Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports, 32093-32099 [2018-14811]

Download as PDF Federal Register / Vol. 83, No. 133 / Wednesday, July 11, 2018 / Notices species implicated by this action. Therefore, NMFS has determined that the total taking of affected species or stocks would not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of such species or stocks for taking for subsistence purposes. daltland on DSKBBV9HB2PROD with NOTICES Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA: 16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.) requires that each Federal agency insure that any action it authorizes, funds, or carries out is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat. To ensure ESA compliance for the issuance of IHAs, NMFS consults internally, in this case with the West Coast Region (WCR) Protected Resources Division Office, whenever we propose to authorize take for endangered or threatened species. No incidental take of ESA-listed species is expected or authorized from this activity. On April 5, 2018, NMFS WCR issued a Biological Opinion to the Federal Transit Administration concluding the project is not likely to adversely affect Southern Resident killer whales and the Western North Pacific and Central American humpback whale distinct population segments (DPSs). Therefore, NMFS determined that formal consultation under section 7 of the ESA is not required for this action. National Environmental Policy Act To comply with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA; 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.) and NOAA Administrative Order (NAO) 216–6A, NMFS must review our proposed action (i.e., the issuance of an incidental harassment authorization) with respect to potential impacts on the human environment. This action is consistent with categories of activities identified in CE B4 of the Companion Manual for NOAA Administrative Order 216–6A, which do not individually or cumulatively have the potential for significant impacts on the quality of the human environment and for which we have not identified any extraordinary circumstances that would preclude this categorical exclusion. Accordingly, NMFS has determined that the issuance of the IHA qualifies to be categorically excluded from further NEPA review. Authorization As a result of these determinations, NMFS has issued an IHA to Kitsap Transit for the harassment of small numbers of marine mammals incidental VerDate Sep<11>2014 16:26 Jul 10, 2018 Jkt 244001 to construction activities related to the Annapolis Ferry Dock Project, Puget Sound, Washington, provided the previously mentioned mitigation, monitoring, and reporting requirements are incorporated. 32093 SUMMARY: of marine mammals occurring in waters under the jurisdiction of the United States, including the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). These reports must contain information regarding the distribution and abundance of the stock, population growth rates and trends, estimates of annual human-caused mortality and serious injury (M/SI) from all sources, descriptions of the fisheries with which the stock interacts, and the status of the stock. Initial reports were completed in 1995. The MMPA requires NMFS and FWS to review the SARs at least annually for strategic stocks and stocks for which significant new information is available, and at least once every three years for non-strategic stocks. The term ‘‘strategic stock’’ means a marine mammal stock: (A) For which the level of direct humancaused mortality exceeds the potential biological removal level (PBR) (defined by the MMPA as the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population); (B) which, based on the best available scientific information, is declining and is likely to be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) within the foreseeable future; or (C) which is listed as a threatened species or endangered species under the ESA. NMFS and the FWS are required to revise a SAR if the status of the stock has changed or can be more accurately determined. NMFS, in conjunction with the Alaska, Atlantic, and Pacific independent Scientific Review Groups (SRG), reviewed the status of marine mammal stocks as required and revised reports in the Alaska, Atlantic, and Pacific regions to incorporate new information. NMFS updated SARs for 2017, and the revised draft reports were made available for public review and comment for 90 days (82 FR 60181, December 19, 2017). NMFS received comments on the draft 2017 SARs and has revised the reports as necessary. This notice announces the availability of the final 2017 reports for the 75 stocks that were updated. These reports are available on NMFS’ website (see ADDRESSES). Background Technical Corrections to the Final Common Bottlenose Dolphin Barataria Bay Estuarine System and Mississippi Sound, Lake Borgne, Bay Boudreau SARS In the draft 2017 common bottlenose dolphin Barataria Bay Estuarine System (BBES) and Mississippi Sound, Lake Borgne, Bay Boudreau (MS Sound) Dated: July 5, 2018. Donna S. Wieting, Director, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service. [FR Doc. 2018–14753 Filed 7–10–18; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration RIN 0648–XF566 Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Notice; response to comments. AGENCY: As required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NMFS has considered public comments for revisions of the 2017 marine mammal stock assessment reports (SAR). This notice announces the availability of the final 2017 SARs for the 75 stocks that were updated. ADDRESSES: Electronic copies of SARs are available on the internet as regional compilations at the following address: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/ national/marine-mammal-protection/ marine-mammal-stock-assessmentreports-region. A list of references cited in this notice is available at www.regulations.gov (search for docket NOAA–NMFS–2017– 0065) or upon request. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Lisa Lierheimer, Office of Protected Resources, 301–427–8402, Lisa.Lierheimer@noaa.gov; Marcia Muto, 206–526–4026, Marcia.Muto@ noaa.gov, regarding Alaska regional stock assessments; Elizabeth Josephson, 508–495–2362, Elizabeth.Josephson@ noaa.gov, regarding Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean regional stock assessments; or Jim Carretta, 858–546– 7171, Jim.Carretta@noaa.gov, regarding Pacific regional stock assessments. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Section 117 of the MMPA (16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.) requires NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to prepare stock assessments for each stock PO 00000 Frm 00022 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 E:\FR\FM\11JYN1.SGM 11JYN1 32094 Federal Register / Vol. 83, No. 133 / Wednesday, July 11, 2018 / Notices SARs, we updated the abundance estimates but listed the recovery factor for both of these stocks as 0.5, which is the appropriate factor for stocks with unknown status (Wade and Angliss 1997). We should have updated the recovery factor for each stock to 0.4 because the coefficient of variation (CV) of the shrimp trawl mortality estimates for Louisiana bays, sounds, and estuaries (BSE) stocks (BBES SAR) and Mississippi and Alabama BSE stocks (MS Sound SAR) is greater than 0.8 (Wade and Angliss 1997). Based on the recovery factor of 0.4, we recalculated PBR for both stocks; the PBR decreased from 21 to 17 for the BBES stock and from 29 to 23 for the MS Sound stock. In the final 2017 SARs for these two stocks, we have updated the ‘‘Potential Biological Removal’’ section, as well as the Atlantic SARs Summary Table 1, to reflect the update in recovery factor from 0.5 to 0.4 and adjusted PBR values. These technical corrections do not affect the strategic status for either stock. daltland on DSKBBV9HB2PROD with NOTICES Comments and Responses NMFS received letters containing comments on the draft 2017 SARs from the Marine Mammal Commission; seven non-governmental organizations (Cascadia Research Collective, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Hawaii Longline Association, Humane Society Legislative Fund, The Humane Society of the United States, Point Blue Conservation Science, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation); and three individuals. Responses to substantive comments are below; comments on actions not related to the SARs are not included below. Comments suggesting editorial or minor clarifying changes were incorporated in the reports, but they are not included in the summary of comments and responses. In some cases, NMFS’ responses state that comments would be considered or incorporated in future revisions of the SARs rather than being incorporated into the final 2017 SARs. Comments on National Issues Comment 1: The Commission comments that the SARs are a valuable reference to scientists and managers and the parameters in the summary tables for each region are a vital resource for issues involving multiple stocks, or when managing at regional or national levels. The Commission notes the value of the tables would be improved if there were more consistency among regions in the types of information presented and how it is presented. The Commission recommends that NMFS convene a panel, including SAR authors from all three regions, to identify the key VerDate Sep<11>2014 16:26 Jul 10, 2018 Jkt 244001 information to be included, decide how to present that information in a consistent manner in the summary tables for all regions, and facilitate the implementation of these changes for the final 2018 SARs. The Commission notes they would be interested in participating in the panel discussions. Response: We acknowledge and appreciate the Commission’s suggestion, and agree with the Commission that consistency among the regions, particularly the information included in the summary tables, is important. We will look into convening a panel to address how the information we present in the summary tables for each region could be more consistent across the regions and would welcome the Commission’s participation in the panel discussions. However, due to timing constraints for the publication of the draft and final 2018 SARs and other priorities, we cannot commit to setting up a panel and incorporating any recommended changes in time to include in the final 2018 SARs. We will strive to have revised summary tables included in the draft 2019 SARs. Comment 2: The Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (the Organizations) note that NMFS’ late release of the draft 2017 SARs led to a situation where the draft 2018 SARs were drafted and reviewed by the SRGs prior to the finalization of the 2017 reports. The Organizations argue that this overlap in timing of the SARs did not allow the agency an opportunity to meaningfully consider public comments on the draft 2017 SARs before developing the 2018 reports. The Organizations argue that NMFS has failed to make its draft stock assessments ‘‘based on best scientific information available’’ and has repeatedly failed to meaningfully consider the advice of SRGs and the best available science when publishing its final stock assessments. The Organizations suggest that in order to properly consider public comment, SRG input, and best available science, NMFS should follow the following timeline each year: NMFS sends the draft SARs for the current year to the SRGs early in the year; the SRGs meet shortly after to discuss the drafts; the draft SARs are open for public comment; NMFS publishes the final SARs for the current year by the end of the year; NMFS sends the draft SARs for next year to the SRGs early the next year. Response: We acknowledge and agree with this comment regarding the importance of following the SAR process timeline so the current year’s PO 00000 Frm 00023 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 draft SARs do not overlap with the final SARs from the previous year. Unfortunately, the publication of the draft 2017 SARs was delayed until the end of the year. This was an anomaly, and we are actively working to publish the 2018 draft SARs in order to have the 2018 SARs finalized, with submitted public and SRG comments considered, by the end of the year (before the SRGs meet in early 2019 to review the draft 2019 SARs). NMFS respectfully disagrees with the Organizations’ statement that we do not meaningfully consider the comments we receive from the public or the recommendations made by the SRGs. We carefully consider and respond to all substantial comments we receive from the public and the SRGs on the draft SARs and incorporate any revisions into the final SARs. In the event that a report changes substantively as a result of public comment after the SRG has reviewed the next cycle’s draft reports, we would provide the SRGs an opportunity to review such changes. Comment 3: The Hawaii Longline Association (HLA) continues to assert that the SARs are not based upon the best available scientific information