Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Notice of 12-Month Finding on a Petition To List the Caribbean Electric Ray as Threatened or Endangered Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), 47763-47775 [2016-17397]

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[FR Doc. 2016–17305 Filed 7–21–16; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–KE–P DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [Docket No. 131105931–6595–02] ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES RIN 0648–XC970 Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Notice of 12-Month Finding on a Petition To List the Caribbean Electric Ray as Threatened or Endangered Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and AGENCY: VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Notice of 12-month finding and availability of status review document. We, NMFS, announce a 12month finding and listing determination on a petition to list the Caribbean electric ray (Narcine bancroftii) as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). We have completed a comprehensive status review of the species in response to a petition submitted by WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife and considered the best scientific and commercial data available. Based on the best scientific and commercial data available, including the status review report (Carlson et al. 2015), we have determined that the species is not currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range and is not likely to become so within the foreseeable future. Therefore, we conclude that the Caribbean electric ray does not warrant listing at this time. DATES: This finding was made on July 22, 2016. ADDRESSES: The Caribbean electric ray status review document associated with this determination and its references are available by submitting a request to the Species Conservation Branch Chief, Protected Resources Division, NMFS Southeast Regional Office, 263 13th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701–5505, Attn: Caribbean Electric Ray 12-month Finding. The report and references are also available electronically at: http:// sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/protected_ resources/listing_petitions/index.html. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Jennifer Lee, NMFS, Southeast Regional Office (727) 551–5778; or Marta Nammack, NMFS, Office of Protected Resources (301) 427–8469. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: SUMMARY: Background On September 7, 2010, we received a petition from WildEarth Guardians to list the Caribbean electric ray as threatened or endangered throughout its historical and current range and to designate critical habitat within the territory of the United States concurrently with listing the species under the ESA. On March 22, 2011 (76 FR 15947), we made a 90-day finding that the petition did not present substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted. On March 22, 2012, we received a 60day notice of intent to sue from WildEarth Guardians on the negative PO 00000 Frm 00018 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 47763 90-day finding. On February 26, 2013, WildEarth Guardians filed a Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, on the negative 90-day finding. On October 1, 2013, the Court approved a settlement agreement under which we agreed to accept a supplement to the 2010 petition, if any was provided, and to make a new 90-day finding based on the 2010 petition, the supplement, and any additional information readily available in our files. On October 31, 2013, we received a supplemental petition from WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife. On January 30, 2014, we published a 90day finding with our determination that the petition presented substantial scientific and commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted (79 FR 4877). In our 90-day finding, we requested scientific and commercial information from the public to inform the status review on the species. Specifically, we requested information on the status of the Caribbean electric ray throughout its range including: (1) Historical and current distribution and abundance of this species throughout its range; (2) historical and current population trends; (3) life history and habitat requirements; (4) population structure information, such as genetics data; (5) past, current and future threats specific to the Caribbean electric ray, including any current or planned activities that may adversely impact the species, especially information on destruction, modification, or curtailment of habitat and on bycatch in commercial and artisanal fisheries worldwide; (6) ongoing or planned efforts to protect and restore the species and its habitat; and (7) management, regulatory, and enforcement information on the species and its habitats. We received information from the public in response to the 90-day finding and incorporated relevant information in the species status review. Listing Determinations Under the ESA We are responsible for determining whether the Caribbean electric ray is threatened or endangered under the ESA (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.). Section 4(b)(1)(A) of the ESA requires us to make listing determinations based solely on the best scientific and commercial data available after conducting a review of the status of the species and after taking into account efforts being made by any state or foreign nation to protect the species. E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES 47764 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices To be considered for listing under the ESA, a group of organisms must constitute a ‘‘species,’’ which is defined in section 3 of the ESA to include taxonomic species and ‘‘any subspecies of fish, or wildlife, or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.’’ In our 90-day finding we found that the petitioned species constitutes a valid species eligible for listing under the ESA based on the information presented in the petition, along with information readily available in our files. To determine whether the Caribbean electric ray warrants listing under the ESA, we convened a Status Review Team (SRT). The SRT was comprised of NMFS Southeast Fisheries Science Center and NMFS Southeast Regional Office biologists. The SRT reviewed an unpublished dissertation that separated the genus Narcine of the western Atlantic Ocean into two species: N. brasiliensis, and N. bancroftii (de Carvalho 1999). The SRT noted some taxonomic uncertainty (see Taxonomy and Species Description), but accepted de Carvalho (1999) as the best available information on the species taxonomy. Narcine bancroftii is recognized as a valid species in the Catalog of Fishes, the authoritative reference for taxonomic fish names and taxonomic revision (Eschmeyer 2015). We accept both de Carvalho (1999) and Eschmeyer (2015) as the best available science at this time, thus we maintain that Narcine bancroftii is a valid species eligible for listing. When we consider whether a species might qualify as threatened under the ESA, we must consider the meaning of the term ‘‘foreseeable future.’’ It is appropriate to interpret ‘‘foreseeable future’’ as the horizon over which predictions about the conservation status of the species can be reasonably relied upon. The foreseeable future considers the life history of the species, habitat characteristics, availability of data, particular threats, ability to predict threats, and the ability to forecast the effects of these threats and future events on the status of the species under consideration. Because a species may be susceptible to a variety of threats for which different data are available, or which operate across different time scales, the foreseeable future is not necessarily reducible to a particular number of years or a single timeframe. Under section 4(a) of the ESA, we must determine whether any species is endangered or threatened due to any of the following five factors: (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence (sections 4(a)(1)(A) through (E)). The SRT completed a status review report, which summarized the best available information on the taxonomy, distribution, abundance, life history and biology of the species, analyzed the threats identified as potentially impacting the status of the species, and conducted an extinction risk analysis (ERA) to determine the status of the species. The results of the ERA are discussed below under ‘‘Extinction Risk Analysis.’’ The status review report incorporates relevant information received from the public in response to our request for information (79 FR 4877; January 30, 2014). The draft status review report was submitted to 3 independent peer reviewers and comments and information received from the peer reviewers were addressed and incorporated as appropriate into the draft report before finalizing it. The peer review report is available at http:// www.cio.noaa.gov/services_programs/ prplans/PRsummaries.html. Section 3 of the ESA defines an endangered species as ‘‘any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range’’ and a threatened species as one ‘‘which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.’’ Thus, we interpret an ‘‘endangered species’’ to be one that is presently in danger of extinction. A ‘‘threatened species’’ is not currently in danger of extinction but is likely to become so within the foreseeable future. The key statutory difference between a threatened and endangered species is the timing of when a species may be in danger of extinction, either presently (endangered) or in the foreseeable future (threatened). In determining whether the species meets the standard of endangered or threatened, we considered the specific life history and ecology of the species, the nature of threats, the species’ response to those threats, and population numbers and trends. We considered information summarized in the status review report (Carlson et al. 2015). We considered each threat that was identified, both individually and cumulatively. For purposes of our analysis, the mere identification of factors that could impact a species negatively is not sufficient to compel a PO 00000 Frm 00019 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 finding that ESA listing is appropriate. In considering those factors that might constitute threats, we look beyond mere exposure of the species to the factor to determine whether the species responds, either to a single or multiple threats, in a way that causes actual impacts to the species’ status. In making this finding, we have considered and evaluated the best available scientific and commercial information, including information received in response to our 90-day finding. The following sections provide key information presented in the status review report (Carlson et al. 2015). Summary of the Status Review Life History, Biology and Ecology Taxonomy and Morphology Narcine bancroftii is a species in the phylum Chondrata, class Chondrichthyes, order Torpediniforms and family Narcinidae. Common names for this species include the lesser electric ray, Bancroft’s numbfish, and Caribbean electric ray. The SRT titled the status review report and referred to the species in its report as the ‘lesser electric ray’ because the species is almost unanimously referred to as the lesser electric ray, including in the published literature. In our finding, we retain the use of ‘Caribbean electric ray’ for the sole purpose of being consistent with the petitioned action. Rays within the genus Narcine, collectively known as numbfishes, occur globally in temperate to tropical marine waters and according to Eshmeyer (2015) are composed of 23 species. Until recently, rays of the genus Narcine within the western North Atlantic Ocean were considered to be one widely distributed species, N. brasiliensis (von Olfers 1831). However, Garman (1913) was the first to notice that there was sufficient regional variability among individuals and suggested that N. brasiliensis could be separated into two distinct species. Later, in a taxonomic revision of the genus Narcine, de Carvalho (1999) separated numbfishes of the western Atlantic Ocean into two species: N. brasiliensis, known as the Brazilian electric ray, and N. bancroftii (Griffith and Smith 1834), known as Bancroft’s numbfish, or more commonly, the lesser electric ray. N. brasiliensis is thought to range from southeastern Brazil to northern Argentina, whereas N. bancroftii is reported to range from North Carolina to northeastern Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) and the Caribbean Sea (de Carvalho 1999). The SRT noted that ‘‘the taxonomy of Narcine in the western Atlantic Ocean E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices remains uncertain because taxonomic changes are sometimes accepted in ichthyology without adequate or supporting proof and the de Carvalho (1999) study remains unpublished.’’ The SRT pointed out the need for a geneticsbased examination (e.g., mitochondrial DNA analysis) of Narcine specimens from throughout their known range in the western Atlantic Ocean to support the presence of two distinct species. However, as we previously discussed (see Listing Determinations Under the ESA), we accept both de Carvalho (1999) and Eschmeyer (2015) as the best available science at this time, thus we maintain that Narcine bancroftii is a valid species eligible for listing. ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES Species Description The Caribbean electric ray is a small, shallow-water batoid characterized by a flattened, oval-shaped disc, large pelvic fins, and oversized dorsal and caudal fins that cover most of its tapering tail (Tricas et al. 1997). The dorsal surface of the Caribbean electric ray varies from a light yellow brown to a darker greyish brown with dark blotches over the snout and small incomplete eyespots over the disc and base of the tail. The underside of the species is white or cream colored sometimes with grey or brown blotches (McEachran and Carvalho 2002). The Caribbean electric ray has two electric organs that can produce 14–37 volts of electricity (Smith 1997; Tricas et al. 1997). Outlines of these kidney-shaped electric organs may be visible behind the eyes as well as spiracles with rounded tubercles along the edges next to the eyes (Smith 1997). Each organ consists of a honeycomb of 280 to 430 columns, containing several hundred electric plates, and the organs combined account for about a sixth of total body weight (Tricas et al. 1997). Range and Distribution The Caribbean electric ray is widely distributed in warm temperate to tropical waters of the western Atlantic from North Carolina, through the GOM, the Caribbean, the Lesser and Greater Antilles, and the north coast of South America (McEachran and de Carvalho 2002). Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) wrote: ‘‘This Electric Ray has been reported from localities so widely distributed, and it is so well represented in the larger museums of both America and Europe, that it is expected anywhere in the American littoral [zone], provided that the type of bottom and depth be suitable . . .’’ The southern extent of the range of Caribbean electric rays is uncertain. De Carvalho (1999) reported specimens taken from the southern hemisphere off VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 the State of Bahia, Brazil, however, McEachran and de Carvalho (2002) later placed the southern extent of the range within the northern hemisphere off Venezuela. The Caribbean electric ray exhibits a patchy distribution throughout its range and is locally abundant in areas that contain specific habitat characteristics. Fishery independent trawl surveys in the Gulf of Mexico show that the species is patchily distributed (see Abundance and Trends). The species’ local abundance is best documented by Rudloe (1989a) who found Caribbean electric rays abundant in barrier beach surf zones and adjacent passes between barrier islands at depths of 8–16 m around Cape San Blas, Florida, in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Rudloe (1989a) collected 3,913 rays from March 1985 to March 1987 from sites in those areas at rates ranging from 3–31 rays per hour. Rudlow (1989a) points out that ‘‘the rays were concentrated over an extremely limited area on each bar’’ and that ‘‘As little as several tens of meters change in position could determine whether there were two or 20 rays in the catch.’’ Further, data indicate seasonal variation in their local distributions. Rudloe (1989a) suggested that ‘‘rays are localized in their habitats during the warm months at least, and move directly from one preferred locality to another or remain in one area over a period of weeks to months.’’ The species is evidently migratory but its movements are poorly known. Existing information suggests at least some Caribbean electric ray seasonal migrations are likely associated with water temperature. Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) stated: ‘‘Captures of Narcine brasiliensis [bancroftii] off the Texas coast in the months of September, November, and March show that it winters that far north and probably does likewise at least along the southern part of Florida. However, northward along the Atlantic Coast of the United States, to North Carolina, all of the records of it, except one, have been in summer.’’ Similarly, Coles (1915) reported Caribbean electric rays are present only off the northernmost part of their range (North Carolina) during the summer. Rudloe (1989a) stated that within the GOM, rays were caught in the surf zone at Alligator Point, Florida, from March to December, and no rays were taken anywhere in the area from December to February. Funicelli (1975) reported that Caribbean electric rays are found at the deeper ends of their depth range during winter in the northern GOM, particularly during colder months from November–February. PO 00000 Frm 00020 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 47765 Habitat Use The Caribbean electric ray inhabits relatively shallow waters, often within the surf zone (Coles 1910; Fowler 1910; Bigelow and Schroeder 1953; Hoese and Moore 1998; Rudloe 1989a). The Caribbean electric ray generally occupies depths ranging from the intertidal zone to approximately 37 m (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953, Rudloe 1989a); however, there is at least one report of a Caribbean electric ray being captured at a depth of 340 m (Schwartz 2010). Fisheries independent data collected by NMFS verify that the Caribbean electric ray is primarily a shallow water species. From 2002–2013, 5,137 trawls were conducted in the northern GOM at randomly selected stations ranging in depth from 4.7–326 m. A total of 127 Caribbean electric rays were collected, and the mean depth of capture was 9.29 m (range 5.20–17.50 m; S.D. 2.93). Environmental data were collected during these surveys demonstrating that this species inhabits waters ranging in temperature from 21.9–30.2 °C (mean = 27.18 °C; S.D. = 1.57), salinity from 27.7–36.9 ppt (mean = 34.10 ppt; S.D. 2.32), dissolved oxygen from 2.0–3.7 mg/l (mean = 2.85 mg/l; S.D. = 0.99) and turbidity from 0.6–94.0 percent transmissivity (mean = 37.77 percent transmissivity; S.D. = 28.23). These data are consistent with past reports of environmental conditions associated with the presence of Caribbean electric rays (e.g., Gunter 1945, Rudloe 1989a, Steiner et al. 2007). The best available information on the species indicates that it occurs predominately in sand bottom habitats. While Caribbean electric rays have a relatively broad distribution in the western Atlantic Ocean, the species is reported to occur almost exclusively on sand bottom habitats (Coles 1910, Bigelow and Schroeder 1953, Rudloe 1989a). For example, Rudloe (1989a) determined that ‘‘barrier beach surf zones and on [sand]bars adjacent to passes between barrier islands’’ are the preferred habitat for Caribbean electric rays. Both of these habitats are dominated by sand. Anecdotal reports also document Caribbean electric rays exclusively in high energy beach and sandbar habitats. In NMFS fisheriesindependent trawl survey data, all Caribbean electric ray specimens recorded in the GOM were collected over sand bottom habitats. The SRT found only one study of Caribbean electric rays occurring in mud and fine silt habitats (i.e., Dean et al. 2005). Caribbean electric rays are generally nocturnal and spend daylight hours buried under the sand. Rudloe (1989a) E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 47766 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices noted that sampling was limited to night-time when the rays were active. Numerous reports of Caribbean electric ray sightings document that these rays are most commonly found buried in the sand with only their spiracles visible. Age and Growth There are no age and growth studies for this species. McEachran and de Carvalho (2002) report size at birth at 9– 10 cm with maximum growth to 58 cm TL. Observations of Rudloe (1989a) suggest rapid growth during the first year. Rudloe (1989a) estimated that newborn rays less than 14 cm total length (TL) in late summer attain a size of 15–19 cm TL by fall. Rudloe (1989a) reported growth was dormant January and February and then resumed in March, with young attaining a size of 20–29.9 cm TL by the end of their first year. ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES Reproductive Biology Estimates of size at reproductive maturity for male Caribbean electric rays range from 20 to 26 cm TL (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953, Funicelli 1975, de Carvalho 1999, Moreno et al. 2010). Females are reported to reach a larger size than males at reproductive maturity. The smallest reported female with well-developed gonads measured 26 cm TL (Funicelli 1975), and the smallest gravid female measured 27.1 cm TL (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953). Rudloe (1989a) observed that all the females larger than 29 cm TL, both in captivity and collected from the field off Florida, were gravid in July. This indicates that the reproductive cycle is annual, and adult females in the population are capable of reproducing each year. Moreno et al. (2010) verified annual reproduction by mature females. Rudloe (1989a) documents that females give birth off Florida in August and September in the surf zone. Rudloe (1989a) also observed a peak in newborn rays at more offshore Florida locations in November (i.e., at West Pass) and December (i.e., at Cape San Blas), but could not determine if these rays were born offshore or had immigrated from the beach. Rudloe (1989a) did not estimate gestation period of Caribbean electric rays. In the Colombian Caribbean Sea, Moreno et al. (2010) found that the gestation period lasts approximately 4 months, with birth occurring from February to April. The brood size of female Caribbean electric rays has been reported as 14 by Bean and Weed (1911), 4–15 by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953), 5–13 by de Carvalho (1999), and 1–14 by Moreno et al. (2010). VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 Diet and Feeding Status, Abundance and Trends Caribbean electric rays are reported to feed on small, benthic organisms (Moreno et al. 2010). Funicelli (1975) observed annelids in 84 percent of the Caribbean electric ray stomachs he examined from the northern GOM, which was in agreement with the limited data presented by Gudger (1912) and Bigelow and Schroeder (1953). Fishes within the order Anguilliformes were the next most abundant prey (30 percent of individuals), followed by arthropods and molluscs. Arthropods were the dominant prey type found in small individuals less than 300 mm TL (Funicelli 1975). Moreno et al. (2009) and Grijalba-Bendeck et al. (2012) reported similar findings for Caribbean electric rays collected in the Caribbean Sea off Colombia with annelids occurring in the majority of stomachs examined. Both studies reported that arthropods constituted a larger portion of the diet than anguilliform fishes. A diet composed primarily of annelids has also been reported for the closely related Brazilian electric ray (Goitein et al. 1998). Dean and Motta (2004a and b) characterize Caribbean electric ray feeding behavior and kinematics. The Caribbean electric ray is a benthic suction feeder with highly protrusible jaws. The Caribbean electric ray has the ability to protrude its jaws by nearly 100 percent of its head length to excavate buried polychaetes. