends that NMFS require a summary of all human-caused mortality and serious injury in each stock assessment report. Efforts to meet that requirement will almost certainly vary, perhaps markedly. With that in mind, the Commission encourages NMFS to re-examine those report sections after one to two years to identify the most effective reporting strategies that could then be used to develop a consistent and informative reporting approach. Response: Section 117 of the MMPA requires that all sources of humancaused mortality and serious injury be included in stock assessments. NMFS makes every effort to include these sources of anthropogenic mortality and serious injury in each stock assessment, whether the mortality or serious injury is systematically recorded by fishery observer programs or through opportunistic records, such as strandings, where the cause of death or serious injury can be linked to humanrelated causes. NMFS understands that clearly presenting these mortality and serious injury data in the SARs is an important part of allowing the public to interpret the status of marine mammal stocks. Every effort will be made to continue to improve the way in which mortality and serious injury are reported in the SARs. PO 00000 Frm 00013 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 10839 Comment 40: The Alaska SRG believes that extensive tabling of interactions between marine mammals and commercial fisheries should be confined to an Appendix, with only a summary table that includes mortality in the various Federal groundfish fisheries, state water fisheries, and international transboundary fisheries included in the body of the assessment. The strategy of summarizing fishery interactions should lead to a single clearly-documented estimate of mortality and associated variance for all fisheries combined with easy access to details available preferably in an online appendix. Response: NMFS makes every effort to present fishery interaction data simply in the body of each SAR, whether in the text, tabular form, or both. The agency feels that it is valuable to have all interaction data appear within the SAR itself (although some regions also currently include a separate Appendix describing those fisheries that interact with marine mammals). NMFS also produces stand-alone injury determination and bycatch papers by region, which has reduced the amount of information that needs to go into the SARs, as they are incorporated by reference. The agency will continue to improve the clarity of how interaction data are presented within the SARs. Comment 41: The SARs tend to lag approximately two years behind in incorporating available observer bycatch data. For some fisheries that have 100percent observer coverage such as the Hawaii-based swordfish fishery, such bycatch data are available in near realtime. Review of new data should be conducted promptly given that PBR, the zero mortality rate goal, and strategic status for stocks are all based on the most recent SAR. Response: Bycatch data for most fisheries are not available in real-time and every effort is made to produce and incorporate new bycatch estimates from observer data in a timely manner into the draft SARs. SARs are typically drafted in the autumn of each year, with previous calendar year observer data representing the most up-to-date fullyear information. For example, draft 2016 SARs will be prepared in the autumn of 2015 for review by regional Scientific Review Groups in early 2016. These draft 2016 reports will utilize bycatch data from calendar year 2014 if available, thus the 2-year time lag between the year the reports are published and the year of the most recent bycatch data. E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES 10840 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices Comments on Topic 6: Determining When Stock Declines Warrant a Strategic Designation Comment 42: In an apparent attempt to interpret the MMPA definition of strategic stock, the proposed guidelines suggest that a ‘‘strategic stock’’ is a stock that ‘‘is declining and has a greater than 50 percent probability of a continuing decline of at least five percent per year.’’ However, in reality, a stock that ‘‘has a greater than 50 percent probability of a continuing decline of at least five percent per year’’ would not necessarily qualify as ‘‘threatened’’ in all cases. Rather, the determination of ‘‘threatened’’ status under the ESA requires a species-specific analysis of specific factors that are expressly set forth in the ESA. While NMFS may have the discretion to develop a general guideline for determining ‘‘strategic’’ status, NMFS may not mechanically apply the ‘‘strategic stock’’ definition set forth in the proposed guidelines. Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment and has not made this revision to the guidelines. See Response to Comment 43. Comment 43: The Commission recommends that NMFS consider any marine mammal stock that has declined by 40 percent or more to be strategic. Additionally, the Commission and the Humane Society of the United States recommend that stocks declining with more than 50 percent probability of continuing decline (by at least five percent/year) should be treated as strategic with the aim of reducing and reversing the stock’s decline before a depleted designation is required. Response: Section 3(19) of the MMPA defines a ‘‘strategic stock,’’ as one: ‘‘(A) for which the level of direct humancaused mortality exceeds the potential biological removal level; (B) which, based on the best available scientific information, is declining and is likely to be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 within the foreseeable future; or (C) which is listed as a threatened species or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), or is designated as depleted under this Act.’’ NMFS has not adopted the workshop-recommended revisions regarding a quantitative interpretation of strategic status per section 3(19)(B) but will continue to analyze how to interpret ‘‘likely to be listed as a threatened species under the (ESA) within the foreseeable future.’’ However, NMFS has finalized the revision regarding declines in abundance: ‘‘Stocks that have evidence suggesting at least a 50 percent decline, VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 either based on previous abundance estimates or historical abundance estimated by back-calculation, should be noted in the Status of Stocks section as likely to be below OSP. The choice of 50 percent does not mean that OSP is at 50 percent of historical numbers, but rather that a population below this level would be below OSP with high probability.’’ Comment 44: The Alaska SRG supports the quantitative recommendations for determining when non-ESA listed stocks should be considered as ‘‘strategic.’’ We also find the rationale for using 15 years as ‘‘the foreseeable future’’ a reasonable default because it is based on a five percent decrease over a 15-year period resulting in a 50 percent decline. Response: At this time, NMFS is not adopting the recommended changes related to strategic status of stocks that are declining and likely to be listed as a threatened species under the ESA within the foreseeable future. Comment 45: The Alaska SRG agrees with the working group’s recommendation that a Recovery Factor scaled from 0.1 to 0.5 be associated with stocks that are declining and likely to be listed as a threatened species under the ESA within the foreseeable future. In some cases where a decline is steep and ongoing or where the uncertainty about the population or causes of the decline are high a lower recovery factor could be warranted. We also recommend that there be a more formal process for NMFS to regularly review non-ESA listed stocks of concern to determine their status. Response: As we are not finalizing the recommended changes regarding strategic stock designation (sec. 3(19)(B) of the MMPA), above, we have decided not to revise the guidelines regarding recovery factors under such situations at this time. Each time a SAR is reviewed, the status of the stock is evaluated. Comment 46: While the revisions in the guidelines are a step toward developing criteria for a strategic designation, and using the threatened species recovery factors seems prudent, this revision falls short of setting timeframes to evaluate whether a stock should be reclassified. Response: It is unclear whether the commenter is referencing evaluation timeframes under the MMPA (sec. 117(c)(1)) or the ESA (relative to the interpretation of sec. 3(19)(B) of the MMPA). Stock assessments are reviewed by NMFS every three years for non-strategic stocks or every year for strategic stocks. This sets the timeframe for evaluating whether a stock’s status should be revised. See response to PO 00000 Frm 00014 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 Comment 45 regarding MMPA sec. 3(19)(B). Comment 47: The Pacific SRG supports the revision of when stock declines merit a strategic designation but suggests wording changes that give NMFS more flexibility surrounding the obligation to determine when a stock is depleted prior to classifying it as strategic. The SRG recommends that the NMFS regularly review whether a ‘‘depleted’’ status is warranted for (1) unlisted stocks of marine mammals that are declining and (2) stocks listed as depleted that are recovering. Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment, and agrees that the depleted status of marine mammal stocks should be reviewed periodically to ensure that designations are appropriate. We are currently evaluating information contained within a review of the SARs conducted by the Commission and will, as a part of this evaluation, consider whether there is more that NMFS should to do enhance consistency and accuracy with regard to depleted status of marine mammal stocks on a more regular basis. Comment 48: Given the challenges facing NMFS to collect timely data covering the full range of stocks already designated as strategic, NMFS should not adopt new guidelines to take on the responsibility of delineating strategic stocks that are not designated under the ESA. There is already an acceptable federal process under the ESA to designate strategic stocks. Response: The ESA does not designate stocks as strategic or nonstrategic. Rather, the MMPA directs stocks be considered strategic if ESAlisted (i.e., threatened or endangered), depleted, or human-caused mortality exceeds PBR. Additionally section 3(19)(B) allows for strategic designations of a stock that is declining and is likely to be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 within the foreseeable future. At this time, we are not finalizing the recommended changes regarding strategic stock designation (sec. 3(19)(B) of the MMPA). Comments on Topic 7: Assessing Stocks Without Abundance Estimates or PBR Comment 49: The Alaska SRG supports the suggested guideline modifications relating to the use of trend monitoring. However, small changes to the guidelines will do very little to improve the situation. More substantive changes and new approaches are needed and have been described. Response: NMFS agrees that it would be valuable to identify alternative E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices approaches for assessing stock status, apart from reliance on abundance survey data, in regions where regular surveys are cost-prohibitive. As noted in the guidelines, such approaches could include trend monitoring at index sites. However, developing guidelines for alternative assessment methods was not a focus of the GAMMS III workshop. NMFS will make efforts to consider how alternative sets of information could be used to aid its marine mammal stock assessments. See responses to Comment 3 and Comment 4. Comment 50: Based on the statutory mandate to use the PBR formula, NMFS should prioritize gathering data for any stocks with insufficient information to calculate levels of abundance, trends, or mortality. NMFS should not consider approaches other than those that are mandated and should provide admonition that stocks should not automatically be determined to be nonstrategic in the absence of information. Absence of data on the degree of impact to stocks is not the same as data on the absence of impacts to stocks. Response: NMFS does prioritize its data collection based upon what it perceives to be the most critical information gaps. NMFS does not make the default assumption that a stock is strategic or non-strategic until demonstrated otherwise. See response to Comment 20. Comment 51: If a significant data shortage makes it difficult to identify unit stocks, then NMFS should make it a high priority to remedy this uncertainty that seems crucial to determine ‘‘population status.’’ What has NMFS done to improve ‘‘best available science’’ on marine mammal abundance and stock structure? Response: NMFS agrees that it is a high priority to improve the identification of unit stocks. Consistent with this, the GAMMS III workshop participants recommended a national workshop be held to review and summarize information that is relevant to population structure. NMFS convened such a workshop and has begun developing an internal procedure for identifying and prioritizing stocks in need of examination for potential revisions that would complement and be integrated into the stock delineation workshop outputs and the existing SAR process. Comment 52: Given that the MMPA provides significant latitude in data sources for affected species and to the extent that ‘‘anecdotal information’’ and ‘‘unpublished information’’ are used, ‘‘trend monitoring’’ information from the fishermen who are out there every VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 day should be used in stock assessments. Response: Various sources of information could be used to estimate trends as long as the information is credible and compatible with existing statistical or modeling frameworks. Comments on Topic 8: Characterizing Uncertainty Comment 53: The Commission recommends that NMFS include all relevant sources or measures of uncertainty in stock assessment documents. Such indicators of uncertainty are essential for readers to form reliable conclusions regarding the status of the affected stocks and the factors affecting them. Response: NMFS agrees that information on key sources of uncertainty should be made explicit in the Reports, and this has been added to the revised guidelines. Comment 54: The Pacific SRG has strived over the years to make the SARs models of conciseness, and the proposed guidelines could reverse these efforts. SARs should be summaries of significant results and conclusions and not lengthy discussions including detailed descriptions of methods and repetitive caveats. The recommendation to include statements regarding uncertainty about parameters affecting PBR has been made by the Pacific SRG previously, which envisioned a brief separate ‘‘Uncertainties’’ section summarizing significant sources of uncertainty in the stock assessment. Lengthy discussions of uncertainty embedded in each SAR section reduce clarity and readability. Additions such as points of contact could be placed in an appendix to each set of SARs, but not be placed in each individual SAR. Response: NMFS agrees that discussions of uncertainty should be added in a way that will not detract from the clarity and readability of the stock assessment reports and will not add appreciably to the length of those reports. The workshop participants’ recommended addition of providing a point of contact has not been incorporated. Comment 55: The Alaska SRG supports changes to guidelines that would help ensure that SARs provide adequate evaluations of uncertainty. We recommend a ‘report card’ format as suggested by workshop attendees that will likely be more user-friendly and promote consistency between regional SARs. Additionally, this format would be more concise than the text additions recommended in the GAMMS III proposed guidelines. This report card could include the proportion of fisheries PO 00000 Frm 00015 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 10841 monitored within the last five years that might be interacting with strategic stocks. Response: NMFS agrees that quantitative criteria should be used to evaluate the uncertainty in marine mammal stock assessment reports and that a ‘‘report card’’ may be a good format for presenting this information. The quantitative criteria and format for this has not yet been finalized and is not specified in the revised guidelines. The workshop participants also saw merit to the report card, but there was general agreement that such information would be better conveyed as a periodic publication, such as in a NOAA Technical Memorandum, which could be considered by the SRGs. Comment 56: The Alaska SRG supports including a characterization of uncertainty in the Status of Stocks section, and recommends that it be described as ‘‘reliable,’’ ‘‘moderately reliable,’’ or ‘‘unreliable’’ as a clear way to characterize the overall utility of the status determination. We also support the suggestion that an overall assessment of the quality of SARs be conducted periodically and reported as Tech Memos, but not as a substitute for the ‘‘report cards’’ in the individual SARs. Response: Uncertainty comes in many gradations, and the method of determining PBR for human-caused mortality and serious injury was specifically designed to be effective at achieving management objectives in the face of many sources and levels of uncertainty. Furthermore, the revised guidelines recommend that the most prevalent sources of uncertainty in determining stock status and PBR levels be identified so that future research can be better directed at reducing these sources of uncertainty. Comments on Topic 9: Expanding SARs To Include Non-Serious Injury and Disturbance Comment 57: The Commission recommends that NMFS require sections in stock assessment reports that identify and characterize non-lethal factors that may affect population status. Response: Section 117(a)(3) requires NMFS, in consultation with the appropriate regional scientific review group, to include other factors that might be causing a decline or impeding recovery of a strategic stock, including effects on marine mammal habitat and prey. While inclusion of non-lethal factors may be a useful qualitative approach, such factors cannot be compared to PBR to assess population status. Furthermore, other environmental documents such as E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1 mstockstill on DSK4VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES 10842 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 41 / Wednesday, March 2, 2016 / Notices environmental assessments or impact statements required under the National Environmental Policy Act would contain that information, where known. Consistent with SRG recommendations, NMFS is trying to keep the SARs concise. Comment 58: NMFS should revise the guidelines to delete any suggestion that a mere ‘‘disturbance’’ or ‘‘non-serious injury’’ is sufficient to be included in SARs. SARs should only include events—in particular commercial fishing events—which cause mortality or serious injury, or which can be shown to cause the decline or impede the recovery of a strategic stock. This has been NMFS’ position in the past, it is correct, and it should not be changed. Response: The MMPA requires SARs to include an estimate of all sources of human-caused mortality and serious injury, not just an estimate of commercial fisheries mortality. See response to Comment 57. Comment 59: The Alaska SRG agrees that SARs should include the annual levels of mortality and serious injury reported through take authorizations and research permits in the ‘‘Other Mortality’’ section. Response: NMFS acknowledges this and is finalizing this text within the revised guidelines under the Annual Human-caused Mortality and Serious Injury section. Comment 60: The MMPA allows for SAR comments on non-lethal factors affecting recovery for strategic stocks, and it seems reasonable that SARs for non-strategic stocks should also evaluate such factors. However, because there is a high degree of uncertainty regarding population-level effects of non-lethal injury and disturbance, it is inappropriate to include estimates of those takes in the SARs unless there is evidence they are affecting stock recovery. Disturbance and non-serious injury do not constitute ‘‘Potential Biological Removal.’’ While it may be useful for NMFS permit users or others to compare their potential for disturbance/injury to a stock’s PBR, this falls outside the intent of the MMPAmandated PBR process for managing interactions with commercial fisheries. Response: The revised GAMMS specify that SARs contain information on other factors that may be causing a decline or impeding recovery strategic stocks, which we have interpreted as including non-lethal effects. As discussed in response to Comment 9, we would report on all activities found to be having a detrimental effect on a stock or its habitat. Within the SARs, PBR is only compared to takes that are VerDate Sep<11>2014 19:10 Mar 01, 2016 Jkt 238001 determined to be serious injuries or mortalities. Comment 61: The guidelines should require a ‘‘Habitat Concerns’’ section in all new stock assessments. If there are no known habitat issues, this should be stated. Response: The previous (2005) guidelines direct that if substantial issues regarding the habitat of the stock are important, a separate section titled ‘‘Habitat Issues’’ should be used. Specifically, ‘‘If data exist that indicate a problem, they should be summarized and included in the Report. If there are no known habitat issues or other factors causing a decline or impeding recovery, this should be stated in the Status of the Stock section.’’ This section of the guidelines was not changed in this revision. Dated: February 26, 2016. Perry F. Gayaldo, Deputy Director, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service. [FR Doc. 2016–04537 Filed 3–1–16; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Submission for OMB Review; Comment Request The Department of Commerce will submit to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for clearance the following proposal for collection of information under the provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act (44 U.S.C. Chapter 35). Agency: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Title: Greater Atlantic Region Logbook Family of Forms. OMB Control Number: 0648–0212. Form Number(s): NOAA 88–30 and 88–140. Type of Request: Regular (extension of a currently approved information collection). Number of Respondents: 4,337. Average Hours per Response: 5 minutes per Fishing Vessel Trip Report page (FVTR); 12.5 minutes per response for the Shellfish Log; 4 minutes for a herring or red crab report to the IVR system; 2 minutes for a tilefish report to the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system; 30 seconds for voluntary additional halibut information; and 5 minutes for each Days at Sea (DAS) credit request. Burden Hours: 11,508. Needs and Uses: This request is for an extension of a currently approved information collection. PO 00000 Frm 00016 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 9990 Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary) has the responsibility for the conservation and management of marine fishery resources. Much of this responsibility has been delegated to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Under this stewardship role, the Secretary was given certain regulatory authorities to ensure the most beneficial uses of these resources. One of the regulatory steps taken to carry out the conservation and management objectives is to collect data from users of the resource. Thus, as regional Fishery Management Councils develop specific Fishery Management Plans (FMP), the Secretary has promulgated rules for the issuance and use of a vessel Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) and vessel logbooks (VTR) to obtain fishery-dependent data to monitor, evaluate, and enforce fishery regulations. Fishing vessels permitted to participate in Federally-permitted fisheries in the Northeast are required to submit logbooks containing catch and effort information about their fishing trips. Participants in the herring, tilefish and red crab fisheries are also required to make weekly reports on their catch through IVR. In addition, vessels fishing under a days-at sea (DAS) management system can use the IVR system to request a DAS credit when they have canceled a trip for unforeseen circumstances. The information submitted is needed for the management of the fisheries. Affected Public: Business or other forprofit organizations. Frequency: Weekly, monthly and on occasion. Respondent’s Obligation: Mandatory. This information collection request may be viewed at reginfo.gov. Follow the instructions to view Department of Commerce collections currently under review by OMB. Written comments and recommendations for the proposed information collection should be sent within 30 days of publication of this notice to OIRA_Submission@omb. eop.gov or fax to (202) 395–5806. Dated: February 25, 2016. Sarah Brabson, NOAA PRA Clearance Officer. [FR Doc. 2016–04488 Filed 3–1–16; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P E:\FR\FM\02MRN1.SGM 02MRN1