because they are based upon data that are at least two years old—even when new, relevant data are otherwise available. NMFS has yet to provide a credible justification for continuing the present two-year delay in the use of information. HLA maintains that the MMPA’s requirement that the SARs be based on the ‘‘best scientific information available’’ is not being met as the SARs do not incorporate the most recent marine mammal interaction information that has been reported by observers and for which the agency has made a serious or non-serious injury determination. HLA notes that for marine mammal interaction purposes, those data are the best available, and yet NMFS does not report it. Response: As noted in previous years, the marine mammal SARs are based upon the best available scientific information, and NMFS strives to update the SARs with as timely data as possible. In order to develop annual mortality and serious injury estimates, we do our best to ensure all records are accurately accounted for in that year. In some cases, this is contingent on such things as bycatch analysis, data entry, and assessment of available data to make determinations of severity of injury, confirmation of species based on morphological and/or molecular samples collected, etc. Additionally, the SARs incorporate injury determinations that have been assessed pursuant to the NMFS 2012 Policy and Procedure for E:\FR\FM\11JYN1.SGM 11JYN1 Federal Register / Vol. 83, No. 133 / Wednesday, July 11, 2018 / Notices daltland on DSKBBV9HB2PROD with NOTICES Distinguishing Serious from NonSerious Injury of Marine Mammals (NMFS 2012), which requires several phases of review by the SRGs. Reporting on incomplete annual mortality and serious injury estimates could result in underestimating actual levels. The MMPA requires us to report mean annual mortality and serious injury estimates, and we ensure that we are accounting for all available data before we summarize those data. With respect to abundance, in some cases we provide census rather than abundance estimates, and the accounting process to obtain the minimum number alive requires two years of sightings to get a stable count, after which the data are analyzed and entered into the SAR in the third year. All animals are not seen every year; waiting two years assures that greater than 90 percent of the animals still alive will be included in the count. As a result of the review and revision process, data used for these determinations typically lag two years behind the year of the SAR. Comments on Alaska Issues Comment 4: The Commission notes that information on subsistence hunting and harvest is becoming increasingly important in light of the pace of changes occurring in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Over the past several years, the Commission has repeatedly recommended that NMFS improve its monitoring and reporting of subsistence hunting and harvest in collaboration with its co-management partners. The Commission appreciates the updates made by NMFS to the SARs in response to these recommendations and encourages NMFS to continue to provide updated information whenever it becomes available, even if it pertains only to a limited number of villages or a subset of years. The Commission states that tracking the numbers of marine mammals successfully hunted as well as the numbers struck and lost, is critical to the management of harvested stocks. The Commission noted that the struck and lost data in the U.S. subsistence harvest information for four stocks of beluga whales in the draft 2017 SARs was absent, presumably due to ‘‘inconsistences in reporting.’’ The Commission encourages the inclusion of all available data, with any uncertainties or needed explanations about the values noted in the SAR, and recommends that NMFS include all available data in the SARs and clearly delineate landings, struck and lost, and total numbers harvested for each beluga whale stock. In addition, the Commission recommends that NMFS work with the VerDate Sep<11>2014 16:26 Jul 10, 2018 Jkt 244001 Alaska Beluga Whale Committee to improve the completeness of and consistency in reporting harvest data, with a focus on struck and lost information for these stocks. Response: We are actively working to improve reporting of struck and lost animals associated with beluga whale subsistence harvests. NMFS works closely with the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, and there is consensus that collecting information on struck and lost animals, along with the numbers of harvested beluga whales, is important to document. We will continue to coordinate with the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee to improve this reporting so we can include these data in future SARs. Comment 5: The Commission referenced their previous comments on draft SARs for the Southeast Alaska (SEAK) stock of harbor porpoise and noted that the harbor porpoise abundance estimates were calculated using an assumption that g(0) (the probability of detection on the trackline) was 1.0, which they stated is almost certainly not adequate. They noted the agency had responded that preliminary data had been collected on g(0) and recommended that this information should be used in lieu of an assumption of 1.0; if this is not possible, the Commission recommended that NMFS choose a value from a study, or studies, that most closely matches the SEAK population and survey in terms of factors that most significantly influence g(0). Response: The Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s (AFSC) Marine Mammal Laboratory attempted to conduct an experiment to estimate g(0) during their 2012 vessel survey of harbor porpoise in Southeast Alaska. Unfortunately, the analysis of the preliminary data indicated that the sample size from the survey was insufficient to compute g(0). In the absence of a g(0) specific to surveys of Southeast Alaska harbor porpoise, the AFSC will select an appropriate value of g(0) from similar surveys of other harbor porpoise populations to compute new abundance estimates from the 2010– 2012 data for the inland waters of Southeast Alaska and for the northern and southern regions of the inland waters. After review by the Alaska Scientific Review Group, we will include these new estimates (and corresponding values for NMIN and PBR) in the draft 2019 Southeast Alaska harbor porpoise SAR. Comment 6: The Commission notes that for several years, NMFS has been reporting an M/SI estimate for the SEAK population of harbor porpoises based on PO 00000 Frm 00024 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 32095 data obtained by fisheries observers from the Yakutat salmon set gillnet fishery in 2007 and 2008, and from the SE Alaska salmon drift gillnet fishery in 2012 and 2013 (Districts 6, 7 and 8, only). That M/SI estimate, of 34 porpoises per year, is considered to be a minimum because observations did not cover all the gillnet fisheries with the potential to take SEAK harbor porpoises. In addition, the estimate is imprecise (aggregate CV = 0.77) because of the very low observer coverage rates on which it is based (5.3 to 7.6 percent per year). Prior to 2017, because of the substantial uncertainty in M/SI estimates, NMFS classified the SEAK harbor porpoise stock as ‘‘strategic’’ under the MMPA. In the draft 2017 SAR, NMFS proposed classifying the stock as ‘‘strategic’’ in light of the large difference between the estimated M/SI and the calculated PBR. Because of the bias in PBR associated with the g(0) estimate described above, the problem could be less severe than it appears or, because of the incomplete observer coverage, it could be worse. Additionally, knowledge of other harbor porpoise populations and preliminary research results presented at the 2018 Alaska SRG meeting suggest that it is quite possible that what currently is delineated as the SEAK harbor porpoise stock in fact consists of two or more stocks. Until the stock structure, and the PBR and M/SI for each stock, are known with more certainty, the magnitude of the threat posed by gillnet fishing will not be fully apparent. In any case, applying the best available science and taking into account the uncertainty in the assessment, it is most likely that the level of take of SEAK harbor porpoises by gillnet fisheries is unsustainable. Response: We acknowledge the Commission’s comment and agree that we cannot fully understand the magnitude of the threat until we acquire more information on stock structure, M/ SI, and PBR. NMFS will continue to pursue avenues to better understand these parameters. Comment 7: The Commission states that the uncertainty of the seriousness of the Southeast Alaska harbor porpoise bycatch problem centers on three factors: (1) Statistical uncertainty in the bycatch rate, (2) bias in the value of PBR, and (3) uncertainty regarding stock structure. To address these issues, the Commission recommends that NMFS: (1) Provide funding and work with the State of Alaska to increase observer coverage throughout all gillnet fisheries in SEAK to a level that will produce a bycatch estimate with a CV less than 0.3; (2) improve the accuracy of the E:\FR\FM\11JYN1.SGM 11JYN1 32096 Federal Register / Vol. 83, No. 133 / Wednesday, July 11, 2018 / Notices daltland on DSKBBV9HB2PROD with NOTICES abundance estimate by using the best available estimate of g(0) for this population or an appropriately selected estimate from a similar population; and (3) continue to give high priority to funding and conducting innovative eDNA investigations of SEAK harbor porpoise stock structure by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Response: NMFS agrees with the Commission’s recommendations. (1) While we recognize the need for more current observer coverage of Statemanaged fisheries, we do not currently have the funds necessary for the Alaska Marine Mammal Observer Program or a similar program that could provide these insights into marine mammal M/SI associated with these fisheries; (2) the AFSC will select an appropriate value of g(0) from similar surveys of other harbor porpoise populations to improve the accuracy of the abundance estimates for harbor porpoise in the inland waters of Southeast Alaska; and (3) NMFS agrees that funding research on eDNA investigations of Southeast Alaska harbor porpoise stock structure is a high priority and hopes to support this work at some level in FY18. Comments on Atlantic Issues Comment 8: The Commission notes that in the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s Whale SAR, the Stock Definition section was revised to include information on acoustic detections in addition to visual sightings, but it did not include citations for the acoustic detections. ˇ ´ Sirovic et al. (2013), Rice et al. (2014), and possibly Soldevilla et al. (2017) are three recent studies that reported on acoustic detections of Bryde’s whales. The Commission recommends that NMFS include the source documents for acoustic detections of Bryde’s whales in the Gulf of Mexico and update the map and caption for Figure 1 in the SAR accordingly. Response: NMFS has added the additional citations regarding acoustic detections of Bryde’s whales to the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s Whale SAR. We have not updated the map with locations of acoustic detections (deployment locations for Marine Autonomous Recording Units and sonobuoys that recorded whale vocalizations) because this information would not alter what we know about Bryde’s whale spatial distribution at this time. Comment 9: The Commission points out that the Habitat Issues section of the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s Whale SAR states that the estimated mortality of Bryde’s whales from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was 3.8 whales between 2011 and 2015, based on population modeling. The Commission VerDate Sep<11>2014 16:26 Jul 10, 2018 Jkt 244001 recommends that NMFS report the estimate of oil spill-caused mortality of 3.8 whales in the Human-Caused Mortality and Serious Injury section of the Bryde’s whale SAR to clarify how NMFS derived an annual mean mortality of 0.7 whales per year for the period 2011–2015, based solely on the reported 22 percent decline in abundance as a result of the oil spill. The Commission also recommends that NMFS add a statement to the Current Population Trend section to reflect the projected 22 percent decline in population size resulting from the spill, as was done for the Barataria Bay bottlenose dolphin stock. Response: We have taken the Commission’s recommendation and expanded the Other Mortality text within the Annual Human-Caused Mortality and Serious Injury section to clarify that the 0.8 (corrected from 0.7) annual mean mortality is derived from the mortality estimate of 3.8 whales for the period 2011–2015 due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. However, we have not made any further edits to the Current Population Trend section as this section already makes a statement regarding the 22 percent decline in population size. Comment 10: One