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Assessment classifies the Caribbean electric ray as Critically Endangered (de Carvalho et al. 2007). The IUCN Red List assessment notes that the species has declined 98 percent since 1972 in the northern GOM according to a study by Shepherd and Myers (2005) of trawl data from the Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program (SEAMAP). The IUCN Red List assessment reports that ‘‘similar high rates of decline are seen in the U.S. coastal areas between Cape Canaveral (Florida) and Cape Hatter[a]s (North Carolina) in U.S. trawl surveys between 1989 and 2001 (a decline to 5% during this period)’’. The IUCN also states that diver survey data from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) program show similar rates of decline for Caribbean electric ray between 1994 and 2004 in eastern Florida and the Florida Keys. The Red List Assessment formed the basis of the petition to list Caribbean electric ray under the ESA. To fully evaluate the above purported declines in abundance and rarity of the species, the SRT attempted to find any and all abundance data related to the species. This included a review of the known scientific literature, internet searches, and communication with state and Federal resource agencies that monitor fisheries. There are no population size estimates available for Caribbean electric rays. The SRT acquired the original data sets used for the IUCN assessment and conducted an independent analysis of these data. The SRT also considered a variety of other smaller datasets and encounter reports it acquired in forming its conclusions about the abundance and trends of the species. While some of these other data were anecdotal in nature and couldn’t be used to statistically assess trends in abundance, the SRT believed they were useful in illustrating recent encounters of the species. Below we provide a summary of each data source considered and of the SRT’s associated findings. Predation and Disease Almost nothing is known of natural predation on the Caribbean electric ray. Presumably its electric organs deter potential predators, such as sharks and dolphins. Rudloe (1989a) reported that tagged rays released off trawlers were repeatedly observed to be actively avoided by both sharks and dolphins that fed heavily on other rays and bony fishes as they were culled overboard. A researcher reported observed consumption of Caribbean electric rays by large red drum that were captured on bottom longlines and dissected. It was not clear to the researcher whether the rays were discarded bycatch that were opportunistically consumed or not (M. Ajemian, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, pers. comm. to Jennifer Lee, NMFS, June 19, 2015). Similarly, there is scant information on disease within the species. Tao (2013) reported that bacteria, such as Vibrio species, are prevalent in the blood of healthy Caribbean electric rays. This condition is not uncommon among chondrichthyan fishes. PO 00000 Frm 00021 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 Gulf of Mexico SEAMAP The primary source of fishery independent data reviewed was Gulf of Mexico SEAMAP data. The NMFS Southeast Fisheries Science Center Mississippi Laboratories have conducted trawl surveys in the northern GOM dating back to the 1950s. Early work was exploratory and often only recorded catch of target species. In 1972 a standardized fall trawl survey began as a part of a resource assessment program. E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices Then in 1982 a standardized summer trawl survey began under the SEAMAP. Finally, in 1987, the SEAMAP was adopted in the fall, thus unifying the two surveys. SEAMAP is a collaborative effort between Federal, state and university programs designed to collect, manage and distribute fishery independent data throughout the region. The primary objective of this trawl survey is to collect data on the abundance and distribution of demersal organisms in the northern GOM. The survey is conducted semi-annually (summer and fall) and provides an important source of fisheries independent information on many commercially and recreationally important species throughout the northern GOM (Pollack and Ingram 2014, Pollack & Ingram 2015). A full description of the historical and current surveys can be found in Nichols (2004) and Rester (2015). Shepherd and Myers (2005) examined trends in elasmobranch abundance from SEAMAP data using the longest continuous temporal coverage (1972– 2002) for the areas between 10 and 110 m in depth near Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana (i.e., statistical zones 11, 13–16). The authors correctly noted that N. brasiliensis has been historically misidentified and is not known to inhabit the GOM. Thus, all N. brasiliensis and Narcine species identified within the trawl survey data were treated as N. bancroftii during the analysis. Using a generalized linear modeling approach to correct for factors unrelated to abundance, Shepherd and Myers (2005) reported a decline of 98 percent since the baseline abundance of Caribbean electric rays in 1972 in the northern GOM, i.e. the number of Caribbean electric rays documented in the survey that year. The SRT also used a generalized linear model approach in its re-analysis of the Gulf SEAMAP data. In statistics, a covariate is a variable that is possibly predictive of the outcome under study. Covariates considered in the analysis that may have affected abundance include year, area, water depth, and time-of-day. Irrespective of statistical methodology, the major difference between Shepherd and Myers (2005) and the analysis conducted by the SRT is the former did not take into account major changes in survey design and how they would affect the relative abundance of electric ray. There also was an apparent misunderstanding of how the catch was sorted. Because there were major changes in survey design and survey coverage between 1972–1986 and 1987–2013 (Pollack and Ingram 2014), the SRT VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 determined that using one continuous time series as Shepherd and Myers (2005) did was inappropriate. Instead, the SRT used three separate time series: Fall SEAMAP 1972–1986, Fall SEAMAP 1988–2013, and Summer SEAMAP 1982–2013. The Fall SEAMAP 1987 trawl survey was omitted from analysis because the cruise track differed from that of all the other surveys (counterclockwise around the northern GOM and missed half of the area off Texas due to weather). The SRT extended the analysis of these survey data 11 years beyond the analysis by Shepherd and Myers (2005), to reflect the best available data and the most complete representation of abundance over time in the survey. Similar to Shepherd and Myers (2005), all N. brasiliensis and Narcine (I, sp. were treated as N. bancroftii for this analysis. The abundance index constructed for Fall SEAMAP 1972–1986 was limited to NMFS statistical zones 11, 13, 14 and 15 (Figure 1). Sampling outside of these zones was inconsistent; therefore, the analysis was limited to this core area. In addition, all stations deeper than 75 m were removed from the dataset since there were no records of Caribbean electric ray occurring at those depths from any year of the survey. There are, in actuality, only two records in the entire SEAMAP data set of Caribbean electric ray occurring beyond 36.5 m, one in 1972 at 42 m and one in 1975 at 64 m (depths for these stations were verified by the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center, http:// www.ngdc.noaa.gov/mgg/coastal/ crm.html). The second index constructed was Fall SEAMAP 1988– 2013. Following the methods outlined for the Fall SEAMAP survey, data for this index were limited to NMFS statistical zones 10–21 (excluding 12), and at stations shallower than 31 m. The third index constructed was Summer SEAMAP 1982–2013. Again following the methods outlined for the previous time series, data for this index were limited to NMFS statistical zones 10— 21 (excluding 12), and at stations shallower than 33 m. There were no discernable trends in relative abundance (CPUEs) of Caribbean electric ray in any of the three Gulf of Mexico SEAMAP indices. All three time series analyzed were relatively flat with peaks in abundance scattered throughout the abundance trend. Within the northern Gulf of Mexico 9,876 tows were included in the analysis, with 624 Caribbean electric rays captured. Most captures occurred off the coast of Louisiana and Texas. Shepherd and Myers (2005) indicated that only 78 individuals were captured PO 00000 Frm 00022 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 47767 from 1972–2002. However, the SRT identified 351 individuals recorded from the same time period, more than four times as many. Shepherd and Myers’ (2005) exclusion of data off Texas explains this partly, but the discrepancy also reflects their lack of understanding of how the data were sampled (See ‘‘sampled versus select’’ discussion in Carlson et al. 2016). The distribution of Caribbean electric ray seems to be heavily concentrated along the barrier islands around south Texas and Mississippi and Louisiana. However, off the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana the survey is conducted from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ship Oregon II, which cannot fish in waters shallower than 9 m due to the vessel’s draft. Presently, efforts are being made to include waters as shallow as two fathoms (4 m) in the sampling universe, but there are only a few research vessels that can sample that shallow. With the proportional allocation of stations by NMFS statistical zone, very few stations may end up in these shallow depths in future survey years. The SRT noted this could lead to a decrease in Caribbean electric rays captured by the survey in the future because SEAMAP is no longer sampling their habitat and therefore would not reflect abundance changes. Overall, the SRT concluded the Caribbean electric ray is a rare species to encounter during the trawl surveys due to their shallowwater habitat and the inability of research vessels to sample that habitat. South Atlantic SEAMAP The SRT also reviewed South Atlantic SEAMAP data. A similar SEAMAP survey occurs in the Atlantic Ocean off the southeastern U.S. East Coast. Samples are collected by trawl from the coastal zone of the South Atlantic Bight between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and Cape Canaveral, Florida. Multilegged cruises are conducted in spring (early April–mid-May), summer (midJuly–early August), and fall (October– mid-November). Stations are randomly selected from a pool of stations within each stratum. The number of stations sampled in each stratum is determined by optimal allocation. From 1990–2000, the survey sampled 78 stations each season within 24 shallow water strata. Beginning in 2001, the number of stations sampled each season in the 24 shallow water strata increased to 102, and strata were delineated by the 4-m depth contour inshore and the 10-m depth contour offshore. In previous years (1990–2000), stations were sampled in deeper strata with station depths ranging from 10 to 19 m in order E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 47768 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES to gather data on the reproductive condition of commercially important penaeid shrimp. Those strata were abandoned in 2001 in order to intensify sampling in the shallower depth-zone. Further details are available in Eldridge (1988). Neither we nor the SRT could find a reference or analysis to support the IUCN Red List assessment’s statement regarding high rates of decline in Caribbean electric rays in U.S. coastal areas between Cape Canaveral, Florida and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The SRT used a generalized linear modeling approach to correct for factors unrelated to abundance to standardize the South Atlantic SEAMAP data following methods similar to the GOM SEAMAP data. Covariates considered in this analysis that may have affected abundance include year, season, area, and sampling statistical zone. Time of day was not included as a covariate as data were discontinuous due to most participating vessels not conducting 24hour operations. The abundance trend for this time series was flat with peaks in abundance of different magnitudes found every 5–10 years. The data showed high inter-annual variability in Caribbean electric ray catches in the survey, and catches were very low throughout, but there was no trend in the catch rates suggestive of a decline in Caribbean electric rays. REEF Data The REEF (www.reef.org) is a dataset that is composed of more than 100,000 visual surveys conducted by volunteer divers during their daily dive activities. This data set has been previously used for evaluating species abundance trends (e.g., Ward-Paige et al. 2010 and references therein) and was referenced in the petition as evidence of the low occurrence of Caribbean electric rays along the east coast of Florida, the GOM, and the northwestern Caribbean. The IUCN had cursorily reviewed 1994–2004 REEF data for apparent trends, but had not conducted a thorough analysis. Because these visual surveys vary in duration, location and diver skill level (experience, including experience in species identification), the SRT applied a generalized linear model to examine standardized rates of change in sighting frequency as an index of abundance. The SRT considered area as a covariate based on 8 major sampling areas from the REEF database: Gulf of Mexico, east coast of Florida, the Florida Keys, the Bahamas (including Turks and Caicos), and the northwestern Caribbean (including Cuba, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Haiti/Dominican Republic), Greater Antilles (Puerto Rico VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 to Grenada), Continental Caribbean (Belize-Panama), and Netherland Antilles. The SRT also considered skill level of the diver (experienced or novice), the bottom type, year, season, water temperature and water visibility as covariates. In the REEF database, Caribbean electric rays were observed on 476 out of 119,620 surveys (0.4 percent). Caribbean electric rays were observed throughout the survey area with sighting records averaging 10–18 percent of the total number of fish in the Antilles, Bahamas, Florida and Central America. Positive occurrences were lowest in the northwest Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The average depth where diver sightings occurred was about 5 meters generally over a habitat where a diver recorded a variety of individual habitats. The final covariates included in the model were year, area and bottom type. The trend in number of occurrences was relatively flat and similar to the other data series that showed high fluctuation across years. Due to the low encounter rate, there was high uncertainty in the abundance trend. The SRT found that relative abundance fluctuated dramatically between years, but found no trend. The final model selected contained year, area and bottom type as covariates with the trend in occurrences relatively flat with the number of encounters rapidly fluctuating over the time series. State Agency Data As noted earlier, the SRT sought additional datasets that were not included in the IUCN Red list Assessment or the petition. Fishery independent data sets with Caribbean electric ray records were obtained from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FFWRI). The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) also provided the SRT with the 6 records it had from all of its fishery-dependent and -independent programs combined. The TPWD fishery-independent nearshore Gulf trawl survey is the only TPWD program that catches Narcine bancroftii somewhat regularly. Trawl collections did not begin coast-wide until 1982 in bays and 1986 in the GOM. Trawl sampling in Sabine Lake began in January 1986, and in East Matagorda Bay in April 1987. The trawl sampling program began in the Texas Territorial Sea (within 16.7 kilometers (km) of shore) in 1984 off Port Aransas (24.1 km either side of each jetty) and was expanded to similar areas off the Sabine Pass, Galveston, Port O’Connor, PO 00000 Frm 00023 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 and Port Isabel jetties in January 1986 (sampling off Port Isabel was restricted to 48.2 km north of the Rio Grande River) (Matlock 1992). TPWD provided trawl data for the three Gulf areas that encounter Caribbean electric rays, i.e., Aransas Pass, Matagorda, and Santiago Pass (Mark Fisher, TPFWD, pers. comm. to Jennifer Lee, NMFS SERO, July 31, 2014). Data from Aransas Pass and Matagorda show increases in abundance especially since early 2000. The trend in abundance for Santiago Pass increases until the late 1990s, then decreases to its original level at the start of the time series. Santiago Pass Caribbean electric ray catches were about 0.1/hour from 1985–1990, increased to 0.4/hour from 1991–2004, then declined back to 0.1/ hour from 2005–present. The FFWRI’s fisheries independent monitoring program uses a stratifiedrandom sampling design to monitor fish populations of specific rivers and estuaries throughout Florida. They use a variety of gears to sample, including small seines, large seines, and otter trawls. The program has long-term data sets for Apalachicola (since 1998), Cedar Key (since 1996), Tampa Bay (since 1989), and Charlotte Harbor (since 1989) along the GOM and Tequesta (since 1997) and Indian River Lagoon (since 1990) on the Atlantic Coast. Despite the large geographic area sampled and the extensive sampling efforts over time, the FFWRI fisheries independent monitoring program has collected very few Caribbean electric rays to date (i.e., 34 specimens). Of these, 13 Caribbean electric rays were collected from Apalachicola (i.e., 2 per year in 1998, 2004, and 2012; 1 per year during 2000–2002 and 2006–2008, and 2010), 15 were collected from Cedar Key (1 per year during 2001–2002 and 2008, 5 in 2004, 2 per year in 2009 and 2012, and 3 in 2013); 4 were collected from Tequesta (2 in 1998, and 2 in 2009), and 1 was collected from each of Tampa Bay (1990) and Indian River Lagoon (1994). The SRT determined it was not appropriate to analyze these data points further due to the rarity of this species within their samples. The SRT also considered the NCDENR data. The SRT determined it was not appropriate to analyze these data points further due to the extreme rarity of this species’ occurrence (i.e., 6 records) within their samples. Shrimp Observer Program The Southeast Fisheries Science Center, Galveston Laboratory, began placing at-sea observers on commercial shrimping vessels in 1992 in the U.S. southeastern region through a E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES cooperative voluntary research effort. In July 2007, a mandatory Federal observer program was implemented to characterize the U.S. Gulf of Mexico penaeid shrimp fishery, and in June 2008, the mandatory program expanded to include the South Atlantic penaeid and rock shrimp fisheries. The program was initiated to identify and minimize the impacts of shrimp trawling on federally managed species. The specific objectives are to (1) estimate catch rates during commercial shrimping operations for target and non-target species, including protected species by area, season and depth; and (2) evaluate bycatch reduction devices designed to eliminate or significantly reduce nontargeted catch. During the voluntary research effort, several different projects were initiated. One project, referred to as a characterization, involved identifying all species in a subsample from one randomly selected net. In the mandatory shrimp observer program, there are approximately 30 species (common, federally managed, etc.) that are selected and subsampled from every sampled net, but other species, including Carribbean electric rays, are only grouped into broad categories (e.g., crustaceans, inverts, finfish). Data associated with commercial trawl bycatch of Caribbean electric rays (recorded as Narcine brasiliensis—Ray, Lesser Electric) in the eastern GOM and off the east coast of the United States were available from the characterization project conducted in 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2007. A total of 1,150 trawls were observed, and the catch was sorted in its entirety to the species level. Across all years, 28 Caribbean electric rays were captured during 4,016.6 hours of trawl effort, with 387 and 763 trawls being observed off the east coast and in the northern GOM, respectively. Due to the low occurrence of Caribbean electric rays, the SRT chose not to develop an index of abundance for this species from these data. The SRT believed the low number of animals captured across all years would make the index relatively uninformative. These data were evaluated in considering bycatch as a potential other manmade factor that may threaten the species. Anecdotal Reports In addition to the datasets reviewed above, the SRT found anecdotal accounts of Caribbean electric rays through various other sources. Many of these additional anecdotal accounts are from YouTube videos by beach goers or forum discussions by boaters and fishermen who encountered the species along the northern Gulf Coast. There are also anecdotal reports by divers around VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 south Florida, along the Atlantic coast, and throughout parts of the Caribbean. A researcher at Auburn University provided anecdotal accounts of Caribbean electric rays along the Fort Morgan Peninsula in Alabama. The researcher observed large numbers of Caribbean electric rays during late summer to early fall over 3 years (2011– 2013) of sampling in that particular area during that particular time of year (Dr. Ash Bullard, to Jennifer Lee, NMFS, pers. com, August 15, 2014). The most common anecdotal encounters are sightings. The sightings typically describe the number of Caribbean electric rays observed at one time as very abundant (e.g., ‘‘lots,’’ ‘‘everywhere’’). One anecdote notes that when you know what to look for they can be seen everywhere. The SRT noted while these reports cannot be used to analyze trends in abundance, they illustrate that people continue to encounter the species in coastal areas around the GOM, South Atlantic, and Caribbean and that when they do the species appears to be locally abundant. Conclusion Based on all times series analyzed by the SRT, including those used to support the listing petition, the SRT found no evidence of a decline in Caribbean electric ray. Differences in reported trends are related to the more robust analysis used by the SRT in the status review. Moreover, the preliminary analyses in our 90-day finding used only ratio estimators, and we did not have the raw data to derive the confidence interval. No discernable trends in abundance of the Caribbean electric ray were detected in any of the three Gulf of Mexico SEAMAP indices or the South Atlantic SEAMP index. The SRT noted the number of encounters did dramatically fluctuate over each time series, but that it was not surprising based on the species’ apparent clustered but patchy distribution over shallow, sandy habitats as documented repeatedly in the literature. As additional support for this