Agencies

[Federal Register Volume 81, Number 41 (Wednesday, March 2, 2016)]
[Notices]
[Pages 10830-10842]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2016-04537]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

RIN 0648-XA937


Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks

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

ACTION: Notice of availability; response to comments.

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SUMMARY: NMFS has incorporated public comments into revisions of the 
guidelines for preparing stock assessment reports (SARs) pursuant to 
section 117 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The revised 
guidelines are now complete and available to the public.

ADDRESSES: Electronic copies of the guidelines are available on the 
Internet at the following address: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/sars/guidelines.htm.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Shannon Bettridge, Office of Protected 
Resources, 301-427-8402, Shannon.Bettridge@noaa.gov.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

    Section 117 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) (16 U.S.C. 
1361 et seq.) requires NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 
(FWS) to prepare stock assessments for each stock of marine mammals 
occurring in waters under the jurisdiction of the United States. These 
reports must contain information regarding the distribution and 
abundance of the stock, population growth rates and trends, estimates 
of annual human-caused mortality and serious injury from all sources, 
descriptions of the fisheries with which the stock interacts, and the 
status of the stock. Initial stock assessment reports (SARs, or 
Reports) were first completed in 1995.
    NMFS convened a workshop in June 1994, including representatives 
from NMFS, FWS, and the Marine Mammal Commission (Commission), to 
develop draft guidelines for preparing SARs. The report of this 
workshop (Barlow et al., 1995) included the guidelines for preparing 
SARs and a summary of the discussions upon which the guidelines were 
based. The draft guidelines were made available, along with the initial 
draft SARs, for public review and comment (59 FR 40527, August 9, 
1994), and were finalized August 25, 1995 (60 FR 44308).
    In 1996, NMFS convened a second workshop (referred to as the 
Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks, or ``GAMMS,'' workshop) 
to review the guidelines and to recommend changes to them, if 
appropriate. Workshop participants included representatives from NMFS, 
FWS, the Commission, and the three regional scientific review groups 
(SRGs). The report of that workshop (Wade and Angliss, 1997) summarized 
the discussion at the workshop and contained revised guidelines. The 
revised guidelines represented minor changes from the initial version. 
The revised guidelines were made available for public review and 
comment along with revised stock assessment reports on January 21, 1997 
(62 FR 3005) and later finalized.
    In September 2003, NMFS again convened a workshop (referred to as 
GAMMS II) to review the guidelines and again recommend minor changes to 
them. Participants at the workshop included representatives of NMFS, 
FWS, the Commission, and the regional SRGs. Changes to the guidelines 
resulting from the 2003 workshop were directed primarily toward 
identifying population stocks and estimating Potential Biological 
Removal (PBR) for declining stocks of marine mammals. The revised 
guidelines were made available for public review and comment on 
November 18, 2004 (69 FR 67541) and finalized on June 20, 2005 (70 FR 
35397, NMFS 2005).
    In February 2011, NMFS convened another workshop (referred to as 
GAMMS III) to review the guidelines and again recommend changes to 
them. Participants at the workshop included representatives from NMFS, 
FWS, the Commission, and the three regional SRGs. The objectives of the 
GAMMS III workshop were to (1) consider methods for assessing stock 
status (i.e., how to apply the PBR framework) when abundance data are 
outdated, nonexistent, or only partially available; (2) develop 
policies on stock identification and application of the PBR framework 
to small stocks, transboundary stocks, and situations where stocks mix; 
and (3) develop consistent national approaches to a variety of other 
issues, including reporting mortality and serious injury information in 
assessments. Nine specific topics were discussed at the workshop. The 
deliberations of these nine topics resulted in a series of recommended 
modifications to the current guidelines (NMFS, 2005). The main body of 
the GAMMS III workshop report includes summaries of the presentations 
and discussions for each of the nine agenda topics, as well as 
recommended revisions to individual sections of the guidelines (Moore 
and Merrick, 2011). Appendices to the workshop report provide a variety 
of supporting documents, including the full proposed revision of the 
guidelines (Appendix IV). On January 24, 2012 (77 FR 3450), NMFS made 
the GAMMS III workshop report available for public review, and 
requested comment on the proposed revisions in Appendix IV. The report 
is available at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/pdfs/sars/gamms3_nmfsopr47.pdf.