commenter pointed out that North Atlantic right whales and Gulf of Maine Humpback whales have undergone ‘‘significant mortality events’’ in the past year(s) which do not appear to be included in the M/SI estimates in the 2017 SARs. Response: See response to Comment 3. The 2017 SAR covers data from 2011– 2015. Mortality events in 2016 will first appear in the 2018 SARs, and those from 2017 will appear in the 2019 SARs. We will make an exception in the North Atlantic right whale 2018 SAR and include the unusual number of events in 2017 in the text, but these events will not be included in the table or in estimates of mortality until the 2019 SAR. Comment 11: One commenter suggested inclusion of data on the shifting baseline in the marine environment and habitat factors in the SARs for North Atlantic right whale and Gulf of Maine humpback whales, analogous to the Essential Fish Habitat component for fisheries management used under the Magnuson-Stevens Sustainable Fisheries Act. This type of data could provide insights on changes in distribution/abundance in space/ time. The shifting baseline phenomenon from increased human usage and environmental changes requires some type of dynamic component to the SAR models which would allow confidence PO 00000 Frm 00025 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 intervals for the abundance and M/SI values. Response: NMFS thanks the commenter for raising concerns about the shifting baseline phenomenon and the importance of including habitat factors and note that we are taking these issues into consideration in our modeling approaches. For example, we are currently working on seasonal habitat models for all cetaceans that may be useful in tracking humpback, fin and sei whale area use patterns because they are based on malleable oceanographic features. Comments on Pacific Reports Comment 12: The Commission notes that NMFS has reported a substantial recent increase in the number of entanglements of humpback and blue whales on the West Coast. Prior to 2015, no entanglements of blue whales had been reported, but 12 blue whale entanglements were confirmed between 2015 and 2017. From 1982 to 2013, the number of confirmed West Coast entanglements of humpback whales averaged 2.1 animals per year. The Commission stresses that the substantial number of entanglements of humpback whales that have occurred recently on the West Coast is a matter of concern and may reflect a problem that has gone undetected for much longer. The Commission points out that with the addition of M/SI from other causes (e.g., entanglements in other gear types and ship strikes), the average confirmed M/SI over 2011–2015 was 9.2 whales per year, which is very close to the PBR of 11 whales for this stock. Considering undetected entanglements, the average M/SI of humpback whales almost certainly was greater than PBR for this period. The uncertainty associated with undetected M/SI is compounded by undetected ship strikes. Two recent publications (Rockwood et al., 2017 and Nichol et al., 2017) assessing largewhale ship-strike risk on the West Coast were not cited in the draft 2017 Pacific SARs. The MMPA requires SARs for strategic stocks be reviewed at least annually and updated when necessary, as in the case of a significant increase in M/SI. Given recent increases in entanglements and in M/SI, the Commission notes the delay in reviewing these two stocks is unacceptable and recommends that NMFS either incorporate the best available science into the 2017 SARs or prepare draft 2018 SARs for the West Coast humpback and blue whale stocks, to be reviewed intersessionally by the Pacific SRG, so that they can be included in the final 2018 SARs. E:\FR\FM\11JYN1.SGM 11JYN1 daltland on DSKBBV9HB2PROD with NOTICES Federal Register / Vol. 83, No. 133 / Wednesday, July 11, 2018 / Notices Response: We acknowledge and appreciate the Commission’s concerns. The publication of the Rockwood et al. (2017) vessel strike estimates occurred after the draft 2017 SARs had been submitted for agency clearance. We have updated the final 2017 SARs to note the availability of these new estimates, and we will incorporate the results of those vessel strike estimates into the draft 2018 SARs for both humpback and blue whales. Comment 13: Point Blue and Cascadia Research suggest that NMFS incorporate the results from their recent publication (Rockwood et al., 2017) on the assessment of mortality from ship strikes for both blue and humpback whales into the 2017 SARs. This publication uses a new approach to estimate one of the key parameters regarding ship strike mortality, the underreporting rate, and shows that based on this new analysis (that is consistent with other data on recovery rates) ship strike mortality is being severely under estimated. They note the SARs have acknowledged that documented cases of ship strikes are certain to be underestimates of the true number of deaths, and assert that their research provides a metric for how many ship strike deaths actually occur relative to the number documented. Rockwood et al. (2017) reports a best conservative estimate of 18 blue and 22 humpback whale deaths per 6-month season. Based on these predictions and the average annual strike reports from 2006–2016 (1.0 for blue and 1.4 for humpback whale), they calculated that 95 percent of blue whale and 94 percent of humpback whale strike deaths go undocumented. Given the uncertainty in accounting for whale collision avoidance, they also calculated strike mortality in the case of no avoidance, producing estimates of 40 blue and 48 humpback whale deaths. In addition, Point Blue notes that the lack of detected blue whale strike deaths from 2011–2015 results in an assumption of zero strike mortality and a determination that the current level of serious injury and mortality is less than 10 percent of PBR. They stress that the Rockwood et al. (2017) results should be included in the 2017 SAR since it provides evidence that blue whale ship strike mortality is almost certainly ongoing and well above zero. Response: See response to Comment 12. Comment 14: Cascadia Research notes the CA/OR/WA humpback whale SAR does not include that in addition to the underestimated ship strike mortality, fishery mortality is also being dramatically underestimated based on VerDate Sep<11>2014 16:26 Jul 10, 2018 Jkt 244001 information available at the time of the draft document that would certainly put this overall stock well above PBR. Entanglement mortality of humpback whales off California went through a dramatic increase starting in 2015 and continuing through 2016 and 2017. Fishery mortality in the draft SAR is based on a 5-year average through 2015 so only includes one of these three years of elevated mortality in the 5-year average. Cascadia Research suggests the SAR should mention this increased mortality known for those added years and that new calculations conducted in a similar fashion with the known 2016 or 2017 entanglements would have put the 5-year average above the PBR. Further, like ship strike mortality, observed entanglement rates dramatically underestimate true mortality and no correction for this underreporting is made in the SAR. The concerns above that would result in mortality exceeding PBR do not include this under-reporting and compound the downward bias to how this is represented in the SAR. Response: See response to Comment 3. The review cycle for the draft 2017 SARs results in data through 2015 being available for incorporation into the draft reports. Entanglement data through 2016 will be incorporated into the draft 2018 SARs for blue and humpback whales. Comment 15: Cascadia Research notes that the humpback whale SAR may give the mistaken impression that the new status of humpback whales under the ESA may change how the PBR’s are calculated and alter the mortality exceeding PBR. However, they suggest that as the small endangered Central America humpback whale DPS is made up almost entirely of whales that feed off the California coast, the observed mortality will exceed PBR in future years due to the California entanglements regardless of how the new calculations are made. Response: As described in our Federal Register notice requesting comments on the Draft 2017 Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports (82 FR 60181, December 19, 2017), NMFS is currently in the process of reviewing stock structure under the MMPA for all humpback whales in U.S. waters, following the change in ESA listing for the species in 2016, to determine whether we can align the stocks with the DPSs under the ESA. The most current SAR does not delineate a Central America DPS of humpback whales as a stock under the MMPA. Until such time that the humpback whale stock structure under the MMPA with respect to the ESA listing has been PO 00000 Frm 00026 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 32097 completed, we are retaining the current stock delineations and it is premature to hypothesize calculations of PBR in future years. Any changes in stock delineation or MMPA section 117 elements (such as PBR or strategic status) will be reflected in future stock assessment reports. Comment 16: CBD comments that NMFS is required to review and incorporate new scientific information in the stock assessments and revise the assessment for strategic stocks, such as the humpback whale, at least annually. While NMFS began the process to examine the stock structure in the spring of 2016, including considering revising the stock assessment to incorporate information about the breeding population, it has not finalized its analysis. CBD stresses that NMFS should not further delay publishing a final revision to the humpback whale stock assessment report in accordance with the best available science to reflect the distinct population segments off the U.S. West Coast. They note the practical implication of the delay is that ship strikes and fisheries continue without adequate mitigation, including recategorizing West Coast pot and trap fisheries, which present the largest known fisheries threat to humback whales, as ‘‘Category I.’’ CBD asserts that assessing PBR at the level of the distinct population segment (DPS) is more informative for determining the population impact of the effect of ship strikes on humpback whales. Response: We agree that revising the stock structure for humpback whales is a high priority; however, the process of reviewing stock structure under the MMPA has taken longer than anticipated. See response to Comment 15 above. Comment 17: CBD comments that humback whale stocks on the West Coast should correspond to the distinct population segments (as listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2016) and the Mexico and Central America DPSs should not be considered in one stock. They assert that to protect the precariously low abundance of Central America humpback whales, the PBR for whales off California, Oregon and Washington should be based on the abundance of the Central America DPS (a PBR level of 0.8), and all injury and mortality of humpback whales that occurs off California should be assigned to the Central America DPS. CBD is concerned that the delay in action jeopardizes the future of humpback whales in the Central America distinct population segment and recommends that NMFS revise the draft stock assessment to show that at a maximum, E:\FR\FM\11JYN1.SGM 11JYN1 daltland on DSKBBV9HB2PROD with NOTICES 32098 Federal Register / Vol. 83, No. 133 / Wednesday, July 11, 2018 / Notices the smallest stock of humpback whales on the West Coast has no more than 411 individuals. Response: As described in our response to Comment 15 above, we are in the process of reviewing the MMPA humpback whale stock delineations; until such time that the humpback whale stock structure under the MMPA with respect to the ESA listing has been completed, we are treating existing MMPA stocks that fully or partially coincide with a listed DPS as depleted, and stocks that do not fully or partially coincide with a listed DPS as not depleted for management purposes. Therefore, in the interim, we will continue to treat the California/Oregon/ Washington stock as endangered and depleted. Currently, there is no Central America DPS stock of marine mammals delineated under the MMPA. Comment 18: CBD requests that the final stock assessment report for Southern Resident Killer whales accurately reflects the recent decline and alarmingly low population. The death of the two-year-old male orca known as ‘‘J52’’ was confirmed in September 2017 by the Center for Whale Research, which reported malnutrition as the likely cause. The population of critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales, which makes its home in Puget Sound and migrates along the West Coast, dipped from 83 in 2016 to only 76 by the end of 2017. This change represents the biggest decline in population from year-to-year ever recorded. CBD suggests that especially in light of the decline, NMFS should update the draft SARs to ensure it contains accurate and timely information. Response: NMFS drafted the 2017 SAR before the end-of-year 2017 population size estimates were available. We will include new estimates in the draft 2018 SAR for southern resident killer whales. Comment 19: The HLA recognizes that the false killer whale draft 2017 SAR appropriately calculates separate M/SI rates for only the years 2013 through 2015, so that the fisheries, as currently managed, can be more accurately evaluated against the relevant PBRs. However, HLA reiterates that NMFS should eliminate the five-year look-back period and report only data generated after the False Killer Whale Take Reduction Plan (FKWTRP) regulations became effective, and the data prior to 2013 should no longer be used because it is no longer part of the best available scientific information. HLA suggests that, at a minimum, NMFS should not continue to use pre2013 data for the Main Hawaiian Islands VerDate Sep<11>2014 16:26 Jul 10, 2018 Jkt 244001 Insular FKW Stock (Insular Stock) and asserts that the TRP has resulted in decreased interactions with the Insular Stock because (i) the TRP regulations closed the fishery to almost all of the Insular Stock’s range, (ii) effort in the Insular Stock’s range has drastically reduced to almost zero as a consequence, and (iii) the fishery has had zero interactions with the Insular Stock since 2013. They stress that this is the situation contemplated by the Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks (GAMMS), which recommends ‘‘if within the last five years the fishery has changed (e.g., fishing effort or the mortality rate per unit of fishing effort has changed), it would be more appropriate to use only the most recent relevant data to most accurately reflect the current level of annual mortality.’’ HLA states that if NMFS continues to regulate the deep-set fishery as if it has interactions with the insular stock, it will undermine any TRT discussions regarding the Insular Stock and HLA may also be forced to reconsider its position on the Insular Stock closure. Response: NMFS has responded to similar versions of this comment previously. As noted in prior responses, if there have been significant changes in fishery operations that are expected to affect incidental mortality rates, such as the 2013 implementation of the FKWTRP, the GAMMS (NMFS 2016) recommend using only the years since regulations were implemented. The SAR contains information preceeding and following the FKWTRP, 2008–2012 and 2013–2015 respectively, and reports M/SI for these two time periods as well as the most recent 5-year average. Both the 3 year post-TRP average take rate, as well as the 5-year average that spans the period before and after the TRP, indicate the pelagic stock fishery take is below PBR; and, therefore, the stock is not considered strategic. NMFS continues to report the 5-year average in the Status of Stock section for the pelagic stock because various assessments of FKWTRP effectiveness note that neither overall take rate nor the rate of nonserious injury for the pelagic stock are significantly reduced through the implementation of the FKWTRP. NMFS does agree with HLA that the expanded longline exclusion area implemented under the FKWTRP offers near complete protection to this stock from interactions with the longline fishery, and as such has modifed the Status of Stock section for this stock to reflect this change. Comment 20: The HLA notes that for a decade (until this year) NMFS has reported a M/SI rate for the deep-set PO 00000 Frm 00027 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 fishery that exceeds PBR for the Hawaii pelagic false killer whale stock (‘‘pelagic stock’’). However, the best available information suggests that the number of false killer whales in the Hawaii EEZ has not declined during the same time that the supposedly unsustainable M/SI rate was occurring. The HLA disagrees with the M/SI levels reported in the draft SAR and with NMFS’ conclusion that the vast majority of all fishery interactions with the pelagic stock cause injuries that ‘‘will likely result in mortality.’’ If that were the case, then after a decade or more of allegedly unsustainable levels of take, there would be some evidence of a declining pelagic stock abundance. No such evidence exists. The HLA recommends that the draft SAR expressly recognize this discrepancy, and NMFS should revisit the manner in which it determines M/SI for false killer whale interactions. Response: This comment has been addressed previously (see 78 FR 19446, April 1, 2013, comments 45 and 51; 79 FR 49053, August 18, 2014, comment 26; 80 FR 50599, August 20, 2015, comment 34; 81 FR June 14, 2016, comment 44; and 82 FR June 27, 2017, comment 44). The comment contends that the stock abundance has not declined in over a decade and attributes this persistence of false killer whales despite high levels of fishery mortality to NMFS’ improper assessment of the severity of injuries resulting from fisheries interactions, improper assessment of population abundance and trend, or both. Assessment of injury severity under NMFS’ 2012 serious injury policy (NMFS 2012) has been discussed in numerous previous comment responses and is based on the best available science on whether a cetacean is likely to survive a particular type of injury. Further study of false killer whales would certainly better inform the assigned outcomes; but, until better data become available, the standard established in the NMFS 2012 policy on distinguishing serious from non-serious injuries will stand. Further, assessments of pelagic false killer whale population trend are inappropriate for several reasons: (1) The entire stock range is unknown, but certainly extends beyond the Hawaii EEZ, such that the available abundance estimates do not reflect true population size; (2) there have been only two surveys of the entire Hawaii EEZ, an insufficient number to appropriately assess trend, shifts in distribution, or any examination of false killer whale population health; and (3) the available survey data were collected with different protocols for assessing E:\FR\FM\11JYN1.SGM 11JYN1 daltland on DSKBBV9HB2PROD with NOTICES Federal Register / Vol. 83, No. 133 / Wednesday, July 11, 2018 / Notices false killer whale group size, a factor that will significantly impact the resulting abundance estimates. A robust assessment of population trend will require additional data and inclusion of environmental variables that influence false killer whale distribution and the proportion of the population represented within the survey area during each survey period. Comment 21: The HLA notes that the draft false killer whale SAR updates the Insular Stock population estimate to 167 based upon an unpublished paper by Bradford et al., which concludes that the population size of the Insular Stock of false killer whales in certain study areas has consistently ranged between 144 and 187 animals over a 16-year period. However, in reporting 167 as the population size for the Insular Stock, the Draft SAR states that the Bradford et al. annual estimate ‘‘represents only the animals present in the study area within that year.’’ HLA suggests that, if the reported 2015 abundance estimate of 167 applies only to a study area that is smaller than the range of the Insular Stock of false killer whales, then the actual abundance of the entire Insular Stock must be some amount higher than 167. HLA states that they are unable to sufficiently comment on this issue because the Bradford et al. paper is unpublished and not available for public review. Response: NMFS notes that although the abundance estimates provided in Bradford et al. are limited to the number of animals in the survey area in each survey year, they are still the best available estimates of population size. The new estimates account for many sources of potential bias, and although we expect that limiting estimates to the surveyed area for a given year does likely result in an under estimation of abundance in years when the surveyed area is smaller than the stock area, we do not have sufficient information to correct annual estimates for the extent of the survey area. NMFS feels the use of estimates derived from the best available data spanning 15 years of surveys is far better than use of catalog size, the previous metric for the minimum population estimate (Nmin) in the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) insular false killer whale SAR. Further, the Nmin derived from the new markrecapture estimates meets the definition of Nmin provided within the GAMMS (NMFS 2016). Although cited as ‘‘in review,’’ the Bradford et al. paper was reviewed by the Pacific SRG at its 2017 meeting and is currently in review for journal publication. Comment 22: The HLA incorporates by reference its more specific comments VerDate Sep<11>2014 16:26 Jul 10, 2018 Jkt 244001 on previous draft SARs related to: (1) The assignment of a recovery factor to the pelagic stock of false killer whales, and continues to maintain that NMFS should apply a recovery factor to the pelagic stock that is greater than 0.5; (2) the 2010 Hawaiian Islands Cetacean Ecosystem and Assessment Survey (HICEAS) and the assumptions made by NMFS based upon the data from that survey, and assert that NMFS has inappropriately withheld acoustic data that should be publicly disclosed and reported; and (3) NMFS’ assumption that the insular stock of false killer whales has declined is speculative. Response: NMFS reiterates its responses to these comments from previous SARs. Specifically: (1) Reanalysis of existing datasets to derive more precise estimates does not constitute an increase in population size. There are only two EEZ-wide estimates of abundance (484 from a 2002 survey and 1,540 from a 2010 survey). These estimates may not be directly compared due to changes in group size enumeration methods between those surveys. For this reason, the current status of pelagic false killer whales is unknown. (2) NMFS has not made any attempt to withhold the acoustic data from the HICEAS 2010 survey. It can be made available by request. NMFS has used the HICEAS 2010 data for a variety of analyses, including the development of automated routines to detect and classify false killer whale and other species’ sounds, to assess false killer whale sub-group spatial arrangements, and other projects. There were many changes in array hardware during the survey, complicating streamlined analyses of these data, such that a fullscale analysis of this dataset for abundance is not appropriate, efficient, or cost-effective at this time. (3) NMFS makes no assumption that MHI insular stock abundance has declined in recent years. The minimum estimate reflects the number of individuals enumerated during the stated period and may reflect not only changes in actual population abundance, but also changes in encounter rates due to survey location or animal distribution. Dated: July 6, 2018. Donna S. Wieting, Director, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service. [FR Doc. 2018–14811 Filed 7–10–18; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P PO 00000 Frm 00028 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 32099 DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for the Coral Reef Conservation Program; Notice of Intent; Scoping Period Announcement Office for Coastal Management (OCM), National Ocean Service (NOS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Commerce (DOC). ACTION: Notice of intent; announcement of public scoping period and request for written comments. AGENCY: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Office for Coastal Management announces its intention to prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) for its Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP), which is managed out of NOAA’s National Ocean Service in Silver Spring, MD, and implemented in coastal areas and marine waters of Florida, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, the U.S. Pacific Remote Island Area, and targeted international regions including the wider Caribbean, the Coral Triangle, the South Pacific, and Micronesia. Publication of this document begins the official scoping period that will help identify issues and alternatives to be considered in the PEIS. DATES: Written comments on the intent to prepare a PEIS will be accepted on or before Wednesday, August 15, 2018. ADDRESSES: You may submit scoping comments for the CRCP PEIS by any of the following methods: • Federal e-Rulemaking Portal: Go to http://www.regulations.gov/NOAANOS-2018-0077. Click the ‘‘Comment Now!’’ icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments. • Mail: Please direct written comments to Harriet Nash, Deputy Director, NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, Office for Coastal Management, 1305 East-West Highway, N/OCM6, Room 10404, Silver Spring, MD 20910. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: SUMMARY: Background NOAA is preparing a Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (DPEIS) for coral reef E:\FR\FM\11JYN1.SGM 11JYN1