characterization, the SRT noted that recent encounters documented through anecdotes indicate the Caribbean electric ray is fairly abundant in specific habitats while consistently absent from others. The SRT was unable to find any historical or current abundance information outside of U.S. waters for the Caribbean electric ray. A noncommercial species, there are no statistics on Caribbean commercial fishery catches or on efforts that would enable an assessment of the population. PO 00000 Frm 00024 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 47769 Threats Evaluation A. The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of Its Habitat or Range The SRT concluded that man-made activities that have the potential to impact shallow sandy habitats include dredging, beach nourishment, and shoreline hardening projects (e.g., groins). These types of activities can negatively impact Caribbean electric rays by removing habitat features (e.g., alteration or destruction of sand bars) and affecting prey species. For example, annelids that Caribbean electric rays prey on are killed or otherwise directly or indirectly affected by large dredgeand-fill projects (Greene 2002). The SRT determined that coastal habitats in the United States are being impacted by urbanization. Coastal habitats in the southern United States, including both the areas along the Atlantic and GOM, have experienced and continue to experience losses due to urbanization. For example, wetland losses in the GOM region of the United States averaged annual net losses of 60,000 acres (24,281 hectares) of coastal and freshwater habitat from 1998 to 2004 (Stedman and Dahl 2008). Although wetland restoration activities are ongoing in this region of the United States, the losses outweigh the gains, significantly (Stedman and Dahl 2008). These losses have been attributed to commercial and residential development, port construction (e.g., dredging, blasting, and filling activities), construction of water control structures, modification to freshwater inflows (e.g., Rio Grande River in Texas), and oil and gas related activities. The oil and gas industry may affect marine resources in a variety of ways, including increased vessel traffic, the discharge of pollutants, noise from seismic surveys, and decommissioning charges. Although routine oil and gas drilling activities generally occur outside of the known depth range of the species, miles of pipelines associated with oil and gas activities may run through Caribbean electric ray habitat. The SRT concluded that the effect or magnitude of effects on Caribbean electric ray habitat from oil and gas activities is unknown. The largest threat is the release of oil from accidental spills. While safety precautions are in place to prevent the probability of spills and to decrease the duration of spills, these events still occur. In the GOM, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was an unprecedented disaster, both in terms of the area affected and the duration of the spill. The Deepwater Horizon incident resulted in injuries to a wide array of E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES 47770 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices resources and habitat across the Northern Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida, including shoreline beaches and sediments, organisms that live on and in the sand and sediment, and fish and shellfish and other invertebrates that live in the water in nearshore ocean-bottom habitats (NOAA 2015, http:// www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/ restoration-planning/gulf-plan/). While there has been no production of oil along the Atlantic coast of the United States to date, there remains the possibility of production in the future. The SRT reported on NOAA’s Restoration Center’s involvement in ongoing coastal restoration activities throughout the southeastern United States. In 2010, NOAA funded coastal restoration activities in Texas and Louisiana using appropriations from The American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009. In Louisiana, where 25 square miles (64.7 square kilometers) of wetlands are lost per year, funding from the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act helps to implement large-scale wetlands restoration projects, including barrier island restoration and terrace and channel construction. The SRT anticipated an increase in large-scale restoration projects in the GOM to mitigate the adverse effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and foster restoration of coastal habitat, including those used by the Caribbean electric ray. Numerous large coastal restoration projects in the GOM are expected to be funded by the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act, Natural Resource Damage Assessment, and Clean Water Act settlement agreements related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Many additional restoration projects will also be funded by the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, beginning in Fiscal Year 2017. While fewer in number, restoration efforts are also expected along coastal areas of the South Atlantic states. For example, funding is expected to be available to support comprehensive and cooperative habitat conservation projects in Biscayne Bay located in south Florida, as one of NOAA’s three Habitat Focus Areas. The SRT concluded the geographic areas in which the Caribbean electric ray occurs are being impacted by human activities. Despite ongoing and anticipated efforts to restore coastal habitats of the GOM and Atlantic off the Southeastern United States, coastal habitat losses will continue to occur in these regions as well as throughout the VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 Caribbean electric ray’s entire range. However, the SRT could find no information on specific effects to the Caribbean electric ray beyond broad statements on the impacts to coastal habitat resulting from development and oil and gas exploration. Data are lacking on impacts to habitat features related to the Caribbean electric ray and/or threats that result in curtailment of the Caribbean electric ray’s range. In October 2015, NOAA published a Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan (PDARP) and Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, which considers programmatic alternatives to restore natural resources, ecological services, and recreational use services injured or lost as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The PDARP presents data on impacts to nearshore habitats and resources, but there are no data specific to Caribbean electric rays. As discussed above, anthropogenic impacts to shallow, soft bottom habitats have been occurring for decades and are expected to continue into the future indefinitely. However, there is no available information that indicates that the Caribbean electric ray has been adversely affected by impacts to the coastal soft bottom habitats they prefer. Sand substrate is not limiting throughout the Caribbean electric ray’s range, and the limited data available on the species’ movements indicate they do travel between areas with suitable habitat. The SRT concluded that predictions of coastal habitat losses adversely impacting the Caribbean ray in the future would be speculative. B. Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or Educational Purposes The SRT details how McEachran and Carvalho (2002) reported for the Narcinidae family that ‘‘flesh of the tail region may be marketed after removal of the electric organs in the larger species, but is generally considered to be mediocre in quality.’’ The SRT notes that in the species-specific account for Caribbean electric ray, McEachran and Carvalho (2002) reported that ‘‘the tail region may be consumed as food and considered of good quality, but it is not targeted regularly by fisheries in the Western Central Atlantic.’’ The SRT found no evidence of commercial or recreational harvest of the species. Interest in the species by those who detect it in the surf zone is largely one of curiosity. As Caribbean electric rays are generally nocturnal and spend daylight hours buried under the sand, they likely go undetected by the general public. Recreational fishermen PO 00000 Frm 00025 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 who are gigging for flounder at night are most likely to encounter this species. The SRT noted there are some anecdotal reports of recreational surf fishermen capturing them in dip-nets; however, available data indicate that captured individuals are released. Scientific research on Caribbean electric rays has been sparse. Rudloe (1989a) collected and studied the ecology of Caribbean electric rays from March 1985 to March 1987, to assess the feasibility of its use in biochemical and neurophysiological research. Rudloe (1989a) reported catching 3,913 rays at several stations from Cape San Blas to Alligator Point, Florida, during this time period. Of these, 3,229 were retained, 455 were tagged and released, and 229 were released untagged due to small size. Funding for research was discontinued after these 2 years of sampling. The SRT uncovered only a few additional studies involving the Caribbean electric ray that post-date the Rudloe study (Dean and Motta 2004a, b; Dean et al. 2005, 2006; Tao 2013). Dr. Mason Dean led a study on Caribbean electric ray husbandry (Dean et al. 2005) and three studies on jaw morphology and feeding behavior (Dean and Motta 2004a, b; Dean et al. 2006). For these studies, samples were collected using a trawl off Cape Canaveral on the east coast of Florida (41 individuals total) and in the northeast portion of the GOM (6 individuals); six individual specimens preserved at the Florida Museum of Natural History that had been collected from Little St. George Island, Florida were also used. Tao (2013), as a Ph.D. candidate at Auburn University, analyzed the blood vascular systems of ten Caribbean electric rays captured in the northern GOM off Alabama for bacteria. The Bullard Laboratory at Auburn University provided the samples for that study, subsequently releasing them alive after collecting external parasites (Dr. Ash Bullard, Auburn University pers. comm. to J. Lee, NMFS, August 15, 2014). Bullard Laboratory at Auburn University sampled an unknown number of additional Caribbean electric rays in accordance with its state collection permit; no record was kept of the number of Caribbean electric rays observed in the field or the total number of individuals examined. A few researchers from the GOM expressed interest in studying the species in the future, but the SRT did not uncover nor are we aware of any directed studies on Caribbean electric rays at this time. Captive display of Caribbean electric rays in public aquaria is extremely rare. Due to their selective food habits (i.e., E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES live polychaete worms) and feeding behavior, they are not easy to keep in aquaria (Rudloe 1989b, Dean et al. 2005). The 2008 American Elasmobranch Society International Captive Elasmobranch Census documented two male electric rays and one female electric ray in captivity. They were recorded as Narcine brasiliensis and were in captivity at a single aquarium. The SRT was unable to determine if these animals were still in captivity or the location of this aquarium. Nevertheless this serves as the only record of electric rays in aquaria. The Gulf Marine Specimens Laboratory sells 6–24 cm wild caught Caribbean electric rays for $126 (http:// www.gulfspecimen.org/specimen/fish/ sharks-and-rays/). However, no more than a few are sold annually, and the cost of collection and delivery greatly reduces the likelihood of their use as student specimens (Jack Rudloe pers. comm. to J. Lee, NMFS, August 15, 2014). The species has apparent fidelity for specific, localized habitats, thus targeting Caribbean electric rays could adversely affect the population. However, the SRT found no information to indicate that commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational overutilization of Caribbean electric rays has occurred or is occurring. Further, based on the information presented above, the SRT did not expect overutilization by any specific industry in the future. C. Competition, Disease and Predation The available data reviewed by the SRT on competition for Caribbean electric ray prey species or other resources, and disease of and predation on Caribbean electric rays, are summarized in the Life History, Biology, and Ecology Section. The SRT found no information to indicate that competition for Caribbean electric ray prey species or other resources (e.g., sandy substrate habitat) is negatively affecting the Caribbean electric ray abundance or survival. The SRT also found no information indicating that predation or disease is impacting Caribbean electric ray abundance and survival. Given the lack of data, the SRT concluded that predictions of whether competition, predation, or disease, may impact the Caribbean electric ray in the future would be entirely speculative. D. Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms The SRT evaluated this factor in terms of whether existing regulations may be inadequate to address potential threats VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 to the species. The SRT concluded that although there were no species-specific regulations, there is no evidence that the lack of such is having a detrimental effect on the Caribbean electric ray. E. Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting Its Continued Existence There are a variety of other natural and manmade factors that may affect the Caribbean electric ray and thus the continued existence of this species. Factors reviewed by the SRT included the species’ life history and habitat use, natural events such as extreme tidal or red tide events, bycatch in commercial fisheries, and climate change. Life History and Habitat Use Rudloe (1989a) believed the species was potentially vulnerable to overharvest as a result of its low rate of reproduction and localized distribution. Caribbean electric rays reproduce annually (Rudloe 1989a, Moreno et al. 2010) with brood sizes ranging from 1– 14 young (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953, de Carvalho et al. 1999, Moreno et al. 2010). While it is generally believed that elasmobranchs exhibit life history traits that make them more susceptible to exploitation (e.g., low fecundity, late age of maturity, slow growth), the limited evidence on Caribbean electric ray lifehistory traits and population parameters (e.g., mature by age 2, females reproduce every year) likely place the species among those elasmobranchs that are more productive. Therefore, the SRT did not consider the species to be vulnerable due to its rate of reproduction. The SRT did believe the species’ patchy distribution and fidelity for specific habitats increases vulnerability, but they did not find evidence of this vulnerability having detrimental effects on the Caribbean electric ray. Thus they believed there was no basis to conclude these traits would increase extinction risk into the future. Natural Events Red tide (Karenia brevis) impacts many species of fish and wildlife in the GOM and along the Florida coast. Karenia brevis produces brevetoxins capable of killing fish, birds, and other marine animals. While red tide events can cause deaths of aquatic species, the SRT has no information on the extent to which red tides may be affecting the Caribbean electric ray. The SRT did not find any reports of red tide resulting in Caribbean electric ray mortalities. There are a couple of reports of mass strandings of electric rays resulting from extremely low tides. The National Park Service at Padre National Seashore PO 00000 Frm 00026 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 47771 reported documenting a dozen or so dead electric rays in the tidal zone of Padre Island, Texas, after an extremely low tide event in the fall. Showing no signs of trauma or disease, officials at the National Park Service at Padre National Seashore attributed the mortalities to the extreme low tide leaving them stranded. The SRT concluded that such events have always occurred occasionally and are expected to continue to occur in the future without affecting overall population abundance. Bycatch in Commercial Fisheries Caribbean electric rays have been incidentally captured by commercial fisheries targeting other species, specifically those fisheries using trawl gear. The likelihood and frequency of exposure to bycatch in fisheries is generally a function of (1) the extent of spatial and temporal overlap of the species and fishing effort, and (2) the likelihood of an interaction resulting in capture and the extent of injury from capture. As stated earlier, data associated with commercial trawl bycatch of Caribbean electric ray in the eastern GOM and off the east coast of the United States are available from the NMFS Observer Program. During 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2007, 1,150 trawls were observed and the catch was sorted in its entirety to the species level. Across all years, 28 Caribbean electric rays were captured during 4,016.6 hours of trawl effort. NMFS observed 387 trawls off the east coast and 763 trawls in the northern GOM over this time period. Trawl duration ranged from 0.1 to 11 hours (mean = 3.48 hours, S.D. = 1.41) and occurred at depths ranging from 0.6 to 71.1 m (mean = 15.08, S.D. = 9.04). In the combined areas there were 0.0070 individuals caught per hour of trawling. Examining area specific Caribbean electric ray catch rates, there were 0.0171 and 0.0015 individuals caught per hour off the east coast and in the GOM, respectively. For trawls with positive catch, there was no significant relationship between trawl duration and the number of individuals captured (F = 0.01, P = 0.92), consistent with what would be expected for a species with a patchy distribution. Based on the number of trawls associated with Caribbean electric ray captures (n = 10) and the total number of trawls observed (n = 1150), the probability of capturing Caribbean electric rays off the east coast and in the GOM is 0.0087 (C.V. = 0.3148). Acevedo et al. (2007) reported on 99 shrimp trawls in the Caribbean Sea off the northern coast of Colombia from E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 47772 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES August to November 2004. These trawls were conducted at depths ranging from 14–72 m. Elasmobranch fishes were captured in 30 of the 99 trawls, including 6 Caribbean electric rays. The six specimens were reported for the months of August and September, the only months in which the species was taken. The SRT believes the capture of six Caribbean electric rays is likely the result of their patchy distribution and not reflective of overall Colombian fleet annual catch per unit of effort levels. The SRT noted that there are few areas of suitable habitat for the species off northern Colombia because the bottoms are rocky or coralline, and that this also makes most areas in that area unsuitable for trawling. Based on that information, the SRT concluded that it did not believe the documented bycatch is particularly notable or cause for concern. The lack of sandy bottom habitat in northern Colombia could also mean that Caribbean electric rays and trawling effort may overlap more in that particular area. However, the SRT did not conclude that documented bycatch in Colombia raises concerns about the status of the species. Overall, the SRT concluded there is no evidence that the bycatch of Caribbean electric ray occurring in U.S. or foreign fisheries, including the Colombia trawl fisheries, has had any past impact on Caribbean electric rays. Given that declines have not been documented in U.S. waters where data are available, there is no reason to suspect that declines are occurring elsewhere in the species’ range. The SRT further found there is no basis to conclude that operations of these fisheries indefinitely into the future would result in a decline in Caribbean electric ray abundance. Climate Change The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that global climate change is unequivocal (IPCC 2007) and its impacts to coastal resources may be significant. There is a large and growing body of literature on past, present, and future impacts of global climate change induced by human activities, i.e., global warming mostly driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Some of the likely effects commonly mentioned are sea level rise, increased frequency of severe weather events, and change in air and water temperatures. NOAA’s climate change web portal provides information on the climate-related variability and changes that are exacerbated by human activities (http://www.climate.gov/ VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 #understandingClimate). The EPA’s climate change Web page also provides basic background information on these and other measured or anticipated effects (http://www.epa.gov/ climatechange/index.html). The SRT concluded that climate change impacts on Caribbean electric rays cannot currently be predicted with any degree of certainty. Climate change can potentially affect the distribution and abundance of marine fish species. Distributional changes are believed to be highly dependent on the biogeography of each species, but changes in ocean temperature are believed likely to drive poleward movement of ranges for tropical and lower latitude organisms (Nye et al. 2009). Evidence of climate change-induced shifts in distribution of marine fish has been recorded in the western Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Northeastern Atlantic (Fodrie et al. 2010, Murawski 1993, Nye et al. 2009). The SRT predicts that increased water levels and warmer water temperatures will have little impact on the species and, if anything, could possibly expand its range off the U.S. east coast. Given what the SRT knows about the species’ current depth distribution, the SRT concluded it is unlikely that sea level rise will have adverse effects. Similarly, because the range of the Caribbean electric ray seems to be restricted to warm temperate to tropical water temperature, the SRT concluded increased water temperatures are unlikely to negatively influence the species and could possibly expand their northern range in the future. Extinction Risk Analysis In addition to reviewing the best available data on potential threats to Caribbean electric rays, the SRT considered demographic risks to the species similar to approaches described by Wainwright and Kope (1999) and McElhany et al. (2000). The approach of considering demographic risk factors to help frame the discussion of extinction risk has been used in many status reviews (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/ species). In this approach, the collective condition of individual populations is considered at the species level, typically according to four demographic viability risk criteria: Abundance, population growth, spatial structure/connectivity, and diversity/resilience. These viability criteria reflect concepts that are wellfounded in conservation biology and that individually and collectively provide strong indicators of extinction risk. Because the information on Caribbean electric ray demographics and threats is PO 00000 Frm 00027 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 largely sparse and non-quantitative, the SRT used qualitative reference levels for its analysis to the extent consistent with the best available information. The three qualitative ‘reference levels’ of extinction risk relative to the demographic criteria used were high risk, moderate risk, and low risk as defined in NMFS’ Guidance on Responding to Petitions and Conducting Status Reviews under the ESA. A species or distinct population segment (DPS) with a high risk of extinction