[[Page 10831]]

Revisions to the Guidelines for Preparing Stock Assessment Reports

    The paragraphs below describe the proposed guideline revisions that 
were recommended by the GAMMS III workshop participants, as well as a 
summary of how NMFS has or has not incorporated those proposed 
revisions into the final revised guidelines. They are organized by 
topic, as outlined in Appendix IV of the GAMMS III workshop report.
    Topic 1: PBR calculations with outdated abundance estimates. For an 
increasing number of marine mammal stocks, the most recent abundance 
estimates are more than 8 years old. Under existing guidelines (NMFS, 
2005), these are considered to be outdated and thus not used to 
calculate PBR. The current practice is to consider the PBR for a stock 
to be ``undetermined'' after supporting survey information is more than 
eight years old, unless there is compelling evidence that the stock has 
not declined during that time.
    The workshop participants recommended and the proposed guidelines 
included the following revisions to calculate PBRs for stocks with old 
abundance information: (1) During years 1-8 after the most recent 
abundance survey, ``uncertainty projections'' would be used, based on 
uniform distribution assumptions, to serially reduce the minimum 
abundance estimate (Nmin) by a small increment each year; 
(2) after eight years, and assuming no new abundance estimate has 
become available, a worst-case scenario would be assumed (i.e., a 
plausible 10-percent decline per year since the most recent survey), 
and so a retroactive 10-percent decline per year would be applied; and 
(3) if data to estimate a population trend model are available, such a 
model could have been used to influence the uncertainty projections 
during the first eight years.
    NMFS received a number of comments expressing strenuous objection 
to/concern with the proposed framework for stocks with outdated 
abundance estimates, which has led us to reevaluate the topic. As such, 
NMFS is not finalizing these recommended changes related to Topic 1 at 
this time. Rather, we will be further analyzing this issue, and should 
we contemplate changes to the guidelines regarding this topic, NMFS 
will propose them and solicit public comment in a separate action.
    Topic 2: Improving stock identification. For most marine mammal 
species, few stock definition changes have been made since the initial 
SARs were written. The proposed guidelines directed that each Report 
state in the ``Stock Definition and Geographic Range'' section whether 
it is plausible the stock contains multiple demographically independent 
populations that should be separate stocks, along with a brief 
rationale. If additional structure is plausible and human-caused 
mortality or serious injury is concentrated within a portion of the 
range of the stock, the Reports should identify the portion of the 
range in which the mortality or serious injury occurs. These revisions 
to the guidelines have been made.
    The GAMMS III workshop also addressed the terms ``demographic 
isolation'' and ``reproductive isolation.'' Workshop participants 
agreed that the intended meaning of these terms when originally 
included in the guidelines was not of complete isolation, which implies 
that there should be no interchange between stocks. Therefore, they 
recommended and the proposed guidelines included clarification of 
terminology by replacing references to ``demographic isolation'' and 
``reproductive isolation'' with ``demographic independence'' and 
``reproductive independence,'' respectively. These revisions to the 
guidelines have been made.
    Related to this topic, the workshop participants also recommended 
that NMFS convene a national workshop to systematically review the 
status of stock identification efforts and to identify and prioritize 
the information needed to improve stock identification. NMFS convened 
such a workshop in August 2014 (Martien et al., 2015). See response to 
Comment 10.
    Topic 3a: Assessment of very small stocks. The PBR estimate for 
some stocks may be very small (just a few animals or even less than 
one). In such cases, low levels of observer coverage may introduce 
substantial small-sample bias in bycatch estimates. The proposed 
guideline revisions included a table in the Technical Details section 
that provides guidance on the amount of sampling effort (observer 
coverage and/or number of years of data pooling) required to limit 
small-sample bias, given a certain PBR level. If suggested sampling 
goals (per the table) cannot be met, the proposed guidelines instructed 
that mortality should be estimated and reported, but the estimates 
should be qualified in the SARs by stating they could be biased. NMFS 
has incorporated this language into the revised guidelines.
    The proposed guidelines suggested removing the following sentence 
from the Status of Stocks section: ``In the complete absence of any 
information on sources of mortality, and without guidance from the 
Scientific Review Groups, the precautionary principle should be 
followed and the default stock status should be strategic until 
information is available to demonstrate otherwise.'' NMFS has 
incorporated this revision into the guidelines, as NMFS does not 
consider the original text to be consistent with the MMPA's definition 
of ``strategic.''
    Topic 3b: Assessment of small endangered stocks. Some endangered 
species, like Hawaiian monk seals, are declining with little to no 
direct human-caused mortality, and the stock's dynamics therefore do 
not conform to the underlying model for calculating PBR. Thus, PBR 
estimates for some endangered species stocks have not been included or 
have been considered ``undetermined'' in SARs. The proposed guidelines 
instructed that in such cases, if feasible, PBR should still be 
calculated and included in the SARs to comply with the MMPA. In 
situations where a stock's dynamics do not conform to the underlying 
model for calculating PBR, a qualifying statement should accompany the 
PBR estimate in the SAR. NMFS has incorporated this language into the 
revised guidelines.
    Topic 4: Apportioning PBR across feeding aggregations, allocating 
mortality for mixed stocks, and estimating PBR for transboundary 
stocks.
    Feeding aggregations: Given the definition that a population stock 
consists of individuals in common spatial arrangements that interbreed 
when mature, population stocks of species that have discrete feeding 
and breeding grounds (e.g., humpback whales) have generally been 
defined based on breeding ground stocks. However, given the strong 
maternal fidelity to feeding grounds, migratory species such as 
humpback whales can have feeding aggregations that are demographically 
independent with limited movement of individuals between feeding 
aggregations. Such feeding aggregations can consist of a portion of one 
breeding population, or of portions of multiple breeding populations, 
and can represent a single demographically-independent unit, or a mix 
of two or more demographically-independent units. Although this 
approach of identifying stocks based on feeding aggregations seemed 
feasible, workshop participants felt this approach added significant 
complexity without providing substantial management advantages. The 
workshop participants did not recommend any such changes to the 
guidelines at this point. None were

[[Page 10832]]

included in the proposed guidelines nor have any been made in the final 
revisions.
    Allocating mortality for mixed stocks: In some cases, mortality and 
serious injury occur in areas where more than one stock of marine 
mammals occurs. The proposed guidelines specify that when biological 
information is sufficient to identify the stock from which a dead or 
seriously injured animal came, the mortality or serious injury should 
be associated only with that stock. When one or more deaths or serious 
injuries cannot be assigned directly to a stock, then those deaths or 
serious injuries may be partitioned among stocks within the appropriate 
geographic area, provided there is sufficient information to support 
such partitioning. In those cases, Reports should discuss the potential 
for over- or under-estimating stock-specific mortality and serious 
injury. In cases where mortalities and serious injuries cannot be 
assigned directly to a stock and available information is not 
sufficient to support partitioning those deaths and serious injuries 
among stocks, the proposed guidelines instruct that the total 
unassigned mortality and serious injuries should be assigned to each 
stock within the appropriate geographic area. When deaths and serious 
injuries are assigned to each overlapping stock in this manner, the 
Reports should discuss the potential for over-estimating stock-specific 
mortality and serious injury. NMFS has incorporated this language into 
the revised guidelines.
    Transboundary stocks: The proposed guidelines strengthen the 
language regarding transboundary stocks, cautioning against 
extrapolating abundance estimates from one surveyed area to another 
unsurveyed area to estimate range-wide PBR. They state that informed 
interpolation (e.g., based on habitat associations) may be used, as 
appropriate and supported by existing data, to fill gaps in survey 
coverage and estimate abundance and PBR over broader areas. If 
estimates of mortality or abundance from outside the U.S. EEZ cannot be 
determined, PBR calculations should be based on abundance in the EEZ 
and compared to mortality within the EEZ. NMFS has incorporated this 
language into the revised guidelines and has provided a footnote 
defining informed interpolation.
    Topic 5: Clarifying reporting of mortality and serious injury 
incidental to commercial fishing. Currently, SARs do not consistently 
summarize mortality and serious injury incidental to commercial 
fishing. The proposed guidelines specified that SARs should include a 
summary of all human-caused mortality and serious injury including 
information on all sources of mortality and serious injury. 
Additionally, a summary of mortality and serious injury incidental to 
U.S. commercial fisheries should be presented in a table, while 
mortality and serious injury from other sources (e.g., recreational 
fisheries, other sources of human-caused mortality and serious injury 
within the U.S. EEZ, foreign fisheries on the high seas) should be 
clearly distinguished from U.S. commercial fishery-related mortality. 
Finally, the proposed guidelines contained the addition of a subsection 
summarizing the most prevalent potential human-caused mortality and 
serious injury threats that are unquantified in the SARs, and the SARs 
should also indicate if there are no known major sources of 
unquantifiable human-caused mortality and serious injury. NMFS has 
incorporated this language into the revised guidelines.
    Topic 6: When stock declines are sufficient for a strategic 
designation. The proposed guidelines included the following: ``Stocks 
that have evidence suggesting at least a 50 percent decline, either 
based on previous abundance estimates or historical abundance estimated 
by back-calculation, should be noted in the Status of Stocks section as 
likely to be below OSP. The choice of 50 percent does not mean that OSP 
is at 50 percent of historical numbers, but rather that a population 
below this level would be below OSP with high probability. Similarly, a 
stock that has increased back to levels pre-dating the known decline 
may be within OSP; however, additional analyses may determine a 
population is within OSP prior to reaching historical levels.'' NMFS 
has incorporated this language into the revised guidelines.
    Additionally, the workshop participants recommended and the 
proposed guidelines included the following interpretation of the 
definition of a strategic stock: ``A stock shall be designated as 
strategic if it is declining and has a greater than 50 percent 
probability of a continuing decline of at least five percent per year. 
Such a decline, if not stopped, would result in a 50 percent decline in 
15 years and would likely lead to the stock being listed as threatened. 
The estimate of trend should be based on data spanning at least eight 
years. Alternative thresholds for decline rates and duration, as well 
as alternative data criteria, may also be used if sufficient rationale 
is provided to indicate that the decline is likely to result in the 
stock being listed as threatened within the foreseeable future. Stocks 
that have been designated as strategic due to a population decline may 
be designated as non-strategic if the decline is stopped and the stock 
is not otherwise strategic.'' NMFS received comments expressing concern 
with the proposed interpretation of ``likely to be listed as a 
threatened species under the ESA within the foreseeable future'' (sec. 
3(19)(B) of the MMPA). NMFS is not finalizing the proposed changes 
related to this topic at this time. Rather, we will further analyze 
this issue. Should we contemplate changes to the guidelines regarding 
this topic, NMFS will propose them and solicit public comment in a 
separate action.
    The proposed guidelines included the following direction regarding 
recovery factors for declining stocks: ``A stock that is strategic 
because, based on the best available scientific information, it is 
declining and is likely to be listed as a threatened species under the 
ESA within the foreseeable future (sec. 3(19)(B) of the MMPA) should 
use a recovery factor between 0.1 and 0.5.'' As we are not finalizing 
the recommended changes regarding strategic stock designation (sec. 
3(19)(B) of the MMPA), above, we have decided not to revise the 
guidelines regarding recovery factors under such situations at this 
time. Should changes to the guidelines regarding the above be 
contemplated, NMFS will include the recommended recovery factors when 
we solicit public comment on that action. Therefore, NMFS is not 
finalizing the recommended change related to this paragraph at this 
time.
    Topic 7: Assessing stocks without abundance estimates or PBR. For 
many stocks, data are so sparse that it is not possible to produce an 
Nmin and not possible to estimate PBR. When mortality and/or 
population abundance estimates are unavailable, the PBR approach cannot 
be used to assess populations, in spite of a statutory mandate to do 
so. The proposed guidelines included the following addition to the 
Status of Stocks section: ``Likewise, trend monitoring can help inform 
the process of determining strategic status.'' NMFS has incorporated 
this language into the revised guidelines.
    Topic 8: Characterizing uncertainty in key SAR elements. It is 
difficult to infer the overall uncertainty for key parameters as they 
are currently reported in the SARs. The proposed guidelines direct that 
the Stock Definition and Geographic Range, Elements of the PBR Formula, 
Population Trend, Annual Human-Caused Mortality and Serious Injury,