Agencies

[Federal Register Volume 83, Number 133 (Wednesday, July 11, 2018)]
[Notices]
[Pages 32093-32099]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2018-14811]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

RIN 0648-XF566


Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports

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

ACTION: Notice; response to comments.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

SUMMARY: As required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NMFS 
has considered public comments for revisions of the 2017 marine mammal 
stock assessment reports (SAR). This notice announces the availability 
of the final 2017 SARs for the 75 stocks that were updated.

ADDRESSES: Electronic copies of SARs are available on the internet as 
regional compilations at the following address: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-mammal-protection/marine-mammal-stock-assessment-reports-region.
    A list of references cited in this notice is available at 
www.regulations.gov (search for docket NOAA-NMFS-2017-0065) or upon 
request.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Lisa Lierheimer, Office of Protected 
Resources, 301-427-8402, [email protected]; Marcia Muto, 206-
526-4026, [email protected], regarding Alaska regional stock 
assessments; Elizabeth Josephson, 508-495-2362, 
[email protected], regarding Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and 
Caribbean regional stock assessments; or Jim Carretta, 858-546-7171, 
[email protected], regarding Pacific regional stock assessments.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 

Background

    Section 117 of the MMPA (16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.) requires NMFS and 
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to prepare stock assessments 
for each stock of marine mammals occurring in waters under the 
jurisdiction of the United States, including the Exclusive Economic 
Zone (EEZ). These reports must contain information regarding the 
distribution and abundance of the stock, population growth rates and 
trends, estimates of annual human-caused mortality and serious injury 
(M/SI) from all sources, descriptions of the fisheries with which the 
stock interacts, and the status of the stock. Initial reports were 
completed in 1995.
    The MMPA requires NMFS and FWS to review the SARs at least annually 
for strategic stocks and stocks for which significant new information 
is available, and at least once every three years for non-strategic 
stocks. The term ``strategic stock'' means a marine mammal stock: (A) 
For which the level of direct human-caused mortality exceeds the 
potential biological removal level (PBR) (defined by the MMPA as the 
maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may 
be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to 
reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population); (B) which, based 
on the best available scientific information, is declining and is 
likely to be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered 
Species Act (ESA) within the foreseeable future; or (C) which is listed 
as a threatened species or endangered species under the ESA. NMFS and 
the FWS are required to revise a SAR if the status of the stock has 
changed or can be more accurately determined. NMFS, in conjunction with 
the Alaska, Atlantic, and Pacific independent Scientific Review Groups 
(SRG), reviewed the status of marine mammal stocks as required and 
revised reports in the Alaska, Atlantic, and Pacific regions to 
incorporate new information.
    NMFS updated SARs for 2017, and the revised draft reports were made 
available for public review and comment for 90 days (82 FR 60181, 
December 19, 2017). NMFS received comments on the draft 2017 SARs and 
has revised the reports as necessary. This notice announces the 
availability of the final 2017 reports for the 75 stocks that were 
updated. These reports are available on NMFS' website (see ADDRESSES).

Technical Corrections to the Final Common Bottlenose Dolphin Barataria 
Bay Estuarine System and Mississippi Sound, Lake Borgne, Bay Boudreau 
SARS

    In the draft 2017 common bottlenose dolphin Barataria Bay Estuarine 
System (BBES) and Mississippi Sound, Lake Borgne, Bay Boudreau (MS 
Sound)

[[Page 32094]]

SARs, we updated the abundance estimates but listed the recovery factor 
for both of these stocks as 0.5, which is the appropriate factor for 
stocks with unknown status (Wade and Angliss 1997). We should have 
updated the recovery factor for each stock to 0.4 because the 
coefficient of variation (CV) of the shrimp trawl mortality estimates 
for Louisiana bays, sounds, and estuaries (BSE) stocks (BBES SAR) and 
Mississippi and Alabama BSE stocks (MS Sound SAR) is greater than 0.8 
(Wade and Angliss 1997). Based on the recovery factor of 0.4, we 
recalculated PBR for both stocks; the PBR decreased from 21 to 17 for 
the BBES stock and from 29 to 23 for the MS Sound stock. In the final 
2017 SARs for these two stocks, we have updated the ``Potential 
Biological Removal'' section, as well as the Atlantic SARs Summary 
Table 1, to reflect the update in recovery factor from 0.5 to 0.4 and 
adjusted PBR values. These technical corrections do not affect the 
strategic status for either stock.

Comments and Responses

    NMFS received letters containing comments on the draft 2017 SARs 
from the Marine Mammal Commission; seven non-governmental organizations 
(Cascadia Research Collective, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), 
Hawaii Longline Association, Humane Society Legislative Fund, The 
Humane Society of the United States, Point Blue Conservation Science, 
and Whale and Dolphin Conservation); and three individuals. Responses 
to substantive comments are below; comments on actions not related to 
the SARs are not included below. Comments suggesting editorial or minor 
clarifying changes were incorporated in the reports, but they are not 
included in the summary of comments and responses. In some cases, NMFS' 
responses state that comments would be considered or incorporated in 
future revisions of the SARs rather than being incorporated into the 
final 2017 SARs.

Comments on National Issues

    Comment 1: The Commission comments that the SARs are a valuable 
reference to scientists and managers and the parameters in the summary 
tables for each region are a vital resource for issues involving 
multiple stocks, or when managing at regional or national levels. The 
Commission notes the value of the tables would be improved if there 
were more consistency among regions in the types of information 
presented and how it is presented. The Commission recommends that NMFS 
convene a panel, including SAR authors from all three regions, to 
identify the key information to be included, decide how to present that 
information in a consistent manner in the summary tables for all 
regions, and facilitate the implementation of these changes for the 
final 2018 SARs. The Commission notes they would be interested in 
participating in the panel discussions.
    Response: We acknowledge and appreciate the Commission's 
suggestion, and agree with the Commission that consistency among the 
regions, particularly the information included in the summary tables, 
is important. We will look into convening a panel to address how the 
information we present in the summary tables for each region could be 
more consistent across the regions and would welcome the Commission's 
participation in the panel discussions. However, due to timing 
constraints for the publication of the draft and final 2018 SARs and 
other priorities, we cannot commit to setting up a panel and 
incorporating any recommended changes in time to include in the final 
2018 SARs. We will strive to have revised summary tables included in 
the draft 2019 SARs.
    Comment 2: The Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society 
Legislative Fund, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (the 
Organizations) note that NMFS' late release of the draft 2017 SARs led 
to a situation where the draft 2018 SARs were drafted and reviewed by 
the SRGs prior to the finalization of the 2017 reports. The 
Organizations argue that this overlap in timing of the SARs did not 
allow the agency an opportunity to meaningfully consider public 
comments on the draft 2017 SARs before developing the 2018 reports. The 
Organizations argue that NMFS has failed to make its draft stock 
assessments ``based on best scientific information available'' and has 
repeatedly failed to meaningfully consider the advice of SRGs and the 
best available science when publishing its final stock assessments. The 
Organizations suggest that in order to properly consider public 
comment, SRG input, and best available science, NMFS should follow the 
following timeline each year: NMFS sends the draft SARs for the current 
year to the SRGs early in the year; the SRGs meet shortly after to 
discuss the drafts; the draft SARs are open for public comment; NMFS 
publishes the final SARs for the current year by the end of the year; 
NMFS sends the draft SARs for next year to the SRGs early the next 
year.
    Response: We acknowledge and agree with this comment regarding the 
importance of following the SAR process timeline so the current year's 
draft SARs do not overlap with the final SARs from the previous year. 
Unfortunately, the publication of the draft 2017 SARs was delayed until 
the end of the year. This was an anomaly, and we are actively working 
to publish the 2018 draft SARs in order to have the 2018 SARs 
finalized, with submitted public and SRG comments considered, by the 
end of the year (before the SRGs meet in early 2019 to review the draft 
2019 SARs).
    NMFS respectfully disagrees with the Organizations' statement that 
we do not meaningfully consider the comments we receive from the public 
or the recommendations made by the SRGs. We carefully consider and 
respond to all substantial comments we receive from the public and the 
SRGs on the draft SARs and incorporate any revisions into the final 
SARs. In the event that a report changes substantively as a result of 
public comment after the SRG has reviewed the next cycle's draft 
reports, we would provide the SRGs an opportunity to review such 
changes.
    Comment 3: The Hawaii Longline Association (HLA) continues to 
assert that the SARs are not based upon the best available scientific 
information because they are based upon data that are at least two 
years old--even when new, relevant data are otherwise available. NMFS 
has yet to provide a credible justification for continuing the present 
two-year delay in the use of information. HLA maintains that the MMPA's 
requirement that the SARs be based on the ``best scientific information 
available'' is not being met as the SARs do not incorporate the most 
recent marine mammal interaction information that has been reported by 
observers and for which the agency has made a serious or non-serious 
injury determination. HLA notes that for marine mammal interaction 
purposes, those data are the best available, and yet NMFS does not 
report it.
    Response: As noted in previous years, the marine mammal SARs are 
based upon the best available scientific information, and NMFS strives 
to update the SARs with as timely data as possible. In order to develop 
annual mortality and serious injury estimates, we do our best to ensure 
all records are accurately accounted for in that year. In some cases, 
this is contingent on such things as bycatch analysis, data entry, and 
assessment of available data to make determinations of severity of 
injury, confirmation of species based on morphological and/or molecular 
samples collected, etc. Additionally, the SARs incorporate injury 
determinations that have been assessed pursuant to the NMFS 2012 Policy 
and Procedure for

[[Page 32095]]

Distinguishing Serious from Non-Serious Injury of Marine Mammals (NMFS 
2012), which requires several phases of review by the SRGs.
    Reporting on incomplete annual mortality and serious injury 
estimates could result in underestimating actual levels. The MMPA 
requires us to report mean annual mortality and serious injury 
estimates, and we ensure that we are accounting for all available data 
before we summarize those data. With respect to abundance, in some 
cases we provide census rather than abundance estimates, and the 
accounting process to obtain the minimum number alive requires two 
years of sightings to get a stable count, after which the data are 
analyzed and entered into the SAR in the third year. All animals are 
not seen every year; waiting two years assures that greater than 90 
percent of the animals still alive will be included in the count. As a 
result of the review and revision process, data used for these 
determinations typically lag two years behind the year of the SAR.