was defined as being at or near a level of abundance, productivity, spatial structure, and/or diversity that places its continued persistence in question. The demographics of a species or DPS at such a high level of risk may be highly uncertain and strongly influenced by stochastic or depensatory processes. Similarly, a species or DPS may be at high risk of extinction if it faces clear and present threats (e.g., confinement to a small geographic area; imminent destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat; or disease epidemic) that are likely to create present and substantial demographic risks. A species or DPS was defined as being at moderate risk of extinction if it is on a trajectory that puts it at a high level of extinction risk in the foreseeable future (see description of ‘‘High risk’’ above). A species or DPS may be at moderate risk of extinction due to projected threats or declining trends in abundance, productivity, spatial structure, or diversity. A species or DPS was defined as being at low risk of extinction if it is not at moderate or high level of extinction risk (see ‘‘Moderate risk’’ and ‘‘High risk’’ above). A species or DPS may be at low risk of extinction if it is not facing threats that result in declining trends in abundance, productivity, spatial structure, or diversity. A species or DPS at low risk of extinction is likely to show stable or increasing trends in abundance and productivity with connected, diverse populations. The SRT evaluated the current extent of extinction risk based on Caribbean electric ray relative abundance trends data and the likelihood the species will respond negatively in the future to potential threats. The foreseeable future is linked to the ability to forecast population trends. The SRT considered the degree of certainty and foreseeability that could be gleaned concerning each potential threat, whether the threat was temporary or permanent in nature, how the various threats affect the life history of the species, and whether observations concerning the species’ response to the threat are adequate to establish a trend. E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES In evaluating the foreseeable future, it is not just the foreseeability of the threats, but also the foreseeability of the impacts of the threats on the species that must be considered. Thus, the nature of the data concerning each threat and the degree to which reliable predictions about their impacts on the species could be made were assessed. There are no data documenting discernable decreases in relative abundance trends or other data showing that Caribbean electric ray populations have been impacted by identified potential threats. The magnitude of potential threats and factors described above were generally expected to remain unchanged. Thus, the SRT determined it was unable to specify a definitive time frame to define the foreseeable future for evaluating the degree to which demographic factors and potential threats contribute to the species’ risk of extinction. Qualitative Risk Analysis of Demographics The SRT’s ability to analyze many of the specific criteria embedded in the risk definitions for demographic factors was limited. There are no data available on age-at maturity or natural mortality that would be necessary to determine population growth rates. Population structure and levels of genetic diversity in Caribbean electric rays are completely unknown, with no genetic studies ever conducted, even for the species’ taxonomy. The SRT determined that the relative abundance trend information for Caribbean electric rays represents a low risk to the species’ continued existence now and into the future. The Caribbean electric ray has a broad range in warm temperate to tropical waters of the western Atlantic from North Carolina to Florida (its presence in the Bahamas is unknown, however), the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea to the northern coast of South America. Within its range, it has a patchy distribution within relatively shallow waters, often within the surf zone. There are no estimates of absolute population size over the species’ range; however, analyses of available long-term datasets indicate that the trend in relative abundance is relatively flat with abundance dramatically fluctuating over each time series. The SRT did not find this surprising given the patchy distribution over specific habitat types. The SRT found very little information available on the life history of Caribbean electric ray. There are no age and growth studies for this species but anecdotal studies suggest rapid growth. Size at maturity for females is estimated at about 26 cm TL (Funicelli 1975). VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 Caribbean electric rays are estimated to reach reproductive size by the end of their first year, and the reproductive cycle is annual (Rudloe 1989a). The brood size ranges from 1–14 depending on the study. While it is generally regarded that elasmobranchs exhibit life history traits (e.g., low fecundity, late age of maturity, slow growth) that make them more susceptible to exploitation, the limited evidence on Caribbean electric ray life-history traits and population parameters likely place the species among those elasmobranchs that are more productive. Thus, the SRT believed that the species likely will be able to withstand moderate anthropogenic mortality levels and have a higher potential to recover from exploitation and stochastic events. The SRT concluded that available information on the species’ demographic characteristics currently represent a low risk of extinction, and risks are unlikely to increase into the future. The SRT found no evidence that Caribbean electric rays are at risk of extinction due to a change or loss of variation in genetic characteristics or gene flow among populations currently or into the future. This species is found over a broad range and appears to be opportunistic and well adapted to its environment. In addition, the risk of extinction due to the loss of spatial structure and connectivity for the Caribbean electric ray is low. Caribbean electric rays have a relatively broad distribution in the western Atlantic Ocean generally in habitats dominated by sand bottom substrate. Sand substrate is not limiting throughout the range, and the limited data available on species movements indicate individuals do travel between areas with suitable habitat. Qualitative Risk Analysis of Threats Regarding habitat threats to the species, the SRT concluded that manmade activities that have the potential to impact shallow sandy habitats include dredging, oil and gas pipelines and pipeline development, beach nourishment, and shoreline hardening projects (e.g., groins). These types of activities could negatively impact Caribbean electric rays by removing habitat features they require. Although specific data are lacking on impacts to the Caribbean electric ray, it is reasonable to anticipate that coastal development will continue perpetually and may damage habitat within the species’ range. However, the species does occur over a broad range and most impacts to the coastal zone have more significantly occurred to wetlands, coral PO 00000 Frm 00028 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 47773 reefs and mangrove ecosystems, rather than sand bottom habitats. For these reasons, the SRT concluded that the Caribbean electric ray is at low risk of extinction due to destruction and modification of habitat currently and in the future. The SRT determined impacts from overutilization are unlikely to cause the species to be at heightened risk of extinction. There is little to no direct harvest for the species. The SRT considered bycatch in commercial fisheries as one of the natural or manmade factors it reviewed. Caribbean electric rays are very uncommon as bycatch in trawl and gillnet fisheries. Moreover, many states throughout their U.S. range (e.g., Florida, Texas, and Georgia) have banned gillnet fishing in state waters which will further reduce the likelihood of bycatch as a negative impact on the continued existence of Caribbean electric rays. The level of bycatch from U.S. shrimp trawl fisheries is believed to be low primarily because they operate mainly in areas where Caribbean electric rays are not found. The SRT concluded that overutilization presented a low risk of extinction. The risk associated with the level of bycatch from U.S. shrimp trawl fisheries is unlikely to change in the future given the areas where the fishery mainly operates are also unlikely to change. Since 2001, there has been a dramatic decrease in otter trawl effort in southeast U.S. shrimp fisheries, which has been attributed to low shrimp prices, rising fuel costs, competition with imported products, and the impacts of 2005 and 2006 hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Although otter trawl effort from year to year may fluctuate some, there are no data to indicate that otter trawl effort levels will increase in the future from recent levels. Also, the species has been subject to bycatch for centuries and does not appear to have experienced any measurable decline during those earlier periods, based on the relative abundance trends data available. The SRT also determined the risk to Caribbean electric ray from disease or predation is also low now; in the absence of data on past or current impacts to the species, the SRT concluded that no impacts can be foreseen into the future. Overall Risk of Extinction Throughout Its Range Analysis In this section we evaluate the overall risk of extinction to the Caribbean electric ray throughout its range. In determining the overall risk of extinction to the species throughout its range, we considered available data on the specific life history and ecology of E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES 47774 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices the species, the nature of potential threats, any known responses of the species to those threats, and population abundance trends. We considered the information summarized in the status review report (Carlson et al. 2015). The SRT determined it could not define a foreseeable future for their extinction risk. However, we think the available information on abundance trends can provide an appropriate horizon over which to consider how the species may respond to potential impacts into the future. The fisheriesindependent datasets from which we evaluated abundance trends span time periods of 11 to 34 years, during which abundance trends were flat, with scattered and varied peaks in abundance. All of the potential threats evaluated by the SRT were occurring at the same time that the fishery independent surveys were performed. All of the activities that constitute potential threats were also projected by the SRT to continue at their current levels into the future. Therefore, we feel it is appropriate to consider the foreseeable future to be the next few decades, or 20 to 30 years, for Caribbean electric ray. Although the lifespan of Caribbean electric ray is not known, based on their early size of maturity and apparent annual reproduction, 20 to 30 years would encompass several generations of the species and thus any adverse responses to threats would be discernible over this timeframe. We concur with the SRT’s analysis and risk conclusions for potential threats and for demographic factors. The threat and demographic factors identified present either no risk or at most low risk to Caribbean electric ray, now and over the foreseeable future. There is no information indicating that any potential threats have adversely impacted Caribbean electric ray in the past, and there is no basis to predict that potential threats will adversely impact the species over the next 20 to 30 years. The species has not faced threats in the past, and is not expected to face any over the foreseeable future, that would result in declining trends in abundance, spatial structure, or diversity. Based on all time series of data analyzed by the SRT, including those used to support the listing petition, there is no evidence of a decline in relative abundance of Caribbean electric rays. No discernable trends in abundance of Caribbean electric ray were detected in any of the available datasets. Number of encounters did dramatically fluctuate over each time series, but we believe this reflects the species’ apparent clustered but patchy distribution over shallow, sandy VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 habitats. Anecdotal accounts of recent encounters indicate they are abundant in specific habitats while consistently absent from others. Our 90-day determination that the petitioned action may be warranted due to impacts from incidental take in fisheries was based on one study (Shepherd and Myers 2005) indicating that nearshore shrimp trawl fisheries operating in the northern Gulf of Mexico may be negatively impacting the species in that region. However, further examination of the dataset by the SRT revealed that Shepherd and Myers (2005) did not take into account major changes in survey design and how they would affect the relative abundance of Caribbean electric rays, and did not understand how the catch was sorted, thus Shepherd and Myers (2005) underestimated the number of individual reports in the data. The SRT’s analysis showed no discernable trends in abundance of Caribbean electric ray in any of the three Gulf of Mexico Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program indices. There is no evidence that potential threats comprising ESA section (4)(a)(1) factors (A)–(C) or (E) have contributed to heightened extinction risk and endangerment of the species. Incidental take in fisheries was the only activity we initially believed might be resulting in adverse impacts to the species due to the decline presented in Shepherd and Myers (2005). However, after further review we believe there is no evidence indicating that nearshore shrimp trawl fisheries operating in the northern Gulf of Mexico or in foreign waters (e.g., Colombia shrimp trawls) are negatively impacting the species in those areas. Neither we nor the SRT identified any threats under the other Section 4(a)(1) factors that may be causing or contributing to heightened extinction risk of this species. Therefore, we conclude that inadequate regulatory mechanisms (Section (4)(a)(1)(D)) are also not a factor affecting the status of Caribbean electric ray. So to summarize, we did not find that any of the demographic factors or Section 4(a)(1) factors contribute significantly to the extinction risk of this species throughout its range, now or in the foreseeable future. Based on our consideration of the best available data, as summarized here and in Carlson et al. (2016), we determine that the present overall risk of extinction to the Caribbean electric ray throughout its range is low, and will remain low over the foreseeable future, and thus listing as threatened or endangered under the ESA throughout its range is not warranted. We also considered whether any threats or demographic factors PO 00000 Frm 00029 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 elevated risks to the species when considered cumulatively. With no evidence of any decline in the species or other negative impacts to life history characteristics, there is no evidence to suggest that potential threats and demographic factors cumulatively are currently elevating the species’ risk of extinction, or will elevate extinction risk throughout its range over the foreseeable future. Significant Portion of Its Range (SPOIR) Because we found that listing the species as endangered or threatened throughout its range was not warranted, we then conducted a ‘‘significant portion of its range analysis.’’ The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and NMFS—together, ‘‘the Services’’—have jointly finalized a policy interpreting the phrase ‘‘significant portion of its range’’ (SPOIR) (79 FR 37578; July 1, 2014). The SPOIR policy provides that: (1) If a species is found to be endangered or threatened in only a significant portion of its range, the entire species is listed as endangered or threatened, respectively, and the Act’s protections apply across the species’ entire range; (2) a portion of the range of a species is ‘‘significant’’ if the species is not currently endangered or threatened throughout its range, but the portion’s contribution to the viability of the species is so important that, without the members in that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction or likely to become so in the foreseeable future, throughout all of its range; and (3) the range of a species is considered to be the general geographical area within which that species can be found at the time we make any particular status determination. We evaluated whether substantial information indicated that (i) portions of the Caribbean electric ray’s range are significant and (ii) the species occupying those portions is in danger of extinction or likely to become so within the foreseeable future (79 FR 37578; July 1, 2014). Under the SPOIR policy, both considerations must apply to warrant listing a species as threatened or endangered throughout its range based upon its status within a portion of the range. The historical range of the Caribbean electric ray is in western Atlantic shallow coastal waters, from North Carolina through the northern coast of Brazil (Carvalho et al. 2007). Individual populations are localized and do not migrate extensively, but do move onshore and offshore at least seasonally, crossing between barrier beach surf zones and sandbars adjacent to passes associated with estuarine barrier islands E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1 Federal Register / Vol. 81, No. 141 / Friday, July 22, 2016 / Notices ehiers on DSK5VPTVN1PROD with NOTICES (Rudloe 1989a). Movements also include travel east and west between sand bar habitats (Rudloe 1989a). Geographically as well as quantitatively, those parts of the electric ray’s range that are within U.S. waters (Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic) may each constitute a significant portion of the Caribbean electric ray’s range because if the population were to disappear from either portion, it could result in the rest of the species being threatened or endangered. However, there is no information to indicate that the members of the species in either the Gulf of Mexico or the South Atlantic have different demographic viability or are facing different or more intense threats to the point where they would be threatened or endangered in these portions. Because a portion must be both significant and threatened or endangered before we can list a species based on its status in a significant portion of its range, we do not find that listing the Caribbean electric ray is threatened or endangered based on its status in a significant portion of its range is warranted. Final Listing Determination Section 4(b)(1) of the ESA requires that NMFS make listing determinations based solely on the best scientific and commercial data available after conducting a review of the status of the species and taking into account those efforts, if any, being made by any state or foreign nation, or political subdivisions thereof, to protect and conserve the species. We have independently reviewed the best available scientific and commercial information including the petitions, public comments submitted on the 90day finding (79 FR 4877; January 30, 2014), the status review report (Carlson et al. 2015), and other published and unpublished information. We considered each of the statutory factors to determine whether it contributed significantly to the extinction risk of the species. As previously explained, we could not identify a significant portion of the species’ range that is threatened or endangered. Therefore, our determination is based on a synthesis and integration of the foregoing information, factors and considerations, and their effects on the status of the species throughout its entire range. We conclude that the Caribbean electric ray is not presently in danger of extinction, nor is it likely to become so in the foreseeable future throughout all of its range. Accordingly, the Caribbean electric ray does not meet the definition of a threatened species or an endangered species and our listing determination is VerDate Sep<11>2014 15:19 Jul 21, 2016 Jkt 238001 47775 that the Caribbean electric ray does not warrant listing as threatened or endangered at this time. Monday, August 8, 2016 References A complete list of all references cited herein is available upon request (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT). The Executive Committee will hold a closed session and then open to review the letter regarding governance of summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass and coordination of research with SAFMC. Authority The authority for this action is the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.). Dated: July 18, 2016. Samuel R. Rauch, III, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine Fisheries Service. [FR Doc. 2016–17397 Filed 7–21–16; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration RIN 0648–XE750 Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC); Public Meetings National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Notice of public meetings. AGENCY: The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) will hold public meetings of the Council and its Committees. DATES: The meetings will be held Monday, August 8, 2016 through Thursday, August 11, 2016. For agenda details, see SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION. ADDRESSES: The meeting will be held at: Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront, 3001 Atlantic Avenue, Virginia Beach, VA 23451, telephone: (757) 213–3000. Council address: Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, 800 N. State St., Suite 201, Dover, DE 19901; telephone: (302) 674–2331. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Christopher M. Moore, Ph.D., Executive Director, Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council; telephone: (302) 526–5255. The Council’s Web site, www.mafmc.org also has details on the meeting location, proposed agenda, webinar listen-in access, and briefing materials. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The following items are on the agenda, though agenda items may be addressed out of order (changes will be noted on the Council’s Web site when possible.) SUMMARY: PO 00000 Frm 00030 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 Executive Committee Unmanaged Forage Amendment Final Action Review comments received during public hearings, review Ecosystem and Ocean Planning Advisory Panel and Committee recommendations for final action, and select preferred alternatives. Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM) Guidance Document Review, finalize, and approve EAFM Guidance Document and review and discuss potential framework for integrating ecosystem interactions into fisheries assessment and management. Tuesday, August 9, 2016 Demersal Committee Meeting as a Committee of the Whole With the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass and Bluefish Boards Summer Flounder Allocation Project Report A presentation will be received on the summer flounder allocation model and initial findings. Summer Flounder Amendment Alternatives Review and provide feedback on the list of amendment issues and Fishery Management Action Team recommendations. Summer Flounder Specifications Review SSC, Monitoring Committee, Advisory Panel, and staff recommendations regarding 2017–2018 specifications and recommend any changes if necessary. Black Sea Bass Specifications Review SSC, Monitoring Committee, Advisory Panel, and staff recommendations regarding 2017 specifications and recommend any changes if necessary. E:\FR\FM\22JYN1.SGM 22JYN1