[[Page 10833]]

and Status of the Stock sections include a description of key 
uncertainties associated with parameters in these sections and an 
evaluation of the effects of these uncertainties associated with 
parameters in these sections. NMFS has incorporated this language into 
the revised guidelines with some minor revisions.
    Topic 9: Including non-serious injuries and disturbance in SARs. 
Currently, many Reports include information on human-related mortality 
and serious injury from all known sources (not just from commercial 
fisheries) but do not include information on human-related non-serious 
injury or disturbance. The workshop participants concluded that the 
guidelines, with respect to the scope of content considered by the 
SARs, could be retained as they currently stand. However, they 
encouraged authors to routinely consider including information in the 
Reports about what ``other factors'' may cause a decline or impede 
recovery of a particular stock. A final recommended revision to the 
guidelines was the addition of the following italicized text: ``The 
MMPA requires for strategic stocks a consideration of other factors 
that may be causing a decline or impeding recovery of the stock, 
including effects on marine mammal habitat and prey, or other lethal or 
non-lethal factors.'' However, this italicized text is not contained in 
the MMPA, and therefore, as proposed could be misconstrued as being 
required by the MMPA. Therefore, the revision to the guidelines has 
been reworded for clarity.

Comments and Responses

    NMFS solicited public comments on the proposed revisions to the 
guidelines (January 24, 2012, 77 FR 3450), contained in Appendix IV of 
the GAMMS III workshop report. NMFS received comments from the 
Commission, the three regional SRGs, two non-governmental environmental 
organizations (Humane Society of the United States and Center for 
Biological Diversity), representatives from the fishing industry 
(Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, Garden State 
Seafood Association, Maine Lobstermen's Association, Hawaii Longline 
Association, Cape Cod Hook Fishermen's Association, and two 
individuals), the American Veterinary Medical Association, the States 
of Maine and Massachusetts, the Makah Indian Tribe, the Center for 
Regulatory Effectiveness, representatives from the oil and gas industry 
(American Petroleum Institute, International Association of Geophysical 
Contractors, and Alaska Oil and Gas Association), and one individual.
    NMFS received a number of comments supporting its efforts to 
improve stock identification (topic 2). Many commenters urged NMFS to 
prioritize conducting regular surveys for those species with the 
greatest human-caused mortality or oldest survey data. Many commenters 
disagreed with NMFS' proposals to use a precautionary approach with 
aging abundance estimates (topic 1) and apportion PBR and serious 
injuries and mortalities (topic 4). Comments on actions not related to 
the GAMMS (e.g., convening a Take Reduction Team or listing a marine 
mammal species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)), or on items not 
related to portions of the guidelines finalized in this action, are not 
included below. Comments and responses are organized below according to 
the relevant workshop topics outlined in Appendix IV of the report.

Comments on General Issues

    Comment 1: The Commission recommended that NMFS continue to 
encourage more exchange between regional SRGs to ensure consistency 
where needed and to promote useful and informative exchange among them.
    Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment and will continue to 
encourage exchange between SRGs and strive to ensure consistency among 
the groups and among the SARs. To that end, we are convening a joint 
meeting of the three SRGs in February 2016, in addition to individual 
SRG meetings.
    Comment 2: The Commission recommended that NMFS consider requiring 
a brief summary paragraph or table on the historical trend of each 
stock in the SARs, where appropriate, to combat the tendency to exclude 
important stock dynamics or allow for the shifting baselines 
phenomenon.
    Response: It is unclear from the comment what historical trend 
information, specifically, the Commission is referencing that is not 
already provided in the SARs. Where able, we provide historical 
abundance data and estimate trends in abundance (see for example, the 
California sea lion SAR, which provides abundance data for the prior 
four decades). With respect to bycatch, we do not think it is feasible 
or appropriate to provide trends in bycatch rates over decades, as 
fisheries and monitoring programs change too frequently. The status of 
each stock is informed by current parameters, such as ESA listing 
status and relationship to OSP and PBR. Additionally, the statute 
specifies that the SARs provide current population trend information. 
We will continue to endeavor to provide as much historical abundance, 
trend, and human-related removal information (for example, historical 
whaling data as it relates to stock recovery and OSP, see Eastern North 
Pacific blue whale report) as possible, but at this time will not 
require a summary table or paragraph in each SAR.
    Comment 3: NMFS should secure adequate support and funding to 
conduct marine mammal abundance surveys in the region at least every 
five years. Alternative cost-effective approaches to determining 
Nmin, such as trend data from index sites, should be 
developed and specified as acceptable methods in the guidelines.
    Response: NMFS agrees that such a schedule would be ideal, but we 
do not currently have the resources to accomplish this. We continue to 
develop and implement strategies to support more efficient use of ship 
time through multi-species ecosystem studies, better survey designs and 
sampling technologies, and leveraging inter- and intra-agency 
resources. NMFS is also exploring alternative approaches for assessing 
stock status (e.g., through use of unmanned systems and acoustic 
technologies) apart from reliance on abundance survey data, in regions 
where regular surveys are cost-prohibitive. As noted in the workshop 
report, such approaches could include trend monitoring at index sites. 
Developing guidelines for alternative assessment methods was not a 
focus of the GAMMS III workshop, and so this does not appear in the 
revisions finalized here. However, NMFS will make efforts to consider 
how alternative sets of information could be used to aid its marine 
mammal stock assessments.
    Comment 4: The effective management of marine mammals requires 
timely and accurate stock status information that is currently lacking. 
The proposed assumption that the existing measures protecting marine 
mammal species are failing to achieve management objectives and the 
continued use of old data to assess the status of stocks are 
unacceptable and fail to acknowledge collective efforts to reconcile 
marine mammal protection with varied ocean uses. NMFS should more 
frequently assess the status of marine mammal stocks and incorporate 
this new information into management actions.
    Response: NMFS agrees that management of marine mammal stocks 
depends on timely and accurate stock information, and in many cases up-
to-date stock assessments are not available, nor are the resources 
necessary to

[[Page 10834]]

conduct the assessment. NMFS acknowledges that the reliability of 
abundance estimates for calculating PBR is reduced over time. The 
proposed approach to calculating PBR with outdated abundance 
information assumed the worst-case scenario, but we are not finalizing 
that approach at this time. Accordingly, NMFS is analyzing methods to 
calculate PBRs for stocks with outdated abundance information as well 
as developing methods to collect data more efficiently and cost 
effectively. See response to Comment 3.
    Comment 5: The Alaska SRG expressed concern that very different 
approaches are taken for PBR and mortality components of SARs. A great 
deal of modeling effort and simulations has gone into making the PBR 
calculations conservative, but there is no similar concern for the 
mortality and serious injury data. In some of the Alaska SARs, 20+ 
year-old observer data are the only mortality data for a particular 
fishery. The nature of Alaska fisheries can change quite quickly, so 
Alaska SRG members strongly object to using such old data. The 
reliability of removals data is just as important as population data 
when assessing stock status. This issue merits serious attention, and 
as a first step, the quality of removals data should be thoroughly and 
explicitly evaluated when uncertainty in SARs is evaluated.
    Response: NMFS acknowledges that many of the data related to Alaska 
marine mammal stocks are dated. NMFS continues to rely upon and 
incorporate the best available data in the SARs, but in some cases 
these data are many years old. The revised guidelines instruct SAR 
authors to describe uncertainties in key factors, including human-
caused mortality and serious injury, and to evaluate the effects of 
those uncertainties.
    Comment 6: The proposed changes do not reflect an agency commitment 
to generating best available science upon which to base its decisions. 
In fact, this rule contains no statements as to what the agency intends 
to do with respect to old or non-existent assessments other than to 
reduce PBR. We request the agency comment for the record specifically 
how NOAA intends to address the GAMMS III stated need for accurate and 
timely census data.
    Response: The MMPA requires that NMFS and FWS use the best 
available scientific information in its assessment and management of 
marine mammal stocks. NMFS strives to collect the data necessary for 
timely stock assessments in a cost-efficient manner, but agency 
resources are limited, and there are instances where data are either 
too old or non-existent. We are currently analyzing how to calculate 
PBR when data are outdated.
    Comment 7: We appreciate NMFS' efforts to improve stock 
identification, small stock biases, non-serious injuries, and institute 
other SAR enhancements, and encourage NMFS to incorporate veterinary 
expertise relative to marine mammal population, health, and ecosystem 
conservation status.
    Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment. NMFS continues to 
incorporate and rely upon veterinary expertise in activities related to 
stock assessment; for example, the development of the serious injury 
determination policy and procedures, and response to stranded animals 
and UMEs.
    Comment 8: Several of the GAMMS III recommendations require more 
explanations and verbiage to be added to the SARs (e.g., Topics 2, 5, 
8, and 9).
    Response: NMFS recognizes that the recommendations require 
additional text to be added to the SARs. We strive to maintain the 
conciseness of the SARs while providing best available science and 
meeting the directive of MMPA section 117(a).
    Comment 9: NMFS should produce a record showing that the guidelines 
and GAMMS Report comply with the Information Quality Act (IQA) Pre-
dissemination review requirements as follows: (1) All models that the 
guidelines or GAMMS Report use should be peer reviewed in order to 
determine their compliance with Council for Regulatory Environmental 
Modeling Guidance; (2) the method used by the guidelines and GAMMS 
Report to estimate population uncertainty violates the IQA accuracy and 
reliability requirement; and (3) the guidelines and GAMMS Report 
violate the IQA accuracy and reliability requirements by telling staff 
to make up abundance data and PBR when measured data do not exist 
(``informed interpolation''). In addition, NMFS should revise the 
guidelines and GAMMS Report to delete any suggestion that marine mammal 
SARs should discuss oil and gas seismic effects, as oil and gas seismic 
operations do not cause mortality or serious injury to marine mammals 
and do not cause a decline or impede recovery of any strategic stock.
    Response: The GAMMS report referenced by the commenter is a summary 
of the proceedings of a workshop and was reviewed for accuracy prior to 
dissemination. We did not solicit comments nor are we responding to 
comments on the workshop report itself. The guidelines also underwent 
IQA pre-dissemination review prior to being finalized and released to 
the public. There is no requirement under the NOAA or OMB Information 
Quality Guidance to explain within the guidelines themselves how they 
have met IQA requirements.
    The marine mammal SARs are based on the best available science. 
NMFS strives to use peer-reviewed data as the basis for reports. 
However, in some cases, the best available science may not have been 
published or subjected to a juried professional journal review, as this 
process can take months or years to complete. In other cases, data 
pertinent to assessments of stocks are routinely collected and analyzed 
but are not suitable for a stand-alone external peer-reviewed 
publication. Therefore, NMFS often relies on science that has been 
through a NMFS Science Center's internal expert review process and/or 
has been subjected to other internal or external expert review to 
ensure that information is not only high quality but is available for 
management decisions in a timely fashion. In these cases, all NOAA-
authored literature should meet, at the least, the standards for 
Fundamental Research Communications established by the NOAA Research 
Council and by NMFS. NMFS may rely on the SRGs to provide independent 
expert reviews of particular components of new science to be 
incorporated into the SARs to ensure that these components constitute 
the best available scientific information. Likewise, upon SRG review of 
these components and the draft SARs themselves, NMFS considers the SRG 
review of the draft SARs to constitute peer review and to meet the 
requirements of the OMB Peer Review Bulletin and the Information 
Quality Act.
    The proposed method for projecting uncertainty in abundance 
estimates (topic 1) is not being finalized at this time (see below). 
Any models that are employed in the SARs have been peer reviewed, as is 
their specific application to the SARs, and therefore meet the 
requirements of the IQA. Regarding the use of informed interpolation to 
estimate abundance within a study area based on habitat modeling or 
similar approaches (i.e., model-based abundance estimation), this 
approach is commonly applied in ecology. The International Whaling 
Commission Scientific Committee recently acknowledged the strength and 
utility of model-based abundance estimation methods and is planning a 
workshop to formulate revisions to its guidelines for conducting 
surveys and analyzing data to include guidance on the use of these 
methods in management (IWC, 2015).