Comments on Alaska Issues

    Comment 4: The Commission notes that information on subsistence 
hunting and harvest is becoming increasingly important in light of the 
pace of changes occurring in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Over the past 
several years, the Commission has repeatedly recommended that NMFS 
improve its monitoring and reporting of subsistence hunting and harvest 
in collaboration with its co-management partners. The Commission 
appreciates the updates made by NMFS to the SARs in response to these 
recommendations and encourages NMFS to continue to provide updated 
information whenever it becomes available, even if it pertains only to 
a limited number of villages or a subset of years.
    The Commission states that tracking the numbers of marine mammals 
successfully hunted as well as the numbers struck and lost, is critical 
to the management of harvested stocks. The Commission noted that the 
struck and lost data in the U.S. subsistence harvest information for 
four stocks of beluga whales in the draft 2017 SARs was absent, 
presumably due to ``inconsistences in reporting.'' The Commission 
encourages the inclusion of all available data, with any uncertainties 
or needed explanations about the values noted in the SAR, and 
recommends that NMFS include all available data in the SARs and clearly 
delineate landings, struck and lost, and total numbers harvested for 
each beluga whale stock. In addition, the Commission recommends that 
NMFS work with the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee to improve the 
completeness of and consistency in reporting harvest data, with a focus 
on struck and lost information for these stocks.
    Response: We are actively working to improve reporting of struck 
and lost animals associated with beluga whale subsistence harvests. 
NMFS works closely with the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, and there is 
consensus that collecting information on struck and lost animals, along 
with the numbers of harvested beluga whales, is important to document. 
We will continue to coordinate with the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee 
to improve this reporting so we can include these data in future SARs.
    Comment 5: The Commission referenced their previous comments on 
draft SARs for the Southeast Alaska (SEAK) stock of harbor porpoise and 
noted that the harbor porpoise abundance estimates were calculated 
using an assumption that g(0) (the probability of detection on the 
trackline) was 1.0, which they stated is almost certainly not adequate. 
They noted the agency had responded that preliminary data had been 
collected on g(0) and recommended that this information should be used 
in lieu of an assumption of 1.0; if this is not possible, the 
Commission recommended that NMFS choose a value from a study, or 
studies, that most closely matches the SEAK population and survey in 
terms of factors that most significantly influence g(0).
    Response: The Alaska Fisheries Science Center's (AFSC) Marine 
Mammal Laboratory attempted to conduct an experiment to estimate g(0) 
during their 2012 vessel survey of harbor porpoise in Southeast Alaska. 
Unfortunately, the analysis of the preliminary data indicated that the 
sample size from the survey was insufficient to compute g(0). In the 
absence of a g(0) specific to surveys of Southeast Alaska harbor 
porpoise, the AFSC will select an appropriate value of g(0) from 
similar surveys of other harbor porpoise populations to compute new 
abundance estimates from the 2010-2012 data for the inland waters of 
Southeast Alaska and for the northern and southern regions of the 
inland waters. After review by the Alaska Scientific Review Group, we 
will include these new estimates (and corresponding values for 
NMIN and PBR) in the draft 2019 Southeast Alaska harbor 
porpoise SAR.
    Comment 6: The Commission notes that for several years, NMFS has 
been reporting an M/SI estimate for the SEAK population of harbor 
porpoises based on data obtained by fisheries observers from the 
Yakutat salmon set gillnet fishery in 2007 and 2008, and from the SE 
Alaska salmon drift gillnet fishery in 2012 and 2013 (Districts 6, 7 
and 8, only). That M/SI estimate, of 34 porpoises per year, is 
considered to be a minimum because observations did not cover all the 
gillnet fisheries with the potential to take SEAK harbor porpoises. In 
addition, the estimate is imprecise (aggregate CV = 0.77) because of 
the very low observer coverage rates on which it is based (5.3 to 7.6 
percent per year).
    Prior to 2017, because of the substantial uncertainty in M/SI 
estimates, NMFS classified the SEAK harbor porpoise stock as 
``strategic'' under the MMPA. In the draft 2017 SAR, NMFS proposed 
classifying the stock as ``strategic'' in light of the large difference 
between the estimated M/SI and the calculated PBR. Because of the bias 
in PBR associated with the g(0) estimate described above, the problem 
could be less severe than it appears or, because of the incomplete 
observer coverage, it could be worse. Additionally, knowledge of other 
harbor porpoise populations and preliminary research results presented 
at the 2018 Alaska SRG meeting suggest that it is quite possible that 
what currently is delineated as the SEAK harbor porpoise stock in fact 
consists of two or more stocks. Until the stock structure, and the PBR 
and M/SI for each stock, are known with more certainty, the magnitude 
of the threat posed by gillnet fishing will not be fully apparent. In 
any case, applying the best available science and taking into account 
the uncertainty in the assessment, it is most likely that the level of 
take of SEAK harbor porpoises by gillnet fisheries is unsustainable.
    Response: We acknowledge the Commission's comment and agree that we 
cannot fully understand the magnitude of the threat until we acquire 
more information on stock structure, M/SI, and PBR. NMFS will continue 
to pursue avenues to better understand these parameters.
    Comment 7: The Commission states that the uncertainty of the 
seriousness of the Southeast Alaska harbor porpoise bycatch problem 
centers on three factors: (1) Statistical uncertainty in the bycatch 
rate, (2) bias in the value of PBR, and (3) uncertainty regarding stock 
structure. To address these issues, the Commission recommends that 
NMFS: (1) Provide funding and work with the State of Alaska to increase 
observer coverage throughout all gillnet fisheries in SEAK to a level 
that will produce a bycatch estimate with a CV less than 0.3; (2) 
improve the accuracy of the

[[Page 32096]]

abundance estimate by using the best available estimate of g(0) for 
this population or an appropriately selected estimate from a similar 
population; and (3) continue to give high priority to funding and 
conducting innovative eDNA investigations of SEAK harbor porpoise stock 
structure by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
    Response: NMFS agrees with the Commission's recommendations. (1) 
While we recognize the need for more current observer coverage of 
State-managed fisheries, we do not currently have the funds necessary 
for the Alaska Marine Mammal Observer Program or a similar program that 
could provide these insights into marine mammal M/SI associated with 
these fisheries; (2) the AFSC will select an appropriate value of g(0) 
from similar surveys of other harbor porpoise populations to improve 
the accuracy of the abundance estimates for harbor porpoise in the 
inland waters of Southeast Alaska; and (3) NMFS agrees that funding 
research on eDNA investigations of Southeast Alaska harbor porpoise 
stock structure is a high priority and hopes to support this work at 
some level in FY18.

Comments on Atlantic Issues

    Comment 8: The Commission notes that in the Gulf of Mexico Bryde's 
Whale SAR, the Stock Definition section was revised to include 
information on acoustic detections in addition to visual sightings, but 
it did not include citations for the acoustic detections. 
[Scaron]irovi[cacute] et al. (2013), Rice et al. (2014), and possibly 
Soldevilla et al. (2017) are three recent studies that reported on 
acoustic detections of Bryde's whales. The Commission recommends that 
NMFS include the source documents for acoustic detections of Bryde's 
whales in the Gulf of Mexico and update the map and caption for Figure 
1 in the SAR accordingly.
    Response: NMFS has added the additional citations regarding 
acoustic detections of Bryde's whales to the Gulf of Mexico Bryde's 
Whale SAR. We have not updated the map with locations of acoustic 
detections (deployment locations for Marine Autonomous Recording Units 
and sonobuoys that recorded whale vocalizations) because this 
information would not alter what we know about Bryde's whale spatial 
distribution at this time.
    Comment 9: The Commission points out that the Habitat Issues 
section of the Gulf of Mexico Bryde's Whale SAR states that the 
estimated mortality of Bryde's whales from the Deepwater Horizon oil 
spill was 3.8 whales between 2011 and 2015, based on population 
modeling. The Commission recommends that NMFS report the estimate of 
oil spill-caused mortality of 3.8 whales in the Human-Caused Mortality 
and Serious Injury section of the Bryde's whale SAR to clarify how NMFS 
derived an annual mean mortality of 0.7 whales per year for the period 
2011-2015, based solely on the reported 22 percent decline in abundance 
as a result of the oil spill. The Commission also recommends that NMFS 
add a statement to the Current Population Trend section to reflect the 
projected 22 percent decline in population size resulting from the 
spill, as was done for the Barataria Bay bottlenose dolphin stock.
    Response: We have taken the Commission's recommendation and 
expanded the Other Mortality text within the Annual Human-Caused 
Mortality and Serious Injury section to clarify that the 0.8 (corrected 
from 0.7) annual mean mortality is derived from the mortality estimate 
of 3.8 whales for the period 2011-2015 due to the Deepwater Horizon oil 
spill. However, we have not made any further edits to the Current 
Population Trend section as this section already makes a statement 
regarding the 22 percent decline in population size.
    Comment 10: One commenter pointed out that North Atlantic right 
whales and Gulf of Maine Humpback whales have undergone ``significant 
mortality events'' in the past year(s) which do not appear to be 
included in the M/SI estimates in the 2017 SARs.
    Response: See response to Comment 3. The 2017 SAR covers data from 
2011-2015. Mortality events in 2016 will first appear in the 2018 SARs, 
and those from 2017 will appear in the 2019 SARs. We will make an 
exception in the North Atlantic right whale 2018 SAR and include the 
unusual number of events in 2017 in the text, but these events will not 
be included in the table or in estimates of mortality until the 2019 
SAR.
    Comment 11: One commenter suggested inclusion of data on the 
shifting baseline in the marine environment and habitat factors in the 
SARs for North Atlantic right whale and Gulf of Maine humpback whales, 
analogous to the Essential Fish Habitat component for fisheries 
management used under the Magnuson-Stevens Sustainable Fisheries Act. 
This type of data could provide insights on changes in distribution/
abundance in space/time. The shifting baseline phenomenon from 
increased human usage and environmental changes requires some type of 
dynamic component to the SAR models which would allow confidence 
intervals for the abundance and M/SI values.
    Response: NMFS thanks the commenter for raising concerns about the 
shifting baseline phenomenon and the importance of including habitat 
factors and note that we are taking these issues into consideration in 
our modeling approaches. For example, we are currently working on 
seasonal habitat models for all cetaceans that may be useful in 
tracking humpback, fin and sei whale area use patterns because they are 
based on malleable oceanographic features.