Agencies

[Federal Register Volume 81, Number 141 (Friday, July 22, 2016)]
[Notices]
[Pages 47763-47775]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2016-17397]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

[Docket No. 131105931-6595-02]
RIN 0648-XC970


Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Notice of 12-Month 
Finding on a Petition To List the Caribbean Electric Ray as Threatened 
or Endangered Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

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

ACTION: Notice of 12-month finding and availability of status review 
document.

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SUMMARY: We, NMFS, announce a 12-month finding and listing 
determination on a petition to list the Caribbean electric ray (Narcine 
bancroftii) as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species 
Act (ESA). We have completed a comprehensive status review of the 
species in response to a petition submitted by WildEarth Guardians and 
Defenders of Wildlife and considered the best scientific and commercial 
data available. Based on the best scientific and commercial data 
available, including the status review report (Carlson et al. 2015), we 
have determined that the species is not currently in danger of 
extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range and is 
not likely to become so within the foreseeable future. Therefore, we 
conclude that the Caribbean electric ray does not warrant listing at 
this time.

DATES: This finding was made on July 22, 2016.

ADDRESSES: The Caribbean electric ray status review document associated 
with this determination and its references are available by submitting 
a request to the Species Conservation Branch Chief, Protected Resources 
Division, NMFS Southeast Regional Office, 263 13th Avenue South, St. 
Petersburg, FL 33701-5505, Attn: Caribbean Electric Ray 12-month 
Finding. The report and references are also available electronically 
at: http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/protected_resources/listing_petitions/index.html.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Jennifer Lee, NMFS, Southeast Regional 
Office (727) 551-5778; or Marta Nammack, NMFS, Office of Protected 
Resources (301) 427-8469.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 

Background

    On September 7, 2010, we received a petition from WildEarth 
Guardians to list the Caribbean electric ray as threatened or 
endangered throughout its historical and current range and to designate 
critical habitat within the territory of the United States concurrently 
with listing the species under the ESA. On March 22, 2011 (76 FR 
15947), we made a 90-day finding that the petition did not present 
substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the 
petitioned action may be warranted.
    On March 22, 2012, we received a 60-day notice of intent to sue 
from WildEarth Guardians on the negative 90-day finding. On February 
26, 2013, WildEarth Guardians filed a Complaint for Declaratory and 
Injunctive Relief in the United States District Court for the Middle 
District of Florida, Tampa Division, on the negative 90-day finding. On 
October 1, 2013, the Court approved a settlement agreement under which 
we agreed to accept a supplement to the 2010 petition, if any was 
provided, and to make a new 90-day finding based on the 2010 petition, 
the supplement, and any additional information readily available in our 
files.
    On October 31, 2013, we received a supplemental petition from 
WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife. On January 30, 2014, we 
published a 90-day finding with our determination that the petition 
presented substantial scientific and commercial information indicating 
that the petitioned action may be warranted (79 FR 4877). In our 90-day 
finding, we requested scientific and commercial information from the 
public to inform the status review on the species. Specifically, we 
requested information on the status of the Caribbean electric ray 
throughout its range including: (1) Historical and current distribution 
and abundance of this species throughout its range; (2) historical and 
current population trends; (3) life history and habitat requirements; 
(4) population structure information, such as genetics data; (5) past, 
current and future threats specific to the Caribbean electric ray, 
including any current or planned activities that may adversely impact 
the species, especially information on destruction, modification, or 
curtailment of habitat and on bycatch in commercial and artisanal 
fisheries worldwide; (6) ongoing or planned efforts to protect and 
restore the species and its habitat; and (7) management, regulatory, 
and enforcement information on the species and its habitats. We 
received information from the public in response to the 90-day finding 
and incorporated relevant information in the species status review.

Listing Determinations Under the ESA

    We are responsible for determining whether the Caribbean electric 
ray is threatened or endangered under the ESA (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.). 
Section 4(b)(1)(A) of the ESA requires us to make listing 
determinations based solely on the best scientific and commercial data 
available after conducting a review of the status of the species and 
after taking into account efforts being made by any state or foreign 
nation to protect the species.

[[Page 47764]]

    To be considered for listing under the ESA, a group of organisms 
must constitute a ``species,'' which is defined in section 3 of the ESA 
to include taxonomic species and ``any subspecies of fish, or wildlife, 
or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of 
vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.'' In our 90-
day finding we found that the petitioned species constitutes a valid 
species eligible for listing under the ESA based on the information 
presented in the petition, along with information readily available in 
our files. To determine whether the Caribbean electric ray warrants 
listing under the ESA, we convened a Status Review Team (SRT). The SRT 
was comprised of NMFS Southeast Fisheries Science Center and NMFS 
Southeast Regional Office biologists. The SRT reviewed an unpublished 
dissertation that separated the genus Narcine of the western Atlantic 
Ocean into two species: N. brasiliensis, and N. bancroftii (de Carvalho 
1999). The SRT noted some taxonomic uncertainty (see Taxonomy and 
Species Description), but accepted de Carvalho (1999) as the best 
available information on the species taxonomy. Narcine bancroftii is 
recognized as a valid species in the Catalog of Fishes, the 
authoritative reference for taxonomic fish names and taxonomic revision 
(Eschmeyer 2015). We accept both de Carvalho (1999) and Eschmeyer 
(2015) as the best available science at this time, thus we maintain 
that Narcine bancroftii is a valid species eligible for listing.
    When we consider whether a species might qualify as threatened 
under the ESA, we must consider the meaning of the term ``foreseeable 
future.'' It is appropriate to interpret ``foreseeable future'' as the 
horizon over which predictions about the conservation status of the 
species can be reasonably relied upon. The foreseeable future considers 
the life history of the species, habitat characteristics, availability 
of data, particular threats, ability to predict threats, and the 
ability to forecast the effects of these threats and future events on 
the status of the species under consideration. Because a species may be 
susceptible to a variety of threats for which different data are 
available, or which operate across different time scales, the 
foreseeable future is not necessarily reducible to a particular number 
of years or a single timeframe.
    Under section 4(a) of the ESA, we must determine whether any 
species is endangered or threatened due to any of the following five 
factors: (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or 
curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) overutilization for 
commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) 
disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory 
mechanisms; or (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its 
continued existence (sections 4(a)(1)(A) through (E)).
    The SRT completed a status review report, which summarized the best 
available information on the taxonomy, distribution, abundance, life 
history and biology of the species, analyzed the threats identified as 
potentially impacting the status of the species, and conducted an 
extinction risk analysis (ERA) to determine the status of the species. 
The results of the ERA are discussed below under ``Extinction Risk 
Analysis.'' The status review report incorporates relevant information 
received from the public in response to our request for information (79 
FR 4877; January 30, 2014). The draft status review report was 
submitted to 3 independent peer reviewers and comments and information 
received from the peer reviewers were addressed and incorporated as 
appropriate into the draft report before finalizing it. The peer review 
report is available at http://www.cio.noaa.gov/services_programs/prplans/PRsummaries.html.
    Section 3 of the ESA defines an endangered species as ``any species 
which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant 
portion of its range'' and a threatened species as one ``which is 
likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future 
throughout all or a significant portion of its range.'' Thus, we 
interpret an ``endangered species'' to be one that is presently in 
danger of extinction. A ``threatened species'' is not currently in 
danger of extinction but is likely to become so within the foreseeable 
future. The key statutory difference between a threatened and 
endangered species is the timing of when a species may be in danger of 
extinction, either presently (endangered) or in the foreseeable future 
(threatened).
    In determining whether the species meets the standard of endangered 
or threatened, we considered the specific life history and ecology of 
the species, the nature of threats, the species' response to those 
threats, and population numbers and trends. We considered information 
summarized in the status review report (Carlson et al. 2015). We 
considered each threat that was identified, both individually and 
cumulatively. For purposes of our analysis, the mere identification of 
factors that could impact a species negatively is not sufficient to 
compel a finding that ESA listing is appropriate. In considering those 
factors that might constitute threats, we look beyond mere exposure of 
the species to the factor to determine whether the species responds, 
either to a single or multiple threats, in a way that causes actual 
impacts to the species' status. In making this finding, we have 
considered and evaluated the best available scientific and commercial 
information, including information received in response to our 90-day 
finding.
    The following sections provide key information presented in the 
status review report (Carlson et al. 2015).

Summary of the Status Review

Life History, Biology and Ecology

Taxonomy and Morphology

    Narcine bancroftii is a species in the phylum Chondrata, class 
Chondrichthyes, order Torpediniforms and family Narcinidae. Common 
names for this species include the lesser electric ray, Bancroft's 
numbfish, and Caribbean electric ray. The SRT titled the status review 
report and referred to the species in its report as the `lesser 
electric ray' because the species is almost unanimously referred to as 
the lesser electric ray, including in the published literature. In our 
finding, we retain the use of `Caribbean electric ray' for the sole 
purpose of being consistent with the petitioned action.
    Rays within the genus Narcine, collectively known as numbfishes, 
occur globally in temperate to tropical marine waters and according to 
Eshmeyer (2015) are composed of 23 species. Until recently, rays of the 
genus Narcine within the western North Atlantic Ocean were considered 
to be one widely distributed species, N. brasiliensis (von Olfers 
1831). However, Garman (1913) was the first to notice that there was 
sufficient regional variability among individuals and suggested that N. 
brasiliensis could be separated into two distinct species. Later, in a 
taxonomic revision of the genus Narcine, de Carvalho (1999) separated 
numbfishes of the western Atlantic Ocean into two species: N. 
brasiliensis, known as the Brazilian electric ray, and N. bancroftii 
(Griffith and Smith 1834), known as Bancroft's numbfish, or more 
commonly, the lesser electric ray. N. brasiliensis is thought to range 
from southeastern Brazil to northern Argentina, whereas N. bancroftii 
is reported to range from North Carolina to northeastern Brazil, 
including the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) and the Caribbean Sea (de Carvalho 
1999).
    The SRT noted that ``the taxonomy of Narcine in the western 
Atlantic Ocean

[[Page 47765]]

remains uncertain because taxonomic changes are sometimes accepted in 
ichthyology without adequate or supporting proof and the de Carvalho 
(1999) study remains unpublished.'' The SRT pointed out the need for a 
genetics-based examination (e.g., mitochondrial DNA analysis) of 
Narcine specimens from throughout their known range in the western 
Atlantic Ocean to support the presence of two distinct species. 
However, as we previously discussed (see Listing Determinations Under 
the ESA), we accept both de Carvalho (1999) and Eschmeyer (2015) as the 
best available science at this time, thus we maintain that Narcine 
bancroftii is a valid species eligible for listing.

Species Description

    The Caribbean electric ray is a small, shallow-water batoid 
characterized by a flattened, oval-shaped disc, large pelvic fins, and 
oversized dorsal and caudal fins that cover most of its tapering tail 
(Tricas et al. 1997). The dorsal surface of the Caribbean electric ray 
varies from a light yellow brown to a darker greyish brown with dark 
blotches over the snout and small incomplete eyespots over the disc and 
base of the tail. The underside of the species is white or cream 
colored sometimes with grey or brown blotches (McEachran and Carvalho 
2002). The Caribbean electric ray has two electric organs that can 
produce 14-37 volts of electricity (Smith 1997; Tricas et al. 1997). 
Outlines of these kidney-shaped electric organs may be visible behind 
the eyes as well as spiracles with rounded tubercles along the edges 
next to the eyes (Smith 1997). Each organ consists of a honeycomb of 
280 to 430 columns, containing several hundred electric plates, and the 
organs combined account for about a sixth of total body weight (Tricas 
et al. 1997).

Range and Distribution

    The Caribbean electric ray is widely distributed in warm temperate 
to tropical waters of the western Atlantic from North Carolina, through 
the GOM, the Caribbean, the Lesser and Greater Antilles, and the north 
coast of South America (McEachran and de Carvalho 2002). Bigelow and 
Schroeder (1953) wrote: ``This Electric Ray has been reported from 
localities so widely distributed, and it is so well represented in the 
larger museums of both America and Europe, that it is expected anywhere 
in the American littoral [zone], provided that the type of bottom and 
depth be suitable . . .'' The southern extent of the range of Caribbean 
electric rays is uncertain. De Carvalho (1999) reported specimens taken 
from the southern hemisphere off the State of Bahia, Brazil, however, 
McEachran and de Carvalho (2002) later placed the southern extent of 
the range within the northern hemisphere off Venezuela.
    The Caribbean electric ray exhibits a patchy distribution 
throughout its range and is locally abundant in areas that contain 
specific habitat characteristics. Fishery independent trawl surveys in 
the Gulf of Mexico show that the species is patchily distributed (see 
Abundance and Trends). The species' local abundance is best documented 
by Rudloe (1989a) who found Caribbean electric rays abundant in barrier 
beach surf zones and adjacent passes between barrier islands at depths 
of 8-16 m around Cape San Blas, Florida, in the northern Gulf of 
Mexico. Rudloe (1989a) collected 3,913 rays from March 1985 to March 
1987 from sites in those areas at rates ranging from 3-31 rays per 
hour. Rudlow (1989a) points out that ``the rays were concentrated over 
an extremely limited area on each bar'' and that ``As little as several 
tens of meters change in position could determine whether there were 
two or 20 rays in the catch.''
    Further, data indicate seasonal variation in their local 
distributions. Rudloe (1989a) suggested that ``rays are localized in 
their habitats during the warm months at least, and move directly from 
one preferred locality to another or remain in one area over a period 
of weeks to months.'' The species is evidently migratory but its 
movements are poorly known. Existing information suggests at least some 
Caribbean electric ray seasonal migrations are likely associated with 
water temperature. Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) stated: ``Captures of 
Narcine brasiliensis [bancroftii] off the Texas coast in the months of 
September, November, and March show that it winters that far north and 
probably does likewise at least along the southern part of Florida. 
However, northward along the Atlantic Coast of the United States, to 
North Carolina, all of the records of it, except one, have been in 
summer.'' Similarly, Coles (1915) reported Caribbean electric rays are 
present only off the northernmost part of their range (North Carolina) 
during the summer. Rudloe (1989a) stated that within the GOM, rays were 
caught in the surf zone at Alligator Point, Florida, from March to 
December, and no rays were taken anywhere in the area from December to 
February. Funicelli (1975) reported that Caribbean electric rays are 
found at the deeper ends of their depth range during winter in the 
northern GOM, particularly during colder months from November-February.

Habitat Use

    The Caribbean electric ray inhabits relatively shallow waters, 
often within the surf zone (Coles 1910; Fowler 1910; Bigelow and 
Schroeder 1953; Hoese and Moore 1998; Rudloe 1989a). The Caribbean 
electric ray generally occupies depths ranging from the intertidal zone 
to approximately 37 m (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953, Rudloe 1989a); 
however, there is at least one report of a Caribbean electric ray being 
captured at a depth of 340 m (Schwartz 2010). Fisheries independent 
data collected by NMFS verify that the Caribbean electric ray is 
primarily a shallow water species. From 2002-2013, 5,137 trawls were 
conducted in the northern GOM at randomly selected stations ranging in 
depth from 4.7-326 m. A total of 127 Caribbean electric rays were 
collected, and the mean depth of capture was 9.29 m (range 5.20-17.50 
m; S.D. 2.93). Environmental data were collected during these surveys 
demonstrating that this species inhabits waters ranging in temperature 
from 21.9-30.2 [deg]C (mean = 27.18 [deg]C; S.D. = 1.57), salinity from 
27.7-36.9 ppt (mean = 34.10 ppt; S.D. 2.32), dissolved oxygen from 2.0-
3.7 mg/l (mean = 2.85 mg/l; S.D. = 0.99) and turbidity from 0.6-94.0 
percent transmissivity (mean = 37.77 percent transmissivity; S.D. = 
28.23). These data are consistent with past reports of environmental 
conditions associated with the presence of Caribbean electric rays 
(e.g., Gunter 1945, Rudloe 1989a, Steiner et al. 2007).
    The best available information on the species indicates that it 
occurs predominately in sand bottom habitats. While Caribbean electric 
rays have a relatively broad distribution in the western Atlantic 
Ocean, the species is reported to occur almost exclusively on sand 
bottom habitats (Coles 1910, Bigelow and Schroeder 1953, Rudloe 1989a). 
For example, Rudloe (1989a) determined that ``barrier beach surf zones 
and on [sand]bars adjacent to passes between barrier islands'' are the 
preferred habitat for Caribbean electric rays. Both of these habitats 
are dominated by sand. Anecdotal reports also document Caribbean 
electric rays exclusively in high energy beach and sandbar habitats. In 
NMFS fisheries-independent trawl survey data, all Caribbean electric 
ray specimens recorded in the GOM were collected over sand bottom 
habitats. The SRT found only one study of Caribbean electric rays 
occurring in mud and fine silt habitats (i.e., Dean et al. 2005).
    Caribbean electric rays are generally nocturnal and spend daylight 
hours buried under the sand. Rudloe (1989a)

[[Page 47766]]

noted that sampling was limited to night-time when the rays were 
active. Numerous reports of Caribbean electric ray sightings document 
that these rays are most commonly found buried in the sand with only 
their spiracles visible.

Age and Growth

    There are no age and growth studies for this species. McEachran and 
de Carvalho (2002) report size at birth at 9-10 cm with maximum growth 
to 58 cm TL. Observations of Rudloe (1989a) suggest rapid growth during 
the first year. Rudloe (1989a) estimated that newborn rays less than 14 
cm total length (TL) in late summer attain a size of 15-19 cm TL by 
fall. Rudloe (1989a) reported growth was dormant January and February 
and then resumed in March, with young attaining a size of 20-29.9 cm TL 
by the end of their first year.

Reproductive Biology

    Estimates of size at reproductive maturity for male Caribbean 
electric rays range from 20 to 26 cm TL (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953, 
Funicelli 1975, de Carvalho 1999, Moreno et al. 2010). Females are 
reported to reach a larger size than males at reproductive maturity. 
The smallest reported female with well-developed gonads measured 26 cm 
TL (Funicelli 1975), and the smallest gravid female measured 27.1 cm TL 
(Bigelow and Schroeder 1953).
    Rudloe (1989a) observed that all the females larger than 29 cm TL, 
both in captivity and collected from the field off Florida, were gravid 
in July. This indicates that the reproductive cycle is annual, and 
adult females in the population are capable of reproducing each year. 
Moreno et al. (2010) verified annual reproduction by mature females. 
Rudloe (1989a) documents that females give birth off Florida in August 
and September in the surf zone. Rudloe (1989a) also observed a peak in 
newborn rays at more offshore Florida locations in November (i.e., at 
West Pass) and December (i.e., at Cape San Blas), but could not 
determine if these rays were born offshore or had immigrated from the 
beach. Rudloe (1989a) did not estimate gestation period of Caribbean 
electric rays. In the Colombian Caribbean Sea, Moreno et al. (2010) 
found that the gestation period lasts approximately 4 months, with 
birth occurring from February to April.
    The brood size of female Caribbean electric rays has been reported 
as 14 by Bean and Weed (1911), 4-15 by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953), 5-
13 by de Carvalho (1999), and 1-14 by Moreno et al. (2010).

Diet and Feeding

    Caribbean electric rays are reported to feed on small, benthic 
organisms (Moreno et al. 2010). Funicelli (1975) observed annelids in 
84 percent of the Caribbean electric ray stomachs he examined from the 
northern GOM, which was in agreement with the limited data presented by 
Gudger (1912) and Bigelow and Schroeder (1953). Fishes within the order 
Anguilliformes were the next most abundant prey (30 percent of 
individuals), followed by arthropods and molluscs. Arthropods were the 
dominant prey type found in small individuals less than 300 mm TL 
(Funicelli 1975). Moreno et al. (2009) and Grijalba-Bendeck et al. 
(2012) reported similar findings for Caribbean electric rays collected 
in the Caribbean Sea off Colombia with annelids occurring in the 
majority of stomachs examined. Both studies reported that arthropods 
constituted a larger portion of the diet than anguilliform fishes. A 
diet composed primarily of annelids has also been reported for the 
closely related Brazilian electric ray (Goitein et al. 1998).
    Dean and Motta (2004a and b) characterize Caribbean electric ray 
feeding behavior and kinematics. The Caribbean electric ray is a 
benthic suction feeder with highly protrusible jaws. The Caribbean 
electric ray has the ability to protrude its jaws by nearly 100 percent 
of its head length to excavate buried polychaetes.