[[Page 10835]]

Model-based estimation of density is based on survey data and habitat 
or other covariates, which is entirely science based. To suggest we are 
directing staff to ``make up abundance data and PBR'' is a 
mischaracterization of what is contained in the revised guidelines. We 
have added a footnote to the guidelines to clarify the definition of 
``informed interpolation.''
    Regarding oil and gas activities, nowhere in the proposed 
guidelines are oil and gas or seismic activities specifically 
discussed. The guidelines do not direct the inclusion of oil and gas 
activities in the SARs; however, if oil and gas activities are found to 
be having a detrimental effect on a stock or its habitat, we would 
include it in the report, as we would with any other activity. The 
final revised guidelines (very slightly revised from the proposed 
guidelines) state: ``The MMPA requires for strategic stocks a 
consideration of other factors that may be causing a decline or 
impeding recovery of the stock, including effects on marine mammal 
habitat and prey. In practice, interpretation of ``other factors'' may 
include lethal or non-lethal factors other than effects on habitat and 
prey. Therefore, such issues should be summarized in the Status of the 
Stock section for all strategic stocks. If substantial issues regarding 
the habitat of the stock are important, a separate section titled 
``Habitat Issues'' should be used. If data exist that indicate a 
problem, they should be summarized and included in the Report. If there 
are no known habitat issues or other factors causing a decline or 
impeding recovery, this should be stated in the Status of the Stock 
section.''

Comments on Topic 1: Assessing Stocks With Outdated Abundance Estimates

    NMFS received a number of comments expressing strenuous objection 
to/concern with the proposed framework for stocks with outdated 
abundance estimates. As such, NMFS is not finalizing the proposed 
revisions related to Topic 1 at this time. Rather, we will further 
analyze this issue. Should we contemplate changes to the guidelines 
regarding this topic, NMFS will propose them and solicit public comment 
in a separate action.

Comments on Topic 2: Improving Stock Identification

    Comment 10: The Commission recommended that NMFS convene a national 
workshop to systematically review the status of stock identification 
efforts and to identify and prioritize the information needed to 
improve stock identification.
    Response: In August 2014, NMFS convened a workshop on the use of 
multiple lines of evidence to delineate demographically independent 
populations (Martien et al., 2015). The meeting participants agreed 
that the best way to provide guidance on the use of multiple lines of 
evidence when delineating demographically independent populations for 
marine mammals was to produce a Stock Delineation Handbook that can 
serve as a guide for future demographically-independent population 
delineation efforts. Development of the handbook is currently underway. 
Subsequent to the 2014 workshop, NMFS began developing an internal 
procedure for identifying and prioritizing stocks in need of 
examination for potential revisions that would complement and be 
integrated into the stock delineation workshop outputs and the existing 
SAR process.
    Comment 11: The GAMMS III workshop report makes several very good 
recommendations for improving stock identification, and the Alaska SRG 
and the Humane Society of the United States agree with all of them.
    Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment.
    Comment 12: The Pacific SRG recommends that NMFS focus on the role 
of genetics in determining marine mammal stock structure and in 
defining the terms ``stock'' and ``population.''
    Response: Although the guidelines are clear that genetic evidence 
is not the sole evidence that could be used to define stocks, changes 
in stock definition have relied on genetic data as the primary line of 
evidence, and species for which genetic evidence are not available have 
not had new stocks defined. The MMPA uses the term ``population 
stock.'' The guidelines have a lengthy section on ``Definition of 
stock'' that has been discussed in each of the GAMMS workshops and in a 
special workshop devoted to stock definition (see response to Comment 
(10). The language that interprets ``population stock'' has remained 
largely unchanged since the first set of guidelines despite much 
discussion.
    Comment 13: The Pacific SRG would like to have the following 
questions addressed: How do we integrate the MMPA's goal of maintaining 
a population as a functioning part of the ecosystem with the statute's 
definition of a stock (that emphasizes breeding interchange)? In a 
continuum of levels of genetic exchange, where does one draw the line 
between what is a stock and what is not? How will the proposed use of 
eco-regions be practically implemented in stock determination and how 
will migratory stocks that feed in one region and breed in another be 
treated under this proposal? How do we balance the conservation 
concerns resulting from stocks being defined very broadly versus the 
costs and management concerns resulting from stocks being defined very 
finely?
    Response: The definition of ``population stock'' as ``a group of 
marine mammals of the same species or smaller taxa in a common spatial 
arrangement, that interbreed when mature'' is vague from a biological 
perspective. To some degree, all ``groups'' within a species interbreed 
when mature or else they would be considered different species 
according to the biological species concept. Clearly, population stock 
was intended to mean interbreeding at some greater level but that level 
is not specified. Interpretation becomes more difficult when 
considering known cases of migratory species with strong fidelity to 
both feeding and breeding grounds. Consider, for example, humpback 
whales that feed in Southeast Alaska and breed in Hawaii. These 
individuals can interbreed when mature but can (and do) interbreed with 
individuals that feed in other areas. If a threat occurred within 
Southeast Alaska that resulted in unsustainable deaths in that area, 
then if the ``Southeast Alaska whales'' were a stock, that stock's PBR 
could be used as an indicator that management efforts to mitigate that 
threat were warranted. In contrast, if ``interbreed when mature'' 
considered all the whales in Hawaii, then the human-caused mortality in 
Southeast Alaska may never exceed the PBR based on Hawaii, and 
eventually the ecosystem in Southeast Alaska would cease to have 
humpback whales as a functioning part. Such cases result in an apparent 
conflict between the words ``interbreed when mature'' and the goal to 
maintain population stocks as functioning elements of their ecosystem.
    Often, changes to stock delineations in the SARs have relied on 
interpretation of genetic data. The Pacific SRG asks where one draws 
the line on what level of genetic exchange suffices to qualify as a 
stock. Interpretation has been based on the guidelines:
    ``Demographic independence means that the population dynamics of 
the affected group is more a consequence of births and deaths within 
the group (internal dynamics) rather than immigration or emigration 
(external dynamics). Thus, the exchange of individuals between 
population stocks is not great enough to prevent the depletion of one 
of the populations as

[[Page 10836]]

a result of increased mortality or lower birth rates.''
    To date, accepted ``new'' stocks have been strongly differentiated, 
indicating such low levels of exchange that immigration is relatively 
trivial. There will be, however, borderline cases. Such is the nature 
of imposing discrete categories on continuous processes.
    The recommendations from the GAMMS III workshop do not propose 
basing stocks on eco-regions. Eco-regions were discussed during the 
workshop in two contexts: (1) In a working paper that demonstrated that 
most stocks are currently defined at a very large scale often 
encompassing several eco-regions, and (2) that eco-regions may 
highlight stocks that may deserve consideration in a stock definition 
meeting because that stock may be at too large a scale and could 
encompass multiple demographically independent populations.
    Comment 14: In the SARs, a concise statement concerning uncertainty 
in stock structure could be included in the section on uncertainty 
discussed under Topic 8. Details should be provided only when 
publications are not yet available. The Pacific SRG questions the 
usefulness of repeating in nearly every SAR the sentence ``It is 
plausible that there are multiple demographically-independent 
populations within this stock.''
    Response: The Pacific SRG requested that the reader of a SAR be 
able to readily assess the level of confidence that can be ascribed to 
the PBR calculation. A critical part of that calculation is abundance, 
which can be severely biased if stock definition is incorrect. We 
recognize that many SARs will include the same statement about the 
plausibility of multiple demographically independent populations within 
the stock, but we consider it necessary to better inform the reader's 
understanding of areas of uncertainty.
    Comment 15: NMFS received a number of comments related to stock 
definition and stock delineation based on feeding aggregations. Such 
as: The revised guidelines should address whether, and under what 
circumstances, a feeding aggregation can be identified as a stock 
consistently with the MMPA's statutory definition of a stock. One 
commenter stated that it is not clear whether or how the definition of 
a stock in the proposed guidelines relates to the definition of a stock 
in the MMPA. One commenter suggested that the revised guidelines should 
clarify the meaning of ``internal dynamics'' and explain how it relates 
to the statutory interbreeding requirement. Another suggestion was that 
the revised guidelines should address the workshop participants' 
suggestion ``that human-caused mortality on the feeding grounds be 
monitored and evaluated against a PBR calculation made for the feeding 
aggregation and that the feeding-ground PBR, mortality, and evaluation 
results be reported in the SARs, as is currently done for Pacific 
humpback stocks.''
    Response: The workshop participants discussed the possibility of 
basing stocks on feeding aggregations. Although workshop participants 
considered this approach to be feasible, they believed it added 
significant complexity without providing substantial management 
advantages, and did not recommend revisions to the guidelines at this 
time. Therefore, this revision of the guidelines does not specifically 
discuss identification of stocks based on feeding aggregations. We 
recognize and acknowledge these comments related to feeding 
aggregations and stock definition, but as they do not relate to the 
current revisions to the guidelines, we are not addressing them in this 
action. If the issue is further considered by the agency in a separate 
action, we will address those comments in the development of that 
action.
    Comment 16: In the proposed guidelines, NMFS suggests that it may 
delineate marine mammal stocks based upon human factors such as 
incidental take as a result of human-caused mortality. However, the 
MMPA does not permit the determination of stock status based on human-
related factors. Accordingly, when delineating stocks, NMFS can only 
consider the demographic and biological characteristics of the species 
at issue. Carving out stocks in areas where human-caused mortality is 
high, as NMFS proposes, would violate the MMPA.
    Response: The guidelines state: ``For example, it is common to have 
human-caused mortality restricted to a portion of a species' range. 
Such concentrated mortality (if of a large magnitude) could lead to 
population fragmentation, a reduction in range, or even the loss of 
undetected populations, and would only be mitigated by high immigration 
rates from adjacent areas.'' They caution that serious consideration 
should be given to areas with concentrated high human-caused mortality, 
but that actual stock definition should be based on biological 
considerations. In other words, high-localized human-caused mortality 
should highlight the need for stock identification scrutiny but not the 
lines of evidence used.
    Comment 17: If it cannot be demonstrated with normal genetic 
analysis, then it is unwarranted to establish populations or 
subpopulations based on behavior or distribution. To split existing 
populations into smaller units only invites the development of 
fragmented PBRs with an aggregate value that will likely be lower than 
that of the whole population.
    Response: Genetic data are certainly useful when attainable, but in 
many cases genetic samples (of sufficient quantity to draw sound 
inferences) cannot be obtained. There are many other lines of evidence 
that can be informative to determining stock structure, including 
behavior and distribution and also movement data from photographic 
identification or tagging. Genetic data are sometimes sufficient but 
are not exclusively needed to make sound inferences concerning stock 
structure. In 2014, NMFS convened a workshop to review the use of other 
lines of evidence, as consistency and accuracy in delineating stocks 
for species with limited data would be improved if guidelines were 
available on both the strengths of different lines of evidence and how 
to evaluate multiple lines together (Martien et al., 2015). As a result 
of this workshop, NMFS is developing a handbook for identification of 
demographically independent populations, which includes genetic 
information as well as other lines of evidence.
    Comment 18: The revised guidelines should acknowledge that factors 
other than demographic independence, such as a localized disease or a 
localized change in prey availability, might cause different population 
responses between geographic regions. In light of such factors, the 
revised guidelines should discuss under what circumstances it is 
appropriate to designate stocks solely on the basis of different 
population responses between geographic regions.
    Response: Demographic independence is defined in terms of birth and 
death rates within the population and immigrations from outside the 
population. Presumably, the response of a population to `localized 
disease or localized change in prey availability' would be changes in 
the birth and/or death rates. Thus, it would seem that the concern 
above is already accounted for in the guidelines.
    Comment 19: If the revised guidelines continue to define a stock as 
a demographically-independent biological population, they should 
explain more clearly the circumstances under which a group of marine 
mammals can be designated as a stock even in the