Comments on Pacific Reports

    Comment 12: The Commission notes that NMFS has reported a 
substantial recent increase in the number of entanglements of humpback 
and blue whales on the West Coast. Prior to 2015, no entanglements of 
blue whales had been reported, but 12 blue whale entanglements were 
confirmed between 2015 and 2017. From 1982 to 2013, the number of 
confirmed West Coast entanglements of humpback whales averaged 2.1 
animals per year. The Commission stresses that the substantial number 
of entanglements of humpback whales that have occurred recently on the 
West Coast is a matter of concern and may reflect a problem that has 
gone undetected for much longer.
    The Commission points out that with the addition of M/SI from other 
causes (e.g., entanglements in other gear types and ship strikes), the 
average confirmed M/SI over 2011-2015 was 9.2 whales per year, which is 
very close to the PBR of 11 whales for this stock. Considering 
undetected entanglements, the average M/SI of humpback whales almost 
certainly was greater than PBR for this period. The uncertainty 
associated with undetected M/SI is compounded by undetected ship 
strikes. Two recent publications (Rockwood et al., 2017 and Nichol et 
al., 2017) assessing large-whale ship-strike risk on the West Coast 
were not cited in the draft 2017 Pacific SARs.
    The MMPA requires SARs for strategic stocks be reviewed at least 
annually and updated when necessary, as in the case of a significant 
increase in M/SI. Given recent increases in entanglements and in M/SI, 
the Commission notes the delay in reviewing these two stocks is 
unacceptable and recommends that NMFS either incorporate the best 
available science into the 2017 SARs or prepare draft 2018 SARs for the 
West Coast humpback and blue whale stocks, to be reviewed 
intersessionally by the Pacific SRG, so that they can be included in 
the final 2018 SARs.

[[Page 32097]]

    Response: We acknowledge and appreciate the Commission's concerns. 
The publication of the Rockwood et al. (2017) vessel strike estimates 
occurred after the draft 2017 SARs had been submitted for agency 
clearance. We have updated the final 2017 SARs to note the availability 
of these new estimates, and we will incorporate the results of those 
vessel strike estimates into the draft 2018 SARs for both humpback and 
blue whales.
    Comment 13: Point Blue and Cascadia Research suggest that NMFS 
incorporate the results from their recent publication (Rockwood et al., 
2017) on the assessment of mortality from ship strikes for both blue 
and humpback whales into the 2017 SARs. This publication uses a new 
approach to estimate one of the key parameters regarding ship strike 
mortality, the underreporting rate, and shows that based on this new 
analysis (that is consistent with other data on recovery rates) ship 
strike mortality is being severely under estimated. They note the SARs 
have acknowledged that documented cases of ship strikes are certain to 
be underestimates of the true number of deaths, and assert that their 
research provides a metric for how many ship strike deaths actually 
occur relative to the number documented. Rockwood et al. (2017) reports 
a best conservative estimate of 18 blue and 22 humpback whale deaths 
per 6-month season. Based on these predictions and the average annual 
strike reports from 2006-2016 (1.0 for blue and 1.4 for humpback 
whale), they calculated that 95 percent of blue whale and 94 percent of 
humpback whale strike deaths go undocumented. Given the uncertainty in 
accounting for whale collision avoidance, they also calculated strike 
mortality in the case of no avoidance, producing estimates of 40 blue 
and 48 humpback whale deaths. In addition, Point Blue notes that the 
lack of detected blue whale strike deaths from 2011-2015 results in an 
assumption of zero strike mortality and a determination that the 
current level of serious injury and mortality is less than 10 percent 
of PBR. They stress that the Rockwood et al. (2017) results should be 
included in the 2017 SAR since it provides evidence that blue whale 
ship strike mortality is almost certainly ongoing and well above zero.
    Response: See response to Comment 12.
    Comment 14: Cascadia Research notes the CA/OR/WA humpback whale SAR 
does not include that in addition to the underestimated ship strike 
mortality, fishery mortality is also being dramatically underestimated 
based on information available at the time of the draft document that 
would certainly put this overall stock well above PBR. Entanglement 
mortality of humpback whales off California went through a dramatic 
increase starting in 2015 and continuing through 2016 and 2017. Fishery 
mortality in the draft SAR is based on a 5-year average through 2015 so 
only includes one of these three years of elevated mortality in the 5-
year average. Cascadia Research suggests the SAR should mention this 
increased mortality known for those added years and that new 
calculations conducted in a similar fashion with the known 2016 or 2017 
entanglements would have put the 5-year average above the PBR. Further, 
like ship strike mortality, observed entanglement rates dramatically 
underestimate true mortality and no correction for this underreporting 
is made in the SAR. The concerns above that would result in mortality 
exceeding PBR do not include this under-reporting and compound the 
downward bias to how this is represented in the SAR.
    Response: See response to Comment 3. The review cycle for the draft 
2017 SARs results in data through 2015 being available for 
incorporation into the draft reports. Entanglement data through 2016 
will be incorporated into the draft 2018 SARs for blue and humpback 
whales.
    Comment 15: Cascadia Research notes that the humpback whale SAR may 
give the mistaken impression that the new status of humpback whales 
under the ESA may change how the PBR's are calculated and alter the 
mortality exceeding PBR. However, they suggest that as the small 
endangered Central America humpback whale DPS is made up almost 
entirely of whales that feed off the California coast, the observed 
mortality will exceed PBR in future years due to the California 
entanglements regardless of how the new calculations are made.
    Response: As described in our Federal Register notice requesting 
comments on the Draft 2017 Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports (82 
FR 60181, December 19, 2017), NMFS is currently in the process of 
reviewing stock structure under the MMPA for all humpback whales in 
U.S. waters, following the change in ESA listing for the species in 
2016, to determine whether we can align the stocks with the DPSs under 
the ESA. The most current SAR does not delineate a Central America DPS 
of humpback whales as a stock under the MMPA. Until such time that the 
humpback whale stock structure under the MMPA with respect to the ESA 
listing has been completed, we are retaining the current stock 
delineations and it is premature to hypothesize calculations of PBR in 
future years. Any changes in stock delineation or MMPA section 117 
elements (such as PBR or strategic status) will be reflected in future 
stock assessment reports.
    Comment 16: CBD comments that NMFS is required to review and 
incorporate new scientific information in the stock assessments and 
revise the assessment for strategic stocks, such as the humpback whale, 
at least annually. While NMFS began the process to examine the stock 
structure in the spring of 2016, including considering revising the 
stock assessment to incorporate information about the breeding 
population, it has not finalized its analysis. CBD stresses that NMFS 
should not further delay publishing a final revision to the humpback 
whale stock assessment report in accordance with the best available 
science to reflect the distinct population segments off the U.S. West 
Coast. They note the practical implication of the delay is that ship 
strikes and fisheries continue without adequate mitigation, including 
recategorizing West Coast pot and trap fisheries, which present the 
largest known fisheries threat to humback whales, as ``Category I.'' 
CBD asserts that assessing PBR at the level of the distinct population 
segment (DPS) is more informative for determining the population impact 
of the effect of ship strikes on humpback whales.
    Response: We agree that revising the stock structure for humpback 
whales is a high priority; however, the process of reviewing stock 
structure under the MMPA has taken longer than anticipated. See 
response to Comment 15 above.
    Comment 17: CBD comments that humback whale stocks on the West 
Coast should correspond to the distinct population segments (as listed 
under the Endangered Species Act in 2016) and the Mexico and Central 
America DPSs should not be considered in one stock. They assert that to 
protect the precariously low abundance of Central America humpback 
whales, the PBR for whales off California, Oregon and Washington should 
be based on the abundance of the Central America DPS (a PBR level of 
0.8), and all injury and mortality of humpback whales that occurs off 
California should be assigned to the Central America DPS. CBD is 
concerned that the delay in action jeopardizes the future of humpback 
whales in the Central America distinct population segment and 
recommends that NMFS revise the draft stock assessment to show that at 
a maximum,