Predation and Disease

    Almost nothing is known of natural predation on the Caribbean 
electric ray. Presumably its electric organs deter potential predators, 
such as sharks and dolphins. Rudloe (1989a) reported that tagged rays 
released off trawlers were repeatedly observed to be actively avoided 
by both sharks and dolphins that fed heavily on other rays and bony 
fishes as they were culled overboard. A researcher reported observed 
consumption of Caribbean electric rays by large red drum that were 
captured on bottom longlines and dissected. It was not clear to the 
researcher whether the rays were discarded bycatch that were 
opportunistically consumed or not (M. Ajemian, Texas A&M-Corpus 
Christi, pers. comm. to Jennifer Lee, NMFS, June 19, 2015). Similarly, 
there is scant information on disease within the species. Tao (2013) 
reported that bacteria, such as Vibrio species, are prevalent in the 
blood of healthy Caribbean electric rays. This condition is not 
uncommon among chondrichthyan fishes.

Status, Abundance and Trends

    The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red 
List Assessment classifies the Caribbean electric ray as Critically 
Endangered (de Carvalho et al. 2007). The IUCN Red List assessment 
notes that the species has declined 98 percent since 1972 in the 
northern GOM according to a study by Shepherd and Myers (2005) of trawl 
data from the Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program 
(SEAMAP). The IUCN Red List assessment reports that ``similar high 
rates of decline are seen in the U.S. coastal areas between Cape 
Canaveral (Florida) and Cape Hatter[a]s (North Carolina) in U.S. trawl 
surveys between 1989 and 2001 (a decline to 5% during this period)''. 
The IUCN also states that diver survey data from the Reef Environmental 
Education Foundation (REEF) program show similar rates of decline for 
Caribbean electric ray between 1994 and 2004 in eastern Florida and the 
Florida Keys. The Red List Assessment formed the basis of the petition 
to list Caribbean electric ray under the ESA.
    To fully evaluate the above purported declines in abundance and 
rarity of the species, the SRT attempted to find any and all abundance 
data related to the species. This included a review of the known 
scientific literature, internet searches, and communication with state 
and Federal resource agencies that monitor fisheries. There are no 
population size estimates available for Caribbean electric rays. The 
SRT acquired the original data sets used for the IUCN assessment and 
conducted an independent analysis of these data. The SRT also 
considered a variety of other smaller datasets and encounter reports it 
acquired in forming its conclusions about the abundance and trends of 
the species. While some of these other data were anecdotal in nature 
and couldn't be used to statistically assess trends in abundance, the 
SRT believed they were useful in illustrating recent encounters of the 
species. Below we provide a summary of each data source considered and 
of the SRT's associated findings.

Gulf of Mexico SEAMAP

    The primary source of fishery independent data reviewed was Gulf of 
Mexico SEAMAP data. The NMFS Southeast Fisheries Science Center 
Mississippi Laboratories have conducted trawl surveys in the northern 
GOM dating back to the 1950s. Early work was exploratory and often only 
recorded catch of target species. In 1972 a standardized fall trawl 
survey began as a part of a resource assessment program.

[[Page 47767]]

Then in 1982 a standardized summer trawl survey began under the SEAMAP. 
Finally, in 1987, the SEAMAP was adopted in the fall, thus unifying the 
two surveys. SEAMAP is a collaborative effort between Federal, state 
and university programs designed to collect, manage and distribute 
fishery independent data throughout the region. The primary objective 
of this trawl survey is to collect data on the abundance and 
distribution of demersal organisms in the northern GOM. The survey is 
conducted semi-annually (summer and fall) and provides an important 
source of fisheries independent information on many commercially and 
recreationally important species throughout the northern GOM (Pollack 
and Ingram 2014, Pollack & Ingram 2015). A full description of the 
historical and current surveys can be found in Nichols (2004) and 
Rester (2015).
    Shepherd and Myers (2005) examined trends in elasmobranch abundance 
from SEAMAP data using the longest continuous temporal coverage (1972-
2002) for the areas between 10 and 110 m in depth near Alabama, 
Mississippi and Louisiana (i.e., statistical zones 11, 13-16). The 
authors correctly noted that N. brasiliensis has been historically 
misidentified and is not known to inhabit the GOM. Thus, all N. 
brasiliensis and Narcine species identified within the trawl survey 
data were treated as N. bancroftii during the analysis. Using a 
generalized linear modeling approach to correct for factors unrelated 
to abundance, Shepherd and Myers (2005) reported a decline of 98 
percent since the baseline abundance of Caribbean electric rays in 1972 
in the northern GOM, i.e. the number of Caribbean electric rays 
documented in the survey that year.
    The SRT also used a generalized linear model approach in its re-
analysis of the Gulf SEAMAP data. In statistics, a covariate is a 
variable that is possibly predictive of the outcome under study. 
Covariates considered in the analysis that may have affected abundance 
include year, area, water depth, and time-of-day. Irrespective of 
statistical methodology, the major difference between Shepherd and 
Myers (2005) and the analysis conducted by the SRT is the former did 
not take into account major changes in survey design and how they would 
affect the relative abundance of electric ray. There also was an 
apparent misunderstanding of how the catch was sorted.
    Because there were major changes in survey design and survey 
coverage between 1972-1986 and 1987-2013 (Pollack and Ingram 2014), the 
SRT determined that using one continuous time series as Shepherd and 
Myers (2005) did was inappropriate. Instead, the SRT used three 
separate time series: Fall SEAMAP 1972-1986, Fall SEAMAP 1988-2013, and 
Summer SEAMAP 1982-2013. The Fall SEAMAP 1987 trawl survey was omitted 
from analysis because the cruise track differed from that of all the 
other surveys (counter-clockwise around the northern GOM and missed 
half of the area off Texas due to weather). The SRT extended the 
analysis of these survey data 11 years beyond the analysis by Shepherd 
and Myers (2005), to reflect the best available data and the most 
complete representation of abundance over time in the survey. Similar 
to Shepherd and Myers (2005), all N. brasiliensis and Narcine (I, sp. 
were treated as N. bancroftii for this analysis.
    The abundance index constructed for Fall SEAMAP 1972-1986 was 
limited to NMFS statistical zones 11, 13, 14 and 15 (Figure 1). 
Sampling outside of these zones was inconsistent; therefore, the 
analysis was limited to this core area. In addition, all stations 
deeper than 75 m were removed from the dataset since there were no 
records of Caribbean electric ray occurring at those depths from any 
year of the survey. There are, in actuality, only two records in the 
entire SEAMAP data set of Caribbean electric ray occurring beyond 36.5 
m, one in 1972 at 42 m and one in 1975 at 64 m (depths for these 
stations were verified by the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center, 
http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/mgg/coastal/crm.html). The second index 
constructed was Fall SEAMAP 1988-2013. Following the methods outlined 
for the Fall SEAMAP survey, data for this index were limited to NMFS 
statistical zones 10-21 (excluding 12), and at stations shallower than 
31 m. The third index constructed was Summer SEAMAP 1982-2013. Again 
following the methods outlined for the previous time series, data for 
this index were limited to NMFS statistical zones 10--21 (excluding 
12), and at stations shallower than 33 m.
    There were no discernable trends in relative abundance (CPUEs) of 
Caribbean electric ray in any of the three Gulf of Mexico SEAMAP 
indices. All three time series analyzed were relatively flat with peaks 
in abundance scattered throughout the abundance trend. Within the 
northern Gulf of Mexico 9,876 tows were included in the analysis, with 
624 Caribbean electric rays captured. Most captures occurred off the 
coast of Louisiana and Texas. Shepherd and Myers (2005) indicated that 
only 78 individuals were captured from 1972-2002. However, the SRT 
identified 351 individuals recorded from the same time period, more 
than four times as many. Shepherd and Myers' (2005) exclusion of data 
off Texas explains this partly, but the discrepancy also reflects their 
lack of understanding of how the data were sampled (See ``sampled 
versus select'' discussion in Carlson et al. 2016). The distribution of 
Caribbean electric ray seems to be heavily concentrated along the 
barrier islands around south Texas and Mississippi and Louisiana. 
However, off the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana the survey is 
conducted from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 
(NOAA) Ship Oregon II, which cannot fish in waters shallower than 9 m 
due to the vessel's draft. Presently, efforts are being made to include 
waters as shallow as two fathoms (4 m) in the sampling universe, but 
there are only a few research vessels that can sample that shallow. 
With the proportional allocation of stations by NMFS statistical zone, 
very few stations may end up in these shallow depths in future survey 
years. The SRT noted this could lead to a decrease in Caribbean 
electric rays captured by the survey in the future because SEAMAP is no 
longer sampling their habitat and therefore would not reflect abundance 
changes. Overall, the SRT concluded the Caribbean electric ray is a 
rare species to encounter during the trawl surveys due to their 
shallow-water habitat and the inability of research vessels to sample 
that habitat.

South Atlantic SEAMAP

    The SRT also reviewed South Atlantic SEAMAP data. A similar SEAMAP 
survey occurs in the Atlantic Ocean off the southeastern U.S. East 
Coast. Samples are collected by trawl from the coastal zone of the 
South Atlantic Bight between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and Cape 
Canaveral, Florida. Multi-legged cruises are conducted in spring (early 
April-mid-May), summer (mid-July-early August), and fall (October-mid-
November). Stations are randomly selected from a pool of stations 
within each stratum. The number of stations sampled in each stratum is 
determined by optimal allocation. From 1990-2000, the survey sampled 78 
stations each season within 24 shallow water strata. Beginning in 2001, 
the number of stations sampled each season in the 24 shallow water 
strata increased to 102, and strata were delineated by the 4-m depth 
contour inshore and the 10-m depth contour offshore. In previous years 
(1990-2000), stations were sampled in deeper strata with station depths 
ranging from 10 to 19 m in order

[[Page 47768]]

to gather data on the reproductive condition of commercially important 
penaeid shrimp. Those strata were abandoned in 2001 in order to 
intensify sampling in the shallower depth-zone. Further details are 
available in Eldridge (1988).
    Neither we nor the SRT could find a reference or analysis to 
support the IUCN Red List assessment's statement regarding high rates 
of decline in Caribbean electric rays in U.S. coastal areas between 
Cape Canaveral, Florida and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The SRT used 
a generalized linear modeling approach to correct for factors unrelated 
to abundance to standardize the South Atlantic SEAMAP data following 
methods similar to the GOM SEAMAP data. Covariates considered in this 
analysis that may have affected abundance include year, season, area, 
and sampling statistical zone. Time of day was not included as a 
covariate as data were discontinuous due to most participating vessels 
not conducting 24-hour operations. The abundance trend for this time 
series was flat with peaks in abundance of different magnitudes found 
every 5-10 years. The data showed high inter-annual variability in 
Caribbean electric ray catches in the survey, and catches were very low 
throughout, but there was no trend in the catch rates suggestive of a 
decline in Caribbean electric rays.

REEF Data

    The REEF (www.reef.org) is a dataset that is composed of more than 
100,000 visual surveys conducted by volunteer divers during their daily 
dive activities. This data set has been previously used for evaluating 
species abundance trends (e.g., Ward-Paige et al. 2010 and references 
therein) and was referenced in the petition as evidence of the low 
occurrence of Caribbean electric rays along the east coast of Florida, 
the GOM, and the northwestern Caribbean.
    The IUCN had cursorily reviewed 1994-2004 REEF data for apparent 
trends, but had not conducted a thorough analysis. Because these visual 
surveys vary in duration, location and diver skill level (experience, 
including experience in species identification), the SRT applied a 
generalized linear model to examine standardized rates of change in 
sighting frequency as an index of abundance. The SRT considered area as 
a covariate based on 8 major sampling areas from the REEF database: 
Gulf of Mexico, east coast of Florida, the Florida Keys, the Bahamas 
(including Turks and Caicos), and the northwestern Caribbean (including 
Cuba, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Haiti/Dominican Republic), Greater 
Antilles (Puerto Rico to Grenada), Continental Caribbean (Belize-
Panama), and Netherland Antilles. The SRT also considered skill level 
of the diver (experienced or novice), the bottom type, year, season, 
water temperature and water visibility as covariates.
    In the REEF database, Caribbean electric rays were observed on 476 
out of 119,620 surveys (0.4 percent). Caribbean electric rays were 
observed throughout the survey area with sighting records averaging 10-
18 percent of the total number of fish in the Antilles, Bahamas, 
Florida and Central America. Positive occurrences were lowest in the 
northwest Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The average depth where 
diver sightings occurred was about 5 meters generally over a habitat 
where a diver recorded a variety of individual habitats. The final 
covariates included in the model were year, area and bottom type. The 
trend in number of occurrences was relatively flat and similar to the 
other data series that showed high fluctuation across years. Due to the 
low encounter rate, there was high uncertainty in the abundance trend.
    The SRT found that relative abundance fluctuated dramatically 
between years, but found no trend. The final model selected contained 
year, area and bottom type as covariates with the trend in occurrences 
relatively flat with the number of encounters rapidly fluctuating over 
the time series.

State Agency Data

    As noted earlier, the SRT sought additional datasets that were not 
included in the IUCN Red list Assessment or the petition. Fishery 
independent data sets with Caribbean electric ray records were obtained 
from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and Florida Fish and 
Wildlife Research Institute (FFWRI). The North Carolina Department of 
Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) also provided the SRT with 
the 6 records it had from all of its fishery-dependent and -independent 
programs combined.
    The TPWD fishery-independent nearshore Gulf trawl survey is the 
only TPWD program that catches Narcine bancroftii somewhat regularly. 
Trawl collections did not begin coast-wide until 1982 in bays and 1986 
in the GOM. Trawl sampling in Sabine Lake began in January 1986, and in 
East Matagorda Bay in April 1987. The trawl sampling program began in 
the Texas Territorial Sea (within 16.7 kilometers (km) of shore) in 
1984 off Port Aransas (24.1 km either side of each jetty) and was 
expanded to similar areas off the Sabine Pass, Galveston, Port 
O'Connor, and Port Isabel jetties in January 1986 (sampling off Port 
Isabel was restricted to 48.2 km north of the Rio Grande River) 
(Matlock 1992).
    TPWD provided trawl data for the three Gulf areas that encounter 
Caribbean electric rays, i.e., Aransas Pass, Matagorda, and Santiago 
Pass (Mark Fisher, TPFWD, pers. comm. to Jennifer Lee, NMFS SERO, July 
31, 2014). Data from Aransas Pass and Matagorda show increases in 
abundance especially since early 2000. The trend in abundance for 
Santiago Pass increases until the late 1990s, then decreases to its 
original level at the start of the time series. Santiago Pass Caribbean 
electric ray catches were about 0.1/hour from 1985-1990, increased to 
0.4/hour from 1991-2004, then declined back to 0.1/hour from 2005-
present.
    The FFWRI's fisheries independent monitoring program uses a 
stratified-random sampling design to monitor fish populations of 
specific rivers and estuaries throughout Florida. They use a variety of 
gears to sample, including small seines, large seines, and otter 
trawls. The program has long-term data sets for Apalachicola (since 
1998), Cedar Key (since 1996), Tampa Bay (since 1989), and Charlotte 
Harbor (since 1989) along the GOM and Tequesta (since 1997) and Indian 
River Lagoon (since 1990) on the Atlantic Coast.
    Despite the large geographic area sampled and the extensive 
sampling efforts over time, the FFWRI fisheries independent monitoring 
program has collected very few Caribbean electric rays to date (i.e., 
34 specimens). Of these, 13 Caribbean electric rays were collected from 
Apalachicola (i.e., 2 per year in 1998, 2004, and 2012; 1 per year 
during 2000-2002 and 2006-2008, and 2010), 15 were collected from Cedar 
Key (1 per year during 2001-2002 and 2008, 5 in 2004, 2 per year in 
2009 and 2012, and 3 in 2013); 4 were collected from Tequesta (2 in 
1998, and 2 in 2009), and 1 was collected from each of Tampa Bay (1990) 
and Indian River Lagoon (1994). The SRT determined it was not 
appropriate to analyze these data points further due to the rarity of 
this species within their samples.
    The SRT also considered the NCDENR data. The SRT determined it was 
not appropriate to analyze these data points further due to the extreme 
rarity of this species' occurrence (i.e., 6 records) within their 
samples.

Shrimp Observer Program

    The Southeast Fisheries Science Center, Galveston Laboratory, began 
placing at-sea observers on commercial shrimping vessels in 1992 in the 
U.S. southeastern region through a

[[Page 47769]]

cooperative voluntary research effort. In July 2007, a mandatory 
Federal observer program was implemented to characterize the U.S. Gulf 
of Mexico penaeid shrimp fishery, and in June 2008, the mandatory 
program expanded to include the South Atlantic penaeid and rock shrimp 
fisheries. The program was initiated to identify and minimize the 
impacts of shrimp trawling on federally managed species. The specific 
objectives are to (1) estimate catch rates during commercial shrimping 
operations for target and non-target species, including protected 
species by area, season and depth; and (2) evaluate bycatch reduction 
devices designed to eliminate or significantly reduce non-targeted 
catch. During the voluntary research effort, several different projects 
were initiated. One project, referred to as a characterization, 
involved identifying all species in a subsample from one randomly 
selected net. In the mandatory shrimp observer program, there are 
approximately 30 species (common, federally managed, etc.) that are 
selected and subsampled from every sampled net, but other species, 
including Carribbean electric rays, are only grouped into broad 
categories (e.g., crustaceans, inverts, finfish).
    Data associated with commercial trawl bycatch of Caribbean electric 
rays (recorded as Narcine brasiliensis--Ray, Lesser Electric) in the 
eastern GOM and off the east coast of the United States were available 
from the characterization project conducted in 2001, 2002, 2005, and 
2007. A total of 1,150 trawls were observed, and the catch was sorted 
in its entirety to the species level. Across all years, 28 Caribbean 
electric rays were captured during 4,016.6 hours of trawl effort, with 
387 and 763 trawls being observed off the east coast and in the 
northern GOM, respectively. Due to the low occurrence of Caribbean 
electric rays, the SRT chose not to develop an index of abundance for 
this species from these data. The SRT believed the low number of 
animals captured across all years would make the index relatively 
uninformative. These data were evaluated in considering bycatch as a 
potential other manmade factor that may threaten the species.