[[Page 10837]]

absence of evidence that the group comprises a demographically 
independent biological population. Are such circumstances limited to 
those in which ``mortality is greater than a PBR calculated from the 
abundance just within the oceanographic region where the human-caused 
mortality occurs,'' as suggested in the GAMMS III Report? Or can stocks 
be designated in other circumstances in the absence of evidence of 
demographic independence? If so, what other circumstances are 
contemplated?
    Response: The section on definition of stocks in the guidelines 
seeks to clarify the practical process of definition given biological 
complexity and different types and qualities of available data. This 
section was contained in GAMMS II (NMFS 2005) and was not revised in 
this current revision of the guidelines. The guidelines note that 
particular attention should be given to areas where mortality is 
greater than PBR but do not limit stock definition to those 
circumstances. The stock definition workshop (see above) was suggested 
as a forum to improve stock definition in data-poor cases.

Comments on Topic 3: Assessment of Small and Endangered Stocks

    Comment 20: The Commission recommends that NMFS adopt the workshop 
recommendation to include, when appropriate, a statement in each 
assessment explaining that bycatch data are not sufficient to estimate 
the bycatch rate with acceptable precision. The Commission and another 
commenter recommended NMFS treat each such stock as strategic unless 
and until the data are sufficient to demonstrate that it is not.
    Response: NMFS agrees with the importance of including a statement 
in each stock assessment to indicate when bycatch estimates are prone 
to small-sample bias, though it should be noted that bias and precision 
are different issues. The guidelines recommend pooling years of 
information as necessary to achieve precision levels of CV less than 
0.3.
    At this point, NMFS does not make the default assumption that a 
stock is strategic until demonstrated otherwise. The MMPA requires a 
determination of a stock's status as being either strategic or non-
strategic and does not include a category of unknown. The revised 
guidelines state, for non-ESA listed and/or non-depleted stocks, ``if 
abundance or human-related mortality levels are truly unknown (or if 
the fishery-related mortality level is only available from self-
reported data), some judgment will be required to make this 
determination. If the human-caused mortality is believed to be small 
relative to the stock size based on the best scientific judgment, the 
stock could be considered as non-strategic. If human-caused mortality 
is likely to be significant relative to stock size (e.g., greater than 
the annual production increment) the stock could be considered as 
strategic.''
    Comment 21: When calculating PBR, NMFS should err on the side of 
caution rather than allowing loosely defined flexibility that may be 
used to the detriment of the stock. With stocks such as the Cook Inlet 
belugas or Hawaiian monk seals, the documented decline in abundance 
would seem to challenge the assumption that net productivity occurs. 
Therefore, a PBR of zero is appropriate and would promote regional 
consistency.
    Response: NMFS recognizes that in some cases the dynamics of a 
stock do not comport with the underlying assumptions of the PBR 
framework. Given that Section 117 directs the agency to calculate PBR, 
the revised guidelines direct authors to calculate PBR but in such 
instances to qualify the calculation in the PBR section of the Report.
    Comment 22: We support the calculation of PBR even for small stocks 
with little human-caused mortality to comply with the MMPA. However, we 
do not support the exception to depart from the PBR requirement.
    Response: NMFS recognizes that, pursuant to Sec. 117 of the MMPA, 
each stock assessment report should include an estimate of the PBR for 
the stock. However, PBR is not always estimable. Most obviously, we 
lack abundance estimates for some stocks. Less obviously, the equation 
for estimating PBR makes assumptions about the underlying population 
growth model for marine mammals, and for stocks whose population 
dynamics do not appear to conform to these assumptions, the calculated 
PBR is considered unreliable as an estimate of the true potential 
biological removal. The revisions to the guidelines encourage reporting 
PBR for all stocks possible and qualifying in the SAR when the reported 
value is not considered reliable. Departure from this suggestion must 
be discussed fully within any affected report.
    Comment 23: The Commission recommends that NMFS require stock 
assessment authors to set PBR to zero in those cases that are not in 
accord with the commonly assumed PBR framework and involve stocks with 
no tolerance for additional human-related removals.
    Response: The revisions to the guidelines encourage reporting PBR 
for all stocks possible and qualifying in the stock assessment report 
when the reported value is not considered reliable or in cases where a 
stock's dynamics do not conform to the underlying model for calculating 
PBR. At this point, the guidelines are not instructing authors to set 
PBR to zero.
    Comment 24: The Pacific SRG continues to support a decision not to 
report a PBR in the monk seal SAR.
    Response: By ecological theory, i.e., when the assumption of simple 
logistic population growth is reasonable and when a stock's status can 
be attributed to direct anthropogenic impacts, a non-zero estimate of 
PBR is not unreasonable. In the case of Hawaiian monk seal, however, it 
is not apparent that these model assumptions hold. See response to 
Comment 22.
    Comment 25: The Alaska SRG preference would be to have an 
undetermined PBR when assessing endangered stocks. If numerical 
estimates of PBR are to be given in SARs, we recommend that language be 
included clarifying whether negligible impact determinations have been 
made, what they are, and if not, stating that no human-caused takes are 
authorized. We do not agree that this topic is beyond the scope of SARs 
and rather believe that inclusion of such information would help 
readers understand the actual meaning of PBR in this case.
    Response: NMFS disagrees with including negligible impact 
determinations (NIDs) under section 101(a)(5)(E) of the MMPA in the 
SARs. The five criteria (64 FR 28800, May 27, 1999) that NMFS may use 
for making a final determination and issuing 3-year incidental take 
authorizations to Category I and II fisheries are complex and may be 
difficult to relate to the data contained in the SARs, which often 
change on an annual basis. Furthermore, while some NIDs may use 
fisheries bycatch data from the past five years in making an 
assessment, other NID analyses may contain bycatch data from more than 
five years, depending on changes in fisheries, particularly regulatory 
changes such as time/area closures or mandatory bycatch reduction 
methods. In addition, NMFS may use the more recent observer data or 
stranding data, which may not yet be included in the most recent SARs, 
which may also confuse readers. Further, NMFS does not authorize (or 
prohibit) incidental mortalities through the SAR process.

[[Page 10838]]

Comments on Topic 4: Apportioning PBR, Allocating Mortality, and 
Estimating PBR for Transboundary Stocks

    Comment 26: The Commission recommends that NMFS include in their 
stock assessments comparisons of PBR for feeding aggregations, and 
estimate or apportion mortality and serious injury levels for each 
aggregation.
    Response: The workshop participants discussed how feeding ground 
PBRs should be calculated for stocks where there was a desire to 
monitor potential risks to feeding aggregations; however, this was not 
reflected in the recommended revised text for the guidelines nor were 
comments solicited on this issue. NMFS is not including text regarding 
apportioning PBR among feeding aggregations in this revision of the 
guidelines.
    Comment 27: The Commission recommends that NMFS apply the total 
unassigned mortality and serious injury to each affected stock in both 
data-rich and data-poor cases involving taking of mixed stocks that 
cannot be or are not identified in the field. Doing so is the only way 
to be precautionary and also provides the appropriate incentive to 
develop better information about the affected stocks.
    Response: NMFS disagrees and believes that the guidelines are 
sufficiently conservative at this time.
    Comment 28: The Commission recommends that NMFS discourage the use 
of informed interpolation, require strong justification where it is 
used, and require that it be accompanied by reasonable measures of 
uncertainty associated with the interpolation.
    Response: The revised guidelines allow for the use of informed 
interpolation (i.e., model-based abundance estimation) as appropriate 
and supported by existing data. NMFS has added text to the guidelines 
specifying that when informed interpolation is employed, the Report 
should provide justification for its use and associated measure of 
uncertainty. As a point of clarification, informed interpolation is not 
a person making an informed judgement; it is a model that is informed 
by the covariation between habitat or other variables and density that 
is making the ``judgement.''
    Comment 29: We support the recommendation of assigning the total 
unassigned mortalities and serious injuries to each stock within the 
appropriate geographic area.
    Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment.
    Comment 30: NMFS should not assign the ``unassigned mortality and 
serious injury'' to each stock within the affected geographic area as 
it would effectively double count these human interactions and affect 
the PBR of multiple stocks. Instead, NMFS should develop methodology 
based on the best available data to assign the serious injury and 
mortality according to the relative abundance of the stocks. When this 
is not possible, serious injury and mortality should remain unassigned 
to avoid arbitrary determinations.
    Response: The revised guidelines direct that in data poor 
situations with mixed stocks, when relative abundances are unknown, the 
total unassigned mortality and serious injuries should be assigned to 
each stock within the appropriate geographic area. NMFS and workshop 
participants recognize that this approach effectively would repeatedly 
``count'' the same deaths and serious injuries against multiple stocks. 
However, this approach is considered to be the most conservative in 
terms of ensuring that the most severe possible impacts were considered 
for each stock. The revised guidelines instruct that when deaths and 
serious injuries are assigned to each overlapping stock in this manner, 
the Reports will contain a discussion of the potential for over-
estimating stock-specific mortality and serious injury.
    Comment 31: NMFS's proposal to identify transboundary or high seas 
stocks with no available population data is contrary to the MMPA.
    Response: NMFS did not propose to identify transboundary or high 
seas stocks with no available population data. Rather, the workshop 
discussions involved estimating range-wide abundance and PBR for 
transboundary stocks, and specifically, addressing the problem of 
managing transboundary marine mammal stocks for which PBR is estimated 
based on abundance from only a portion of each stock's range (for 
example, PBR levels for transboundary stocks being estimated based on 
abundance surveys that occur only within the U.S. EEZ). Although it is 
inappropriate to simply extrapolate abundance estimates to an 
unsurveyed area, the revised guidelines allow for the use of model-
based density estimation to fill gaps in survey coverage and estimate 
abundance and PBR over broader areas as appropriate and supported by 
existing data. In such cases, the Report should provide justification 
for use of interpolation and associated measure of uncertainty.
    Comment 32: NMFS must ensure that it prioritizes collection of data 
necessary to support interpolations when full assessments are not 
possible. In cases where a partial survey is conducted and methods of 
interpolation or modeling are not incorporated, serious injuries and 
mortalities should only be counted if they occur in the portion of the 
stock that was surveyed.
    Response: NMFS agrees surveys should ideally cover the entirety of 
the stock range. When this is not possible, Nmin is defined 
under the MMPA as an estimate of the number of animals in a stock that 
provides reasonable assurance that the stock size is equal to or 
greater than the estimate, so a partial survey can be used to calculate 
Nmin and PBR. All human-caused mortality and serious injury 
needs to be accounted for under the MMPA, so injuries or deaths that 
are known to come from a stock must be apportioned to that stock even 
if the abundance is underestimated. The solution to this mismatch is 
not to ignore human-caused mortality and serious injury (which is 
contrary to the MMPA), but to conduct adequate surveys or develop 
models to obtain complete abundance estimates.
    Comment 33: The apportionment of PBR to foraging grounds between 
surveyed and un-surveyed areas appears to be a significant problem in 
the absence of data and lacks scientific justification. It appears that 
this will be based on untested assumptions regarding stock 
distributions. Assuming uniform distribution will have animals present 
where they may not exist or exist only seasonally.
    Response: NMFS agrees that it is not appropriate to assume uniform 
distribution between surveyed and unsurveyed areas, and as such 
discourages the use of extrapolation. The workshop participants 
discussed this issue, and the background paper on this topic suggested 
that informed modeling exercises may sometimes be appropriate or 
necessary for management decisions and to ensure that stocks remain as 
functioning elements of the ecosystem. Therefore, the revised 
guidelines state, ``abundance or density estimates from one area should 
not be extrapolated to unsurveyed areas to estimate range-wide 
abundance (and PBR). But, informed interpolation (e.g., based on 
habitat associations) may be used to fill gaps in survey coverage and 
estimate abundance and PBR over broader areas as appropriate and 
supported by existing data.''
    Comment 34: Given the known lack of general data and uncertainty of 
existing data, it appears that it will be difficult to accurately use 
separate PBRs for marine mammal populations with multiple feeding 
grounds. To the extent that this is understood, information pertaining 
to separate feeding