[[Page 32098]]

the smallest stock of humpback whales on the West Coast has no more 
than 411 individuals.
    Response: As described in our response to Comment 15 above, we are 
in the process of reviewing the MMPA humpback whale stock delineations; 
until such time that the humpback whale stock structure under the MMPA 
with respect to the ESA listing has been completed, we are treating 
existing MMPA stocks that fully or partially coincide with a listed DPS 
as depleted, and stocks that do not fully or partially coincide with a 
listed DPS as not depleted for management purposes. Therefore, in the 
interim, we will continue to treat the California/Oregon/Washington 
stock as endangered and depleted. Currently, there is no Central 
America DPS stock of marine mammals delineated under the MMPA.
    Comment 18: CBD requests that the final stock assessment report for 
Southern Resident Killer whales accurately reflects the recent decline 
and alarmingly low population. The death of the two-year-old male orca 
known as ``J52'' was confirmed in September 2017 by the Center for 
Whale Research, which reported malnutrition as the likely cause. The 
population of critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales, 
which makes its home in Puget Sound and migrates along the West Coast, 
dipped from 83 in 2016 to only 76 by the end of 2017. This change 
represents the biggest decline in population from year-to-year ever 
recorded. CBD suggests that especially in light of the decline, NMFS 
should update the draft SARs to ensure it contains accurate and timely 
information.
    Response: NMFS drafted the 2017 SAR before the end-of-year 2017 
population size estimates were available. We will include new estimates 
in the draft 2018 SAR for southern resident killer whales.
    Comment 19: The HLA recognizes that the false killer whale draft 
2017 SAR appropriately calculates separate M/SI rates for only the 
years 2013 through 2015, so that the fisheries, as currently managed, 
can be more accurately evaluated against the relevant PBRs. However, 
HLA reiterates that NMFS should eliminate the five-year look-back 
period and report only data generated after the False Killer Whale Take 
Reduction Plan (FKWTRP) regulations became effective, and the data 
prior to 2013 should no longer be used because it is no longer part of 
the best available scientific information.
    HLA suggests that, at a minimum, NMFS should not continue to use 
pre-2013 data for the Main Hawaiian Islands Insular FKW Stock (Insular 
Stock) and asserts that the TRP has resulted in decreased interactions 
with the Insular Stock because (i) the TRP regulations closed the 
fishery to almost all of the Insular Stock's range, (ii) effort in the 
Insular Stock's range has drastically reduced to almost zero as a 
consequence, and (iii) the fishery has had zero interactions with the 
Insular Stock since 2013. They stress that this is the situation 
contemplated by the Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks 
(GAMMS), which recommends ``if within the last five years the fishery 
has changed (e.g., fishing effort or the mortality rate per unit of 
fishing effort has changed), it would be more appropriate to use only 
the most recent relevant data to most accurately reflect the current 
level of annual mortality.'' HLA states that if NMFS continues to 
regulate the deep-set fishery as if it has interactions with the 
insular stock, it will undermine any TRT discussions regarding the 
Insular Stock and HLA may also be forced to reconsider its position on 
the Insular Stock closure.
    Response: NMFS has responded to similar versions of this comment 
previously. As noted in prior responses, if there have been significant 
changes in fishery operations that are expected to affect incidental 
mortality rates, such as the 2013 implementation of the FKWTRP, the 
GAMMS (NMFS 2016) recommend using only the years since regulations were 
implemented. The SAR contains information preceeding and following the 
FKWTRP, 2008-2012 and 2013-2015 respectively, and reports M/SI for 
these two time periods as well as the most recent 5-year average. Both 
the 3 year post-TRP average take rate, as well as the 5-year average 
that spans the period before and after the TRP, indicate the pelagic 
stock fishery take is below PBR; and, therefore, the stock is not 
considered strategic. NMFS continues to report the 5-year average in 
the Status of Stock section for the pelagic stock because various 
assessments of FKWTRP effectiveness note that neither overall take rate 
nor the rate of non-serious injury for the pelagic stock are 
significantly reduced through the implementation of the FKWTRP. NMFS 
does agree with HLA that the expanded longline exclusion area 
implemented under the FKWTRP offers near complete protection to this 
stock from interactions with the longline fishery, and as such has 
modifed the Status of Stock section for this stock to reflect this 
change.
    Comment 20: The HLA notes that for a decade (until this year) NMFS 
has reported a M/SI rate for the deep-set fishery that exceeds PBR for 
the Hawaii pelagic false killer whale stock (``pelagic stock''). 
However, the best available information suggests that the number of 
false killer whales in the Hawaii EEZ has not declined during the same 
time that the supposedly unsustainable M/SI rate was occurring. The HLA 
disagrees with the M/SI levels reported in the draft SAR and with NMFS' 
conclusion that the vast majority of all fishery interactions with the 
pelagic stock cause injuries that ``will likely result in mortality.'' 
If that were the case, then after a decade or more of allegedly 
unsustainable levels of take, there would be some evidence of a 
declining pelagic stock abundance. No such evidence exists. The HLA 
recommends that the draft SAR expressly recognize this discrepancy, and 
NMFS should revisit the manner in which it determines M/SI for false 
killer whale interactions.
    Response: This comment has been addressed previously (see 78 FR 
19446, April 1, 2013, comments 45 and 51; 79 FR 49053, August 18, 2014, 
comment 26; 80 FR 50599, August 20, 2015, comment 34; 81 FR June 14, 
2016, comment 44; and 82 FR June 27, 2017, comment 44). The comment 
contends that the stock abundance has not declined in over a decade and 
attributes this persistence of false killer whales despite high levels 
of fishery mortality to NMFS' improper assessment of the severity of 
injuries resulting from fisheries interactions, improper assessment of 
population abundance and trend, or both. Assessment of injury severity 
under NMFS' 2012 serious injury policy (NMFS 2012) has been discussed 
in numerous previous comment responses and is based on the best 
available science on whether a cetacean is likely to survive a 
particular type of injury. Further study of false killer whales would 
certainly better inform the assigned outcomes; but, until better data 
become available, the standard established in the NMFS 2012 policy on 
distinguishing serious from non-serious injuries will stand. Further, 
assessments of pelagic false killer whale population trend are 
inappropriate for several reasons: (1) The entire stock range is 
unknown, but certainly extends beyond the Hawaii EEZ, such that the 
available abundance estimates do not reflect true population size; (2) 
there have been only two surveys of the entire Hawaii EEZ, an 
insufficient number to appropriately assess trend, shifts in 
distribution, or any examination of false killer whale population 
health; and (3) the available survey data were collected with different 
protocols for assessing

[[Page 32099]]

false killer whale group size, a factor that will significantly impact 
the resulting abundance estimates. A robust assessment of population 
trend will require additional data and inclusion of environmental 
variables that influence false killer whale distribution and the 
proportion of the population represented within the survey area during 
each survey period.
    Comment 21: The HLA notes that the draft false killer whale SAR 
updates the Insular Stock population estimate to 167 based upon an 
unpublished paper by Bradford et al., which concludes that the 
population size of the Insular Stock of false killer whales in certain 
study areas has consistently ranged between 144 and 187 animals over a 
16-year period. However, in reporting 167 as the population size for 
the Insular Stock, the Draft SAR states that the Bradford et al. annual 
estimate ``represents only the animals present in the study area within 
that year.'' HLA suggests that, if the reported 2015 abundance estimate 
of 167 applies only to a study area that is smaller than the range of 
the Insular Stock of false killer whales, then the actual abundance of 
the entire Insular Stock must be some amount higher than 167. HLA 
states that they are unable to sufficiently comment on this issue 
because the Bradford et al. paper is unpublished and not available for 
public review.
    Response: NMFS notes that although the abundance estimates provided 
in Bradford et al. are limited to the number of animals in the survey 
area in each survey year, they are still the best available estimates 
of population size. The new estimates account for many sources of 
potential bias, and although we expect that limiting estimates to the 
surveyed area for a given year does likely result in an under 
estimation of abundance in years when the surveyed area is smaller than 
the stock area, we do not have sufficient information to correct annual 
estimates for the extent of the survey area. NMFS feels the use of 
estimates derived from the best available data spanning 15 years of 
surveys is far better than use of catalog size, the previous metric for 
the minimum population estimate (Nmin) in the Main Hawaiian Islands 
(MHI) insular false killer whale SAR. Further, the Nmin derived from 
the new mark-recapture estimates meets the definition of Nmin provided 
within the GAMMS (NMFS 2016). Although cited as ``in review,'' the 
Bradford et al. paper was reviewed by the Pacific SRG at its 2017 
meeting and is currently in review for journal publication.
    Comment 22: The HLA incorporates by reference its more specific 
comments on previous draft SARs related to: (1) The assignment of a 
recovery factor to the pelagic stock of false killer whales, and 
continues to maintain that NMFS should apply a recovery factor to the 
pelagic stock that is greater than 0.5; (2) the 2010 Hawaiian Islands 
Cetacean Ecosystem and Assessment Survey (HICEAS) and the assumptions 
made by NMFS based upon the data from that survey, and assert that NMFS 
has inappropriately withheld acoustic data that should be publicly 
disclosed and reported; and (3) NMFS' assumption that the insular stock 
of false killer whales has declined is speculative.
    Response: NMFS reiterates its responses to these comments from 
previous SARs. Specifically: (1) Reanalysis of existing datasets to 
derive more precise estimates does not constitute an increase in 
population size. There are only two EEZ-wide estimates of abundance 
(484 from a 2002 survey and 1,540 from a 2010 survey). These estimates 
may not be directly compared due to changes in group size enumeration 
methods between those surveys. For this reason, the current status of 
pelagic false killer whales is unknown. (2) NMFS has not made any 
attempt to withhold the acoustic data from the HICEAS 2010 survey. It 
can be made available by request. NMFS has used the HICEAS 2010 data 
for a variety of analyses, including the development of automated 
routines to detect and classify false killer whale and other species' 
sounds, to assess false killer whale sub-group spatial arrangements, 
and other projects. There were many changes in array hardware during 
the survey, complicating streamlined analyses of these data, such that 
a full-scale analysis of this dataset for abundance is not appropriate, 
efficient, or cost-effective at this time. (3) NMFS makes no assumption 
that MHI insular stock abundance has declined in recent years. The 
minimum estimate reflects the number of individuals enumerated during 
the stated period and may reflect not only changes in actual population 
abundance, but also changes in encounter rates due to survey location 
or animal distribution.

    Dated: July 6, 2018.
Donna S. Wieting,
Director, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries 
Service.
[FR Doc. 2018-14811 Filed 7-10-18; 8:45 am]
 BILLING CODE 3510-22-P