Anecdotal Reports

    In addition to the datasets reviewed above, the SRT found anecdotal 
accounts of Caribbean electric rays through various other sources. Many 
of these additional anecdotal accounts are from YouTube videos by beach 
goers or forum discussions by boaters and fishermen who encountered the 
species along the northern Gulf Coast. There are also anecdotal reports 
by divers around south Florida, along the Atlantic coast, and 
throughout parts of the Caribbean. A researcher at Auburn University 
provided anecdotal accounts of Caribbean electric rays along the Fort 
Morgan Peninsula in Alabama. The researcher observed large numbers of 
Caribbean electric rays during late summer to early fall over 3 years 
(2011-2013) of sampling in that particular area during that particular 
time of year (Dr. Ash Bullard, to Jennifer Lee, NMFS, pers. com, August 
15, 2014). The most common anecdotal encounters are sightings. The 
sightings typically describe the number of Caribbean electric rays 
observed at one time as very abundant (e.g., ``lots,'' ``everywhere''). 
One anecdote notes that when you know what to look for they can be seen 
everywhere. The SRT noted while these reports cannot be used to analyze 
trends in abundance, they illustrate that people continue to encounter 
the species in coastal areas around the GOM, South Atlantic, and 
Caribbean and that when they do the species appears to be locally 
abundant.

Conclusion

    Based on all times series analyzed by the SRT, including those used 
to support the listing petition, the SRT found no evidence of a decline 
in Caribbean electric ray. Differences in reported trends are related 
to the more robust analysis used by the SRT in the status review. 
Moreover, the preliminary analyses in our 90-day finding used only 
ratio estimators, and we did not have the raw data to derive the 
confidence interval. No discernable trends in abundance of the 
Caribbean electric ray were detected in any of the three Gulf of Mexico 
SEAMAP indices or the South Atlantic SEAMP index. The SRT noted the 
number of encounters did dramatically fluctuate over each time series, 
but that it was not surprising based on the species' apparent clustered 
but patchy distribution over shallow, sandy habitats as documented 
repeatedly in the literature. As additional support for this 
characterization, the SRT noted that recent encounters documented 
through anecdotes indicate the Caribbean electric ray is fairly 
abundant in specific habitats while consistently absent from others. 
The SRT was unable to find any historical or current abundance 
information outside of U.S. waters for the Caribbean electric ray. A 
non-commercial species, there are no statistics on Caribbean commercial 
fishery catches or on efforts that would enable an assessment of the 
population.

Threats Evaluation

A. The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment 
of Its Habitat or Range

    The SRT concluded that man-made activities that have the potential 
to impact shallow sandy habitats include dredging, beach nourishment, 
and shoreline hardening projects (e.g., groins). These types of 
activities can negatively impact Caribbean electric rays by removing 
habitat features (e.g., alteration or destruction of sand bars) and 
affecting prey species. For example, annelids that Caribbean electric 
rays prey on are killed or otherwise directly or indirectly affected by 
large dredge-and-fill projects (Greene 2002).
    The SRT determined that coastal habitats in the United States are 
being impacted by urbanization. Coastal habitats in the southern United 
States, including both the areas along the Atlantic and GOM, have 
experienced and continue to experience losses due to urbanization. For 
example, wetland losses in the GOM region of the United States averaged 
annual net losses of 60,000 acres (24,281 hectares) of coastal and 
freshwater habitat from 1998 to 2004 (Stedman and Dahl 2008). Although 
wetland restoration activities are ongoing in this region of the United 
States, the losses outweigh the gains, significantly (Stedman and Dahl 
2008). These losses have been attributed to commercial and residential 
development, port construction (e.g., dredging, blasting, and filling 
activities), construction of water control structures, modification to 
freshwater inflows (e.g., Rio Grande River in Texas), and oil and gas 
related activities.
    The oil and gas industry may affect marine resources in a variety 
of ways, including increased vessel traffic, the discharge of 
pollutants, noise from seismic surveys, and decommissioning charges. 
Although routine oil and gas drilling activities generally occur 
outside of the known depth range of the species, miles of pipelines 
associated with oil and gas activities may run through Caribbean 
electric ray habitat. The SRT concluded that the effect or magnitude of 
effects on Caribbean electric ray habitat from oil and gas activities 
is unknown. The largest threat is the release of oil from accidental 
spills. While safety precautions are in place to prevent the 
probability of spills and to decrease the duration of spills, these 
events still occur. In the GOM, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was an 
unprecedented disaster, both in terms of the area affected and the 
duration of the spill. The Deepwater Horizon incident resulted in 
injuries to a wide array of

[[Page 47770]]

resources and habitat across the Northern Gulf of Mexico from Texas to 
Florida, including shoreline beaches and sediments, organisms that live 
on and in the sand and sediment, and fish and shellfish and other 
invertebrates that live in the water in nearshore ocean-bottom habitats 
(NOAA 2015, http://www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/restoration-planning/gulf-plan/). While there has been no production of oil along 
the Atlantic coast of the United States to date, there remains the 
possibility of production in the future.
    The SRT reported on NOAA's Restoration Center's involvement in 
ongoing coastal restoration activities throughout the southeastern 
United States. In 2010, NOAA funded coastal restoration activities in 
Texas and Louisiana using appropriations from The American Recovery and 
Investment Act of 2009. In Louisiana, where 25 square miles (64.7 
square kilometers) of wetlands are lost per year, funding from the 
Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act helps to 
implement large-scale wetlands restoration projects, including barrier 
island restoration and terrace and channel construction.
    The SRT anticipated an increase in large-scale restoration projects 
in the GOM to mitigate the adverse effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil 
spill and foster restoration of coastal habitat, including those used 
by the Caribbean electric ray. Numerous large coastal restoration 
projects in the GOM are expected to be funded by the Resources and 
Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies 
of the Gulf Coast States Act, Natural Resource Damage Assessment, and 
Clean Water Act settlement agreements related to the Deepwater Horizon 
oil spill. Many additional restoration projects will also be funded by 
the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, beginning in Fiscal Year 2017.
    While fewer in number, restoration efforts are also expected along 
coastal areas of the South Atlantic states. For example, funding is 
expected to be available to support comprehensive and cooperative 
habitat conservation projects in Biscayne Bay located in south Florida, 
as one of NOAA's three Habitat Focus Areas.
    The SRT concluded the geographic areas in which the Caribbean 
electric ray occurs are being impacted by human activities. Despite 
ongoing and anticipated efforts to restore coastal habitats of the GOM 
and Atlantic off the Southeastern United States, coastal habitat losses 
will continue to occur in these regions as well as throughout the 
Caribbean electric ray's entire range. However, the SRT could find no 
information on specific effects to the Caribbean electric ray beyond 
broad statements on the impacts to coastal habitat resulting from 
development and oil and gas exploration. Data are lacking on impacts to 
habitat features related to the Caribbean electric ray and/or threats 
that result in curtailment of the Caribbean electric ray's range. In 
October 2015, NOAA published a Programmatic Damage Assessment and 
Restoration Plan (PDARP) and Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact 
Statement, which considers programmatic alternatives to restore natural 
resources, ecological services, and recreational use services injured 
or lost as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The PDARP 
presents data on impacts to nearshore habitats and resources, but there 
are no data specific to Caribbean electric rays.
    As discussed above, anthropogenic impacts to shallow, soft bottom 
habitats have been occurring for decades and are expected to continue 
into the future indefinitely. However, there is no available 
information that indicates that the Caribbean electric ray has been 
adversely affected by impacts to the coastal soft bottom habitats they 
prefer. Sand substrate is not limiting throughout the Caribbean 
electric ray's range, and the limited data available on the species' 
movements indicate they do travel between areas with suitable habitat. 
The SRT concluded that predictions of coastal habitat losses adversely 
impacting the Caribbean ray in the future would be speculative.

B. Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or 
Educational Purposes

    The SRT details how McEachran and Carvalho (2002) reported for the 
Narcinidae family that ``flesh of the tail region may be marketed after 
removal of the electric organs in the larger species, but is generally 
considered to be mediocre in quality.'' The SRT notes that in the 
species-specific account for Caribbean electric ray, McEachran and 
Carvalho (2002) reported that ``the tail region may be consumed as food 
and considered of good quality, but it is not targeted regularly by 
fisheries in the Western Central Atlantic.''
    The SRT found no evidence of commercial or recreational harvest of 
the species. Interest in the species by those who detect it in the surf 
zone is largely one of curiosity. As Caribbean electric rays are 
generally nocturnal and spend daylight hours buried under the sand, 
they likely go undetected by the general public. Recreational fishermen 
who are gigging for flounder at night are most likely to encounter this 
species. The SRT noted there are some anecdotal reports of recreational 
surf fishermen capturing them in dip-nets; however, available data 
indicate that captured individuals are released.
    Scientific research on Caribbean electric rays has been sparse. 
Rudloe (1989a) collected and studied the ecology of Caribbean electric 
rays from March 1985 to March 1987, to assess the feasibility of its 
use in biochemical and neurophysiological research. Rudloe (1989a) 
reported catching 3,913 rays at several stations from Cape San Blas to 
Alligator Point, Florida, during this time period. Of these, 3,229 were 
retained, 455 were tagged and released, and 229 were released untagged 
due to small size. Funding for research was discontinued after these 2 
years of sampling.
    The SRT uncovered only a few additional studies involving the 
Caribbean electric ray that post-date the Rudloe study (Dean and Motta 
2004a, b; Dean et al. 2005, 2006; Tao 2013). Dr. Mason Dean led a study 
on Caribbean electric ray husbandry (Dean et al. 2005) and three 
studies on jaw morphology and feeding behavior (Dean and Motta 2004a, 
b; Dean et al. 2006). For these studies, samples were collected using a 
trawl off Cape Canaveral on the east coast of Florida (41 individuals 
total) and in the northeast portion of the GOM (6 individuals); six 
individual specimens preserved at the Florida Museum of Natural History 
that had been collected from Little St. George Island, Florida were 
also used. Tao (2013), as a Ph.D. candidate at Auburn University, 
analyzed the blood vascular systems of ten Caribbean electric rays 
captured in the northern GOM off Alabama for bacteria. The Bullard 
Laboratory at Auburn University provided the samples for that study, 
subsequently releasing them alive after collecting external parasites 
(Dr. Ash Bullard, Auburn University pers. comm. to J. Lee, NMFS, August 
15, 2014). Bullard Laboratory at Auburn University sampled an unknown 
number of additional Caribbean electric rays in accordance with its 
state collection permit; no record was kept of the number of Caribbean 
electric rays observed in the field or the total number of individuals 
examined. A few researchers from the GOM expressed interest in studying 
the species in the future, but the SRT did not uncover nor are we aware 
of any directed studies on Caribbean electric rays at this time.
    Captive display of Caribbean electric rays in public aquaria is 
extremely rare. Due to their selective food habits (i.e.,

[[Page 47771]]

live polychaete worms) and feeding behavior, they are not easy to keep 
in aquaria (Rudloe 1989b, Dean et al. 2005). The 2008 American 
Elasmobranch Society International Captive Elasmobranch Census 
documented two male electric rays and one female electric ray in 
captivity. They were recorded as Narcine brasiliensis and were in 
captivity at a single aquarium. The SRT was unable to determine if 
these animals were still in captivity or the location of this aquarium. 
Nevertheless this serves as the only record of electric rays in 
aquaria.
    The Gulf Marine Specimens Laboratory sells 6-24 cm wild caught 
Caribbean electric rays for $126 (http://www.gulfspecimen.org/specimen/fish/sharks-and-rays/). However, no more than a few are sold annually, 
and the cost of collection and delivery greatly reduces the likelihood 
of their use as student specimens (Jack Rudloe pers. comm. to J. Lee, 
NMFS, August 15, 2014).
    The species has apparent fidelity for specific, localized habitats, 
thus targeting Caribbean electric rays could adversely affect the 
population. However, the SRT found no information to indicate that 
commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational overutilization of 
Caribbean electric rays has occurred or is occurring. Further, based on 
the information presented above, the SRT did not expect overutilization 
by any specific industry in the future.

C. Competition, Disease and Predation

    The available data reviewed by the SRT on competition for Caribbean 
electric ray prey species or other resources, and disease of and 
predation on Caribbean electric rays, are summarized in the Life 
History, Biology, and Ecology Section. The SRT found no information to 
indicate that competition for Caribbean electric ray prey species or 
other resources (e.g., sandy substrate habitat) is negatively affecting 
the Caribbean electric ray abundance or survival. The SRT also found no 
information indicating that predation or disease is impacting Caribbean 
electric ray abundance and survival. Given the lack of data, the SRT 
concluded that predictions of whether competition, predation, or 
disease, may impact the Caribbean electric ray in the future would be 
entirely speculative.

D. Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

    The SRT evaluated this factor in terms of whether existing 
regulations may be inadequate to address potential threats to the 
species. The SRT concluded that although there were no species-specific 
regulations, there is no evidence that the lack of such is having a 
detrimental effect on the Caribbean electric ray.

E. Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting Its Continued Existence

    There are a variety of other natural and manmade factors that may 
affect the Caribbean electric ray and thus the continued existence of 
this species. Factors reviewed by the SRT included the species' life 
history and habitat use, natural events such as extreme tidal or red 
tide events, bycatch in commercial fisheries, and climate change.

Life History and Habitat Use

    Rudloe (1989a) believed the species was potentially vulnerable to 
overharvest as a result of its low rate of reproduction and localized 
distribution. Caribbean electric rays reproduce annually (Rudloe 1989a, 
Moreno et al. 2010) with brood sizes ranging from 1-14 young (Bigelow 
and Schroeder 1953, de Carvalho et al. 1999, Moreno et al. 2010). While 
it is generally believed that elasmobranchs exhibit life history traits 
that make them more susceptible to exploitation (e.g., low fecundity, 
late age of maturity, slow growth), the limited evidence on Caribbean 
electric ray life-history traits and population parameters (e.g., 
mature by age 2, females reproduce every year) likely place the species 
among those elasmobranchs that are more productive. Therefore, the SRT 
did not consider the species to be vulnerable due to its rate of 
reproduction. The SRT did believe the species' patchy distribution and 
fidelity for specific habitats increases vulnerability, but they did 
not find evidence of this vulnerability having detrimental effects on 
the Caribbean electric ray. Thus they believed there was no basis to 
conclude these traits would increase extinction risk into the future.

Natural Events

    Red tide (Karenia brevis) impacts many species of fish and wildlife 
in the GOM and along the Florida coast. Karenia brevis produces 
brevetoxins capable of killing fish, birds, and other marine animals. 
While red tide events can cause deaths of aquatic species, the SRT has 
no information on the extent to which red tides may be affecting the 
Caribbean electric ray. The SRT did not find any reports of red tide 
resulting in Caribbean electric ray mortalities.
    There are a couple of reports of mass strandings of electric rays 
resulting from extremely low tides. The National Park Service at Padre 
National Seashore reported documenting a dozen or so dead electric rays 
in the tidal zone of Padre Island, Texas, after an extremely low tide 
event in the fall. Showing no signs of trauma or disease, officials at 
the National Park Service at Padre National Seashore attributed the 
mortalities to the extreme low tide leaving them stranded. The SRT 
concluded that such events have always occurred occasionally and are 
expected to continue to occur in the future without affecting overall 
population abundance.

Bycatch in Commercial Fisheries

    Caribbean electric rays have been incidentally captured by 
commercial fisheries targeting other species, specifically those 
fisheries using trawl gear. The likelihood and frequency of exposure to 
bycatch in fisheries is generally a function of (1) the extent of 
spatial and temporal overlap of the species and fishing effort, and (2) 
the likelihood of an interaction resulting in capture and the extent of 
injury from capture.
    As stated earlier, data associated with commercial trawl bycatch of 
Caribbean electric ray in the eastern GOM and off the east coast of the 
United States are available from the NMFS Observer Program. During 
2001, 2002, 2005 and 2007, 1,150 trawls were observed and the catch was 
sorted in its entirety to the species level. Across all years, 28 
Caribbean electric rays were captured during 4,016.6 hours of trawl 
effort. NMFS observed 387 trawls off the east coast and 763 trawls in 
the northern GOM over this time period. Trawl duration ranged from 0.1 
to 11 hours (mean = 3.48 hours, S.D. = 1.41) and occurred at depths 
ranging from 0.6 to 71.1 m (mean = 15.08, S.D. = 9.04). In the combined 
areas there were 0.0070 individuals caught per hour of trawling. 
Examining area specific Caribbean electric ray catch rates, there were 
0.0171 and 0.0015 individuals caught per hour off the east coast and in 
the GOM, respectively. For trawls with positive catch, there was no 
significant relationship between trawl duration and the number of 
individuals captured (F = 0.01, P = 0.92), consistent with what would 
be expected for a species with a patchy distribution. Based on the 
number of trawls associated with Caribbean electric ray captures (n = 
10) and the total number of trawls observed (n = 1150), the probability 
of capturing Caribbean electric rays off the east coast and in the GOM 
is 0.0087 (C.V. = 0.3148).
    Acevedo et al. (2007) reported on 99 shrimp trawls in the Caribbean 
Sea off the northern coast of Colombia from

[[Page 47772]]

August to November 2004. These trawls were conducted at depths ranging 
from 14-72 m. Elasmobranch fishes were captured in 30 of the 99 trawls, 
including 6 Caribbean electric rays. The six specimens were reported 
for the months of August and September, the only months in which the 
species was taken.
    The SRT believes the capture of six Caribbean electric rays is 
likely the result of their patchy distribution and not reflective of 
overall Colombian fleet annual catch per unit of effort levels. The SRT 
noted that there are few areas of suitable habitat for the species off 
northern Colombia because the bottoms are rocky or coralline, and that 
this also makes most areas in that area unsuitable for trawling. Based 
on that information, the SRT concluded that it did not believe the 
documented bycatch is particularly notable or cause for concern.
    The lack of sandy bottom habitat in northern Colombia could also 
mean that Caribbean electric rays and trawling effort may overlap more 
in that particular area. However, the SRT did not conclude that 
documented bycatch in Colombia raises concerns about the status of the 
species.
    Overall, the SRT concluded there is no evidence that the bycatch of 
Caribbean electric ray occurring in U.S. or foreign fisheries, 
including the Colombia trawl fisheries, has had any past impact on 
Caribbean electric rays. Given that declines have not been documented 
in U.S. waters where data are available, there is no reason to suspect 
that declines are occurring elsewhere in the species' range. The SRT 
further found there is no basis to conclude that operations of these 
fisheries indefinitely into the future would result in a decline in 
Caribbean electric ray abundance.