[[Page 10839]]

aggregations should be noted in the stock assessment reports, but 
separate PBRs should not be used for stocks with multiple feeding 
grounds. There is a significant risk that ``unassigned mortality and 
serious injury'' could be wrongly assigned and result in erroneous 
estimates to one or more populations. To avoid arbitrary assignments, 
when this is not possible, serious injury and mortality should remain 
unassigned.
    Response: See response to Comment 26.
    Comment 35: The section on apportioning PBR among feeding 
aggregations does not provide clear guidance for cases like eastern 
Pacific gray whales and whether the Pacific Coast Feeding Group is a 
stock or not, a case where there may be mitochondrial differences 
between feeding areas but all animals go to a common breeding area.
    Response: The current Guideline revisions do not address 
apportioning PBR among feeding aggregations. See response to Comment 
26.
    Comment 36: Separate PBRs for stocks with multiple feeding grounds 
should not be used. Separating PBR among feeding stocks is complicated 
and data-intensive, and is unlikely to improve management. NMFS is 
rarely able to adequately determine which portion of the stock was 
involved in a human interaction.
    Response: See response to Comment 26.
    Comment 37: There is concern that failure to estimate a population-
wide PBR in the assessments will lead to the reliance on the proposed 
default of assuming the population is in decline. The agency should 
develop an assessment methodology based on the best available data and 
devise a statistically sound interpolation algorithm to fill in gaps in 
survey coverage and estimate abundance over the range of the 
population. If this is not developed then there is a very strong 
possibility that assessment scientists will discount or not utilize 
historical estimates derived from multiple surveys spanning multiple 
geographic regions in one year, and/or limited surveys the following 
year.
    Response: NMFS recognizes the need to estimate population-wide PBR 
for marine mammal stocks, which is why the revised guidelines allow for 
the use of informed interpolation (i.e., model-based abundance 
estimation) to fill gaps in geographical survey coverage. Where 
interpolation is employed, the Reports should include a statement about 
the level of uncertainty surrounding the estimates.
    Comment 38: Priority for research should be given to stocks for 
which serious injury and mortality exceeds PBR and for which additional 
management action is required under take reduction plans. In cases 
where this is not possible, NMFS must consider the availability of data 
for interpolation or informed modeling exercises to obtain abundance 
estimates for the full range of the stock. This strategy requires 
careful coordination with Canada for transboundary stocks. If timely 
and robust data are not available, NMFS should not make stock 
assessment determinations.
    Response: Staffs from NMFS Science Centers, Regional Offices, and 
Headquarters Offices communicate regularly to discuss science needed to 
support management and to help prioritize research efforts. This 
includes discussion of stocks for which human-caused mortality and 
serious injury exceed PBR and take reduction planning needs. The 
revised guidelines allow for the use of informed interpolation (e.g., 
based on habitat associations) to fill gaps in survey coverage and 
estimate abundance and PBR, as appropriate and when supported by 
existing data.

Comments on Topic 5: Reporting of Mortality and Serious Injury

    Comment 39: The Commission recommends that NMFS require a summary 
of all human-caused mortality and serious injury in each stock 
assessment report. Efforts to meet that requirement will almost 
certainly vary, perhaps markedly. With that in mind, the Commission 
encourages NMFS to re-examine those report sections after one to two 
years to identify the most effective reporting strategies that could 
then be used to develop a consistent and informative reporting 
approach.
    Response: Section 117 of the MMPA requires that all sources of 
human-caused mortality and serious injury be included in stock 
assessments. NMFS makes every effort to include these sources of 
anthropogenic mortality and serious injury in each stock assessment, 
whether the mortality or serious injury is systematically recorded by 
fishery observer programs or through opportunistic records, such as 
strandings, where the cause of death or serious injury can be linked to 
human-related causes. NMFS understands that clearly presenting these 
mortality and serious injury data in the SARs is an important part of 
allowing the public to interpret the status of marine mammal stocks. 
Every effort will be made to continue to improve the way in which 
mortality and serious injury are reported in the SARs.
    Comment 40: The Alaska SRG believes that extensive tabling of 
interactions between marine mammals and commercial fisheries should be 
confined to an Appendix, with only a summary table that includes 
mortality in the various Federal groundfish fisheries, state water 
fisheries, and international transboundary fisheries included in the 
body of the assessment. The strategy of summarizing fishery 
interactions should lead to a single clearly-documented estimate of 
mortality and associated variance for all fisheries combined with easy 
access to details available preferably in an online appendix.
    Response: NMFS makes every effort to present fishery interaction 
data simply in the body of each SAR, whether in the text, tabular form, 
or both. The agency feels that it is valuable to have all interaction 
data appear within the SAR itself (although some regions also currently 
include a separate Appendix describing those fisheries that interact 
with marine mammals). NMFS also produces stand-alone injury 
determination and bycatch papers by region, which has reduced the 
amount of information that needs to go into the SARs, as they are 
incorporated by reference. The agency will continue to improve the 
clarity of how interaction data are presented within the SARs.
    Comment 41: The SARs tend to lag approximately two years behind in 
incorporating available observer bycatch data. For some fisheries that 
have 100-percent observer coverage such as the Hawaii-based swordfish 
fishery, such bycatch data are available in near real-time. Review of 
new data should be conducted promptly given that PBR, the zero 
mortality rate goal, and strategic status for stocks are all based on 
the most recent SAR.
    Response: Bycatch data for most fisheries are not available in 
real-time and every effort is made to produce and incorporate new 
bycatch estimates from observer data in a timely manner into the draft 
SARs. SARs are typically drafted in the autumn of each year, with 
previous calendar year observer data representing the most up-to-date 
full-year information. For example, draft 2016 SARs will be prepared in 
the autumn of 2015 for review by regional Scientific Review Groups in 
early 2016. These draft 2016 reports will utilize bycatch data from 
calendar year 2014 if available, thus the 2-year time lag between the 
year the reports are published and the year of the most recent bycatch 
data.

[[Page 10840]]

Comments on Topic 6: Determining When Stock Declines Warrant a 
Strategic Designation

    Comment 42: In an apparent attempt to interpret the MMPA definition 
of strategic stock, the proposed guidelines suggest that a ``strategic 
stock'' is a stock that ``is declining and has a greater than 50 
percent probability of a continuing decline of at least five percent 
per year.'' However, in reality, a stock that ``has a greater than 50 
percent probability of a continuing decline of at least five percent 
per year'' would not necessarily qualify as ``threatened'' in all 
cases. Rather, the determination of ``threatened'' status under the ESA 
requires a species-specific analysis of specific factors that are 
expressly set forth in the ESA. While NMFS may have the discretion to 
develop a general guideline for determining ``strategic'' status, NMFS 
may not mechanically apply the ``strategic stock'' definition set forth 
in the proposed guidelines.
    Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment and has not made this 
revision to the guidelines. See Response to Comment 43.
    Comment 43: The Commission recommends that NMFS consider any marine 
mammal stock that has declined by 40 percent or more to be strategic. 
Additionally, the Commission and the Humane Society of the United 
States recommend that stocks declining with more than 50 percent 
probability of continuing decline (by at least five percent/year) 
should be treated as strategic with the aim of reducing and reversing 
the stock's decline before a depleted designation is required.
    Response: Section 3(19) of the MMPA defines a ``strategic stock,'' 
as one: ``(A) for which the level of direct human-caused mortality 
exceeds the potential biological removal level; (B) which, based on the 
best available scientific information, is declining and is likely to be 
listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 
within the foreseeable future; or (C) which is listed as a threatened 
species or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 
(16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), or is designated as depleted under this 
Act.'' NMFS has not adopted the workshop-recommended revisions 
regarding a quantitative interpretation of strategic status per section 
3(19)(B) but will continue to analyze how to interpret ``likely to be 
listed as a threatened species under the (ESA) within the foreseeable 
future.'' However, NMFS has finalized the revision regarding declines 
in abundance: ``Stocks that have evidence suggesting at least a 50 
percent decline, either based on previous abundance estimates or 
historical abundance estimated by back-calculation, should be noted in 
the Status of Stocks section as likely to be below OSP. The choice of 
50 percent does not mean that OSP is at 50 percent of historical 
numbers, but rather that a population below this level would be below 
OSP with high probability.''
    Comment 44: The Alaska SRG supports the quantitative 
recommendations for determining when non-ESA listed stocks should be 
considered as ``strategic.'' We also find the rationale for using 15 
years as ``the foreseeable future'' a reasonable default because it is 
based on a five percent decrease over a 15-year period resulting in a 
50 percent decline.
    Response: At this time, NMFS is not adopting the recommended 
changes related to strategic status of stocks that are declining and 
likely to be listed as a threatened species under the ESA within the 
foreseeable future.
    Comment 45: The Alaska SRG agrees with the working group's 
recommendation that a Recovery Factor scaled from 0.1 to 0.5 be 
associated with stocks that are declining and likely to be listed as a 
threatened species under the ESA within the foreseeable future. In some 
cases where a decline is steep and ongoing or where the uncertainty 
about the population or causes of the decline are high a lower recovery 
factor could be warranted. We also recommend that there be a more 
formal process for NMFS to regularly review non-ESA listed stocks of 
concern to determine their status.
    Response: As we are not finalizing the recommended changes 
regarding strategic stock designation (sec. 3(19)(B) of the MMPA), 
above, we have decided not to revise the guidelines regarding recovery 
factors under such situations at this time. Each time a SAR is 
reviewed, the status of the stock is evaluated.
    Comment 46: While the revisions in the guidelines are a step toward 
developing criteria for a strategic designation, and using the 
threatened species recovery factors seems prudent, this revision falls 
short of setting timeframes to evaluate whether a stock should be 
reclassified.
    Response: It is unclear whether the commenter is referencing 
evaluation timeframes under the MMPA (sec. 117(c)(1)) or the ESA 
(relative to the interpretation of sec. 3(19)(B) of the MMPA). Stock 
assessments are reviewed by NMFS every three years for non-strategic 
stocks or every year for strategic stocks. This sets the timeframe for 
evaluating whether a stock's status should be revised. See response to 
Comment 45 regarding MMPA sec. 3(19)(B).
    Comment 47: The Pacific SRG supports the revision of when stock 
declines merit a strategic designation but suggests wording changes 
that give NMFS more flexibility surrounding the obligation to determine 
when a stock is depleted prior to classifying it as strategic. The SRG 
recommends that the NMFS regularly review whether a ``depleted'' status 
is warranted for (1) unlisted stocks of marine mammals that are 
declining and (2) stocks listed as depleted that are recovering.
    Response: NMFS acknowledges this comment, and agrees that the 
depleted status of marine mammal stocks should be reviewed periodically 
to ensure that designations are appropriate. We are currently 
evaluating information contained within a review of the SARs conducted 
by the Commission and will, as a part of this evaluation, consider 
whether there is more that NMFS should to do enhance consistency and 
accuracy with regard to depleted status of marine mammal stocks on a 
more regular basis.
    Comment 48: Given the challenges facing NMFS to collect timely data 
covering the full range of stocks already designated as strategic, NMFS 
should not adopt new guidelines to take on the responsibility of 
delineating strategic stocks that are not designated under the ESA. 
There is already an acceptable federal process under the ESA to 
designate strategic stocks.
    Response: The ESA does not designate stocks as strategic or non-
strategic. Rather, the MMPA directs stocks be considered strategic if 
ESA-listed (i.e., threatened or endangered), depleted, or human-caused 
mortality exceeds PBR. Additionally section 3(19)(B) allows for 
strategic designations of a stock that is declining and is likely to be 
listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 
within the foreseeable future. At this time, we are not finalizing the 
recommended changes regarding strategic stock designation (sec. 
3(19)(B) of the MMPA).