Climate Change

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that 
global climate change is unequivocal (IPCC 2007) and its impacts to 
coastal resources may be significant. There is a large and growing body 
of literature on past, present, and future impacts of global climate 
change induced by human activities, i.e., global warming mostly driven 
by the burning of fossil fuels. Some of the likely effects commonly 
mentioned are sea level rise, increased frequency of severe weather 
events, and change in air and water temperatures. NOAA's climate change 
web portal provides information on the climate-related variability and 
changes that are exacerbated by human activities (http://www.climate.gov/#understandingClimate). The EPA's climate change Web 
page also provides basic background information on these and other 
measured or anticipated effects (http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/index.html).
    The SRT concluded that climate change impacts on Caribbean electric 
rays cannot currently be predicted with any degree of certainty. 
Climate change can potentially affect the distribution and abundance of 
marine fish species. Distributional changes are believed to be highly 
dependent on the biogeography of each species, but changes in ocean 
temperature are believed likely to drive poleward movement of ranges 
for tropical and lower latitude organisms (Nye et al. 2009). Evidence 
of climate change-induced shifts in distribution of marine fish has 
been recorded in the western Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and in the 
Northeastern Atlantic (Fodrie et al. 2010, Murawski 1993, Nye et al. 
2009). The SRT predicts that increased water levels and warmer water 
temperatures will have little impact on the species and, if anything, 
could possibly expand its range off the U.S. east coast. Given what the 
SRT knows about the species' current depth distribution, the SRT 
concluded it is unlikely that sea level rise will have adverse effects. 
Similarly, because the range of the Caribbean electric ray seems to be 
restricted to warm temperate to tropical water temperature, the SRT 
concluded increased water temperatures are unlikely to negatively 
influence the species and could possibly expand their northern range in 
the future.

Extinction Risk Analysis

    In addition to reviewing the best available data on potential 
threats to Caribbean electric rays, the SRT considered demographic 
risks to the species similar to approaches described by Wainwright and 
Kope (1999) and McElhany et al. (2000). The approach of considering 
demographic risk factors to help frame the discussion of extinction 
risk has been used in many status reviews (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species). In this approach, the collective condition of individual 
populations is considered at the species level, typically according to 
four demographic viability risk criteria: Abundance, population growth, 
spatial structure/connectivity, and diversity/resilience. These 
viability criteria reflect concepts that are well-founded in 
conservation biology and that individually and collectively provide 
strong indicators of extinction risk.
    Because the information on Caribbean electric ray demographics and 
threats is largely sparse and non-quantitative, the SRT used 
qualitative reference levels for its analysis to the extent consistent 
with the best available information. The three qualitative `reference 
levels' of extinction risk relative to the demographic criteria used 
were high risk, moderate risk, and low risk as defined in NMFS' 
Guidance on Responding to Petitions and Conducting Status Reviews under 
the ESA. A species or distinct population segment (DPS) with a high 
risk of extinction was defined as being at or near a level of 
abundance, productivity, spatial structure, and/or diversity that 
places its continued persistence in question. The demographics of a 
species or DPS at such a high level of risk may be highly uncertain and 
strongly influenced by stochastic or depensatory processes. Similarly, 
a species or DPS may be at high risk of extinction if it faces clear 
and present threats (e.g., confinement to a small geographic area; 
imminent destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat; or 
disease epidemic) that are likely to create present and substantial 
demographic risks.
    A species or DPS was defined as being at moderate risk of 
extinction if it is on a trajectory that puts it at a high level of 
extinction risk in the foreseeable future (see description of ``High 
risk'' above). A species or DPS may be at moderate risk of extinction 
due to projected threats or declining trends in abundance, 
productivity, spatial structure, or diversity.
    A species or DPS was defined as being at low risk of extinction if 
it is not at moderate or high level of extinction risk (see ``Moderate 
risk'' and ``High risk'' above). A species or DPS may be at low risk of 
extinction if it is not facing threats that result in declining trends 
in abundance, productivity, spatial structure, or diversity. A species 
or DPS at low risk of extinction is likely to show stable or increasing 
trends in abundance and productivity with connected, diverse 
populations.
    The SRT evaluated the current extent of extinction risk based on 
Caribbean electric ray relative abundance trends data and the 
likelihood the species will respond negatively in the future to 
potential threats. The foreseeable future is linked to the ability to 
forecast population trends. The SRT considered the degree of certainty 
and foreseeability that could be gleaned concerning each potential 
threat, whether the threat was temporary or permanent in nature, how 
the various threats affect the life history of the species, and whether 
observations concerning the species' response to the threat are 
adequate to establish a trend.

[[Page 47773]]

In evaluating the foreseeable future, it is not just the foreseeability 
of the threats, but also the foreseeability of the impacts of the 
threats on the species that must be considered. Thus, the nature of the 
data concerning each threat and the degree to which reliable 
predictions about their impacts on the species could be made were 
assessed. There are no data documenting discernable decreases in 
relative abundance trends or other data showing that Caribbean electric 
ray populations have been impacted by identified potential threats. The 
magnitude of potential threats and factors described above were 
generally expected to remain unchanged. Thus, the SRT determined it was 
unable to specify a definitive time frame to define the foreseeable 
future for evaluating the degree to which demographic factors and 
potential threats contribute to the species' risk of extinction.

Qualitative Risk Analysis of Demographics

    The SRT's ability to analyze many of the specific criteria embedded 
in the risk definitions for demographic factors was limited. There are 
no data available on age-at maturity or natural mortality that would be 
necessary to determine population growth rates. Population structure 
and levels of genetic diversity in Caribbean electric rays are 
completely unknown, with no genetic studies ever conducted, even for 
the species' taxonomy.
    The SRT determined that the relative abundance trend information 
for Caribbean electric rays represents a low risk to the species' 
continued existence now and into the future. The Caribbean electric ray 
has a broad range in warm temperate to tropical waters of the western 
Atlantic from North Carolina to Florida (its presence in the Bahamas is 
unknown, however), the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea to the 
northern coast of South America. Within its range, it has a patchy 
distribution within relatively shallow waters, often within the surf 
zone. There are no estimates of absolute population size over the 
species' range; however, analyses of available long-term datasets 
indicate that the trend in relative abundance is relatively flat with 
abundance dramatically fluctuating over each time series. The SRT did 
not find this surprising given the patchy distribution over specific 
habitat types.
    The SRT found very little information available on the life history 
of Caribbean electric ray. There are no age and growth studies for this 
species but anecdotal studies suggest rapid growth. Size at maturity 
for females is estimated at about 26 cm TL (Funicelli 1975). Caribbean 
electric rays are estimated to reach reproductive size by the end of 
their first year, and the reproductive cycle is annual (Rudloe 1989a). 
The brood size ranges from 1-14 depending on the study. While it is 
generally regarded that elasmobranchs exhibit life history traits 
(e.g., low fecundity, late age of maturity, slow growth) that make them 
more susceptible to exploitation, the limited evidence on Caribbean 
electric ray life-history traits and population parameters likely place 
the species among those elasmobranchs that are more productive. Thus, 
the SRT believed that the species likely will be able to withstand 
moderate anthropogenic mortality levels and have a higher potential to 
recover from exploitation and stochastic events. The SRT concluded that 
available information on the species' demographic characteristics 
currently represent a low risk of extinction, and risks are unlikely to 
increase into the future.
    The SRT found no evidence that Caribbean electric rays are at risk 
of extinction due to a change or loss of variation in genetic 
characteristics or gene flow among populations currently or into the 
future. This species is found over a broad range and appears to be 
opportunistic and well adapted to its environment. In addition, the 
risk of extinction due to the loss of spatial structure and 
connectivity for the Caribbean electric ray is low. Caribbean electric 
rays have a relatively broad distribution in the western Atlantic Ocean 
generally in habitats dominated by sand bottom substrate. Sand 
substrate is not limiting throughout the range, and the limited data 
available on species movements indicate individuals do travel between 
areas with suitable habitat.

Qualitative Risk Analysis of Threats

    Regarding habitat threats to the species, the SRT concluded that 
man-made activities that have the potential to impact shallow sandy 
habitats include dredging, oil and gas pipelines and pipeline 
development, beach nourishment, and shoreline hardening projects (e.g., 
groins). These types of activities could negatively impact Caribbean 
electric rays by removing habitat features they require. Although 
specific data are lacking on impacts to the Caribbean electric ray, it 
is reasonable to anticipate that coastal development will continue 
perpetually and may damage habitat within the species' range. However, 
the species does occur over a broad range and most impacts to the 
coastal zone have more significantly occurred to wetlands, coral reefs 
and mangrove ecosystems, rather than sand bottom habitats. For these 
reasons, the SRT concluded that the Caribbean electric ray is at low 
risk of extinction due to destruction and modification of habitat 
currently and in the future.
    The SRT determined impacts from overutilization are unlikely to 
cause the species to be at heightened risk of extinction. There is 
little to no direct harvest for the species. The SRT considered bycatch 
in commercial fisheries as one of the natural or manmade factors it 
reviewed. Caribbean electric rays are very uncommon as bycatch in trawl 
and gillnet fisheries. Moreover, many states throughout their U.S. 
range (e.g., Florida, Texas, and Georgia) have banned gillnet fishing 
in state waters which will further reduce the likelihood of bycatch as 
a negative impact on the continued existence of Caribbean electric 
rays. The level of bycatch from U.S. shrimp trawl fisheries is believed 
to be low primarily because they operate mainly in areas where 
Caribbean electric rays are not found. The SRT concluded that 
overutilization presented a low risk of extinction. The risk associated 
with the level of bycatch from U.S. shrimp trawl fisheries is unlikely 
to change in the future given the areas where the fishery mainly 
operates are also unlikely to change. Since 2001, there has been a 
dramatic decrease in otter trawl effort in southeast U.S. shrimp 
fisheries, which has been attributed to low shrimp prices, rising fuel 
costs, competition with imported products, and the impacts of 2005 and 
2006 hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Although otter trawl effort from 
year to year may fluctuate some, there are no data to indicate that 
otter trawl effort levels will increase in the future from recent 
levels. Also, the species has been subject to bycatch for centuries and 
does not appear to have experienced any measurable decline during those 
earlier periods, based on the relative abundance trends data available. 
The SRT also determined the risk to Caribbean electric ray from disease 
or predation is also low now; in the absence of data on past or current 
impacts to the species, the SRT concluded that no impacts can be 
foreseen into the future.

Overall Risk of Extinction Throughout Its Range Analysis

    In this section we evaluate the overall risk of extinction to the 
Caribbean electric ray throughout its range. In determining the overall 
risk of extinction to the species throughout its range, we considered 
available data on the specific life history and ecology of

[[Page 47774]]

the species, the nature of potential threats, any known responses of 
the species to those threats, and population abundance trends. We 
considered the information summarized in the status review report 
(Carlson et al. 2015).
    The SRT determined it could not define a foreseeable future for 
their extinction risk. However, we think the available information on 
abundance trends can provide an appropriate horizon over which to 
consider how the species may respond to potential impacts into the 
future. The fisheries-independent datasets from which we evaluated 
abundance trends span time periods of 11 to 34 years, during which 
abundance trends were flat, with scattered and varied peaks in 
abundance. All of the potential threats evaluated by the SRT were 
occurring at the same time that the fishery independent surveys were 
performed. All of the activities that constitute potential threats were 
also projected by the SRT to continue at their current levels into the 
future. Therefore, we feel it is appropriate to consider the 
foreseeable future to be the next few decades, or 20 to 30 years, for 
Caribbean electric ray. Although the lifespan of Caribbean electric ray 
is not known, based on their early size of maturity and apparent annual 
reproduction, 20 to 30 years would encompass several generations of the 
species and thus any adverse responses to threats would be discernible 
over this timeframe.
    We concur with the SRT's analysis and risk conclusions for 
potential threats and for demographic factors. The threat and 
demographic factors identified present either no risk or at most low 
risk to Caribbean electric ray, now and over the foreseeable future. 
There is no information indicating that any potential threats have 
adversely impacted Caribbean electric ray in the past, and there is no 
basis to predict that potential threats will adversely impact the 
species over the next 20 to 30 years. The species has not faced threats 
in the past, and is not expected to face any over the foreseeable 
future, that would result in declining trends in abundance, spatial 
structure, or diversity.
    Based on all time series of data analyzed by the SRT, including 
those used to support the listing petition, there is no evidence of a 
decline in relative abundance of Caribbean electric rays. No 
discernable trends in abundance of Caribbean electric ray were detected 
in any of the available datasets. Number of encounters did dramatically 
fluctuate over each time series, but we believe this reflects the 
species' apparent clustered but patchy distribution over shallow, sandy 
habitats. Anecdotal accounts of recent encounters indicate they are 
abundant in specific habitats while consistently absent from others. 
Our 90-day determination that the petitioned action may be warranted 
due to impacts from incidental take in fisheries was based on one study 
(Shepherd and Myers 2005) indicating that nearshore shrimp trawl 
fisheries operating in the northern Gulf of Mexico may be negatively 
impacting the species in that region. However, further examination of 
the dataset by the SRT revealed that Shepherd and Myers (2005) did not 
take into account major changes in survey design and how they would 
affect the relative abundance of Caribbean electric rays, and did not 
understand how the catch was sorted, thus Shepherd and Myers (2005) 
underestimated the number of individual reports in the data. The SRT's 
analysis showed no discernable trends in abundance of Caribbean 
electric ray in any of the three Gulf of Mexico Southeast Area 
Monitoring and Assessment Program indices.
    There is no evidence that potential threats comprising ESA section 
(4)(a)(1) factors (A)-(C) or (E) have contributed to heightened 
extinction risk and endangerment of the species. Incidental take in 
fisheries was the only activity we initially believed might be 
resulting in adverse impacts to the species due to the decline 
presented in Shepherd and Myers (2005). However, after further review 
we believe there is no evidence indicating that nearshore shrimp trawl 
fisheries operating in the northern Gulf of Mexico or in foreign waters 
(e.g., Colombia shrimp trawls) are negatively impacting the species in 
those areas.
    Neither we nor the SRT identified any threats under the other 
Section 4(a)(1) factors that may be causing or contributing to 
heightened extinction risk of this species. Therefore, we conclude that 
inadequate regulatory mechanisms (Section (4)(a)(1)(D)) are also not a 
factor affecting the status of Caribbean electric ray.
    So to summarize, we did not find that any of the demographic 
factors or Section 4(a)(1) factors contribute significantly to the 
extinction risk of this species throughout its range, now or in the 
foreseeable future. Based on our consideration of the best available 
data, as summarized here and in Carlson et al. (2016), we determine 
that the present overall risk of extinction to the Caribbean electric 
ray throughout its range is low, and will remain low over the 
foreseeable future, and thus listing as threatened or endangered under 
the ESA throughout its range is not warranted. We also considered 
whether any threats or demographic factors elevated risks to the 
species when considered cumulatively. With no evidence of any decline 
in the species or other negative impacts to life history 
characteristics, there is no evidence to suggest that potential threats 
and demographic factors cumulatively are currently elevating the 
species' risk of extinction, or will elevate extinction risk throughout 
its range over the foreseeable future.

Significant Portion of Its Range (SPOIR)

    Because we found that listing the species as endangered or 
threatened throughout its range was not warranted, we then conducted a 
``significant portion of its range analysis.'' The U.S. Fish and 
Wildlife Service (FWS) and NMFS--together, ``the Services''--have 
jointly finalized a policy interpreting the phrase ``significant 
portion of its range'' (SPOIR) (79 FR 37578; July 1, 2014). The SPOIR 
policy provides that: (1) If a species is found to be endangered or 
threatened in only a significant portion of its range, the entire 
species is listed as endangered or threatened, respectively, and the 
Act's protections apply across the species' entire range; (2) a portion 
of the range of a species is ``significant'' if the species is not 
currently endangered or threatened throughout its range, but the 
portion's contribution to the viability of the species is so important 
that, without the members in that portion, the species would be in 
danger of extinction or likely to become so in the foreseeable future, 
throughout all of its range; and (3) the range of a species is 
considered to be the general geographical area within which that 
species can be found at the time we make any particular status 
determination.
    We evaluated whether substantial information indicated that (i) 
portions of the Caribbean electric ray's range are significant and (ii) 
the species occupying those portions is in danger of extinction or 
likely to become so within the foreseeable future (79 FR 37578; July 1, 
2014). Under the SPOIR policy, both considerations must apply to 
warrant listing a species as threatened or endangered throughout its 
range based upon its status within a portion of the range.
    The historical range of the Caribbean electric ray is in western 
Atlantic shallow coastal waters, from North Carolina through the 
northern coast of Brazil (Carvalho et al. 2007). Individual populations 
are localized and do not migrate extensively, but do move onshore and 
offshore at least seasonally, crossing between barrier beach surf zones 
and sandbars adjacent to passes associated with estuarine barrier 
islands

[[Page 47775]]

(Rudloe 1989a). Movements also include travel east and west between 
sand bar habitats (Rudloe 1989a). Geographically as well as 
quantitatively, those parts of the electric ray's range that are within 
U.S. waters (Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic) may each constitute a 
significant portion of the Caribbean electric ray's range because if 
the population were to disappear from either portion, it could result 
in the rest of the species being threatened or endangered. However, 
there is no information to indicate that the members of the species in 
either the Gulf of Mexico or the South Atlantic have different 
demographic viability or are facing different or more intense threats 
to the point where they would be threatened or endangered in these 
portions. Because a portion must be both significant and threatened or 
endangered before we can list a species based on its status in a 
significant portion of its range, we do not find that listing the 
Caribbean electric ray is threatened or endangered based on its status 
in a significant portion of its range is warranted.

Final Listing Determination

    Section 4(b)(1) of the ESA requires that NMFS make listing 
determinations based solely on the best scientific and commercial data 
available after conducting a review of the status of the species and 
taking into account those efforts, if any, being made by any state or 
foreign nation, or political subdivisions thereof, to protect and 
conserve the species. We have independently reviewed the best available 
scientific and commercial information including the petitions, public 
comments submitted on the 90-day finding (79 FR 4877; January 30, 
2014), the status review report (Carlson et al. 2015), and other 
published and unpublished information. We considered each of the 
statutory factors to determine whether it contributed significantly to 
the extinction risk of the species. As previously explained, we could 
not identify a significant portion of the species' range that is 
threatened or endangered. Therefore, our determination is based on a 
synthesis and integration of the foregoing information, factors and 
considerations, and their effects on the status of the species 
throughout its entire range.
    We conclude that the Caribbean electric ray is not presently in 
danger of extinction, nor is it likely to become so in the foreseeable 
future throughout all of its range. Accordingly, the Caribbean electric 
ray does not meet the definition of a threatened species or an 
endangered species and our listing determination is that the Caribbean 
electric ray does not warrant listing as threatened or endangered at 
this time.

References

    A complete list of all references cited herein is available upon 
request (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT).

Authority

    The authority for this action is the Endangered Species Act of 
1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.).

    Dated: July 18, 2016.
Samuel R. Rauch, III,
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 2016-17397 Filed 7-21-16; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-P