Comments on Topic 7: Assessing Stocks Without Abundance Estimates or 
PBR

    Comment 49: The Alaska SRG supports the suggested guideline 
modifications relating to the use of trend monitoring. However, small 
changes to the guidelines will do very little to improve the situation. 
More substantive changes and new approaches are needed and have been 
described.
    Response: NMFS agrees that it would be valuable to identify 
alternative

[[Page 10841]]

approaches for assessing stock status, apart from reliance on abundance 
survey data, in regions where regular surveys are cost-prohibitive. As 
noted in the guidelines, such approaches could include trend monitoring 
at index sites. However, developing guidelines for alternative 
assessment methods was not a focus of the GAMMS III workshop. NMFS will 
make efforts to consider how alternative sets of information could be 
used to aid its marine mammal stock assessments. See responses to 
Comment 3 and Comment 4.
    Comment 50: Based on the statutory mandate to use the PBR formula, 
NMFS should prioritize gathering data for any stocks with insufficient 
information to calculate levels of abundance, trends, or mortality. 
NMFS should not consider approaches other than those that are mandated 
and should provide admonition that stocks should not automatically be 
determined to be non-strategic in the absence of information. Absence 
of data on the degree of impact to stocks is not the same as data on 
the absence of impacts to stocks.
    Response: NMFS does prioritize its data collection based upon what 
it perceives to be the most critical information gaps. NMFS does not 
make the default assumption that a stock is strategic or non-strategic 
until demonstrated otherwise. See response to Comment 20.
    Comment 51: If a significant data shortage makes it difficult to 
identify unit stocks, then NMFS should make it a high priority to 
remedy this uncertainty that seems crucial to determine ``population 
status.'' What has NMFS done to improve ``best available science'' on 
marine mammal abundance and stock structure?
    Response: NMFS agrees that it is a high priority to improve the 
identification of unit stocks. Consistent with this, the GAMMS III 
workshop participants recommended a national workshop be held to review 
and summarize information that is relevant to population structure. 
NMFS convened such a workshop and has begun developing an internal 
procedure for identifying and prioritizing stocks in need of 
examination for potential revisions that would complement and be 
integrated into the stock delineation workshop outputs and the existing 
SAR process.
    Comment 52: Given that the MMPA provides significant latitude in 
data sources for affected species and to the extent that ``anecdotal 
information'' and ``unpublished information'' are used, ``trend 
monitoring'' information from the fishermen who are out there every day 
should be used in stock assessments.
    Response: Various sources of information could be used to estimate 
trends as long as the information is credible and compatible with 
existing statistical or modeling frameworks.

Comments on Topic 8: Characterizing Uncertainty

    Comment 53: The Commission recommends that NMFS include all 
relevant sources or measures of uncertainty in stock assessment 
documents. Such indicators of uncertainty are essential for readers to 
form reliable conclusions regarding the status of the affected stocks 
and the factors affecting them.
    Response: NMFS agrees that information on key sources of 
uncertainty should be made explicit in the Reports, and this has been 
added to the revised guidelines.
    Comment 54: The Pacific SRG has strived over the years to make the 
SARs models of conciseness, and the proposed guidelines could reverse 
these efforts. SARs should be summaries of significant results and 
conclusions and not lengthy discussions including detailed descriptions 
of methods and repetitive caveats. The recommendation to include 
statements regarding uncertainty about parameters affecting PBR has 
been made by the Pacific SRG previously, which envisioned a brief 
separate ``Uncertainties'' section summarizing significant sources of 
uncertainty in the stock assessment. Lengthy discussions of uncertainty 
embedded in each SAR section reduce clarity and readability. Additions 
such as points of contact could be placed in an appendix to each set of 
SARs, but not be placed in each individual SAR.
    Response: NMFS agrees that discussions of uncertainty should be 
added in a way that will not detract from the clarity and readability 
of the stock assessment reports and will not add appreciably to the 
length of those reports. The workshop participants' recommended 
addition of providing a point of contact has not been incorporated.
    Comment 55: The Alaska SRG supports changes to guidelines that 
would help ensure that SARs provide adequate evaluations of 
uncertainty. We recommend a `report card' format as suggested by 
workshop attendees that will likely be more user-friendly and promote 
consistency between regional SARs. Additionally, this format would be 
more concise than the text additions recommended in the GAMMS III 
proposed guidelines. This report card could include the proportion of 
fisheries monitored within the last five years that might be 
interacting with strategic stocks.
    Response: NMFS agrees that quantitative criteria should be used to 
evaluate the uncertainty in marine mammal stock assessment reports and 
that a ``report card'' may be a good format for presenting this 
information. The quantitative criteria and format for this has not yet 
been finalized and is not specified in the revised guidelines. The 
workshop participants also saw merit to the report card, but there was 
general agreement that such information would be better conveyed as a 
periodic publication, such as in a NOAA Technical Memorandum, which 
could be considered by the SRGs.
    Comment 56: The Alaska SRG supports including a characterization of 
uncertainty in the Status of Stocks section, and recommends that it be 
described as ``reliable,'' ``moderately reliable,'' or ``unreliable'' 
as a clear way to characterize the overall utility of the status 
determination. We also support the suggestion that an overall 
assessment of the quality of SARs be conducted periodically and 
reported as Tech Memos, but not as a substitute for the ``report 
cards'' in the individual SARs.
    Response: Uncertainty comes in many gradations, and the method of 
determining PBR for human-caused mortality and serious injury was 
specifically designed to be effective at achieving management 
objectives in the face of many sources and levels of uncertainty. 
Furthermore, the revised guidelines recommend that the most prevalent 
sources of uncertainty in determining stock status and PBR levels be 
identified so that future research can be better directed at reducing 
these sources of uncertainty.

Comments on Topic 9: Expanding SARs To Include Non-Serious Injury and 
Disturbance

    Comment 57: The Commission recommends that NMFS require sections in 
stock assessment reports that identify and characterize non-lethal 
factors that may affect population status.
    Response: Section 117(a)(3) requires NMFS, in consultation with the 
appropriate regional scientific review group, to include other factors 
that might be causing a decline or impeding recovery of a strategic 
stock, including effects on marine mammal habitat and prey. While 
inclusion of non-lethal factors may be a useful qualitative approach, 
such factors cannot be compared to PBR to assess population status. 
Furthermore, other environmental documents such as

[[Page 10842]]

environmental assessments or impact statements required under the 
National Environmental Policy Act would contain that information, where 
known. Consistent with SRG recommendations, NMFS is trying to keep the 
SARs concise.
    Comment 58: NMFS should revise the guidelines to delete any 
suggestion that a mere ``disturbance'' or ``non-serious injury'' is 
sufficient to be included in SARs. SARs should only include events--in 
particular commercial fishing events--which cause mortality or serious 
injury, or which can be shown to cause the decline or impede the 
recovery of a strategic stock. This has been NMFS' position in the 
past, it is correct, and it should not be changed.
    Response: The MMPA requires SARs to include an estimate of all 
sources of human-caused mortality and serious injury, not just an 
estimate of commercial fisheries mortality. See response to Comment 57.
    Comment 59: The Alaska SRG agrees that SARs should include the 
annual levels of mortality and serious injury reported through take 
authorizations and research permits in the ``Other Mortality'' section.
    Response: NMFS acknowledges this and is finalizing this text within 
the revised guidelines under the Annual Human-caused Mortality and 
Serious Injury section.
    Comment 60: The MMPA allows for SAR comments on non-lethal factors 
affecting recovery for strategic stocks, and it seems reasonable that 
SARs for non-strategic stocks should also evaluate such factors. 
However, because there is a high degree of uncertainty regarding 
population-level effects of non-lethal injury and disturbance, it is 
inappropriate to include estimates of those takes in the SARs unless 
there is evidence they are affecting stock recovery. Disturbance and 
non-serious injury do not constitute ``Potential Biological Removal.'' 
While it may be useful for NMFS permit users or others to compare their 
potential for disturbance/injury to a stock's PBR, this falls outside 
the intent of the MMPA-mandated PBR process for managing interactions 
with commercial fisheries.
    Response: The revised GAMMS specify that SARs contain information 
on other factors that may be causing a decline or impeding recovery 
strategic stocks, which we have interpreted as including non-lethal 
effects. As discussed in response to Comment 9, we would report on all 
activities found to be having a detrimental effect on a stock or its 
habitat. Within the SARs, PBR is only compared to takes that are 
determined to be serious injuries or mortalities.
    Comment 61: The guidelines should require a ``Habitat Concerns'' 
section in all new stock assessments. If there are no known habitat 
issues, this should be stated.
    Response: The previous (2005) guidelines direct that if substantial 
issues regarding the habitat of the stock are important, a separate 
section titled ``Habitat Issues'' should be used. Specifically, ``If 
data exist that indicate a problem, they should be summarized and 
included in the Report. If there are no known habitat issues or other 
factors causing a decline or impeding recovery, this should be stated 
in the Status of the Stock section.'' This section of the guidelines 
was not changed in this revision.

    Dated: February 26, 2016.
Perry F. Gayaldo,
Deputy Director, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 2016-04537 Filed 3-1-16; 8:45 am]
 BILLING CODE 3510-22-P