Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to Office of Naval Research Arctic Research Activities, 53333-53338 [2020-18971]

Download as PDF Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 168 / Friday, August 28, 2020 / Notices The Council will receive a staff report from the Executive Director, and updates on Outreach and Communications efforts, the Council’s Citizen Science Program, and Atlantic coast climate change scenario planning. NOAA Fisheries Southeast Fisheries Science Center staff will provide reports on the status of commercial electronic logbooks and pandemic response impacts on surveys and fishery monitoring. NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office staff will provide an update on the status of the For-Hire Electronic Reporting Amendment and a report on Protected Resources. The Council will receive reports from the following committees: Snapper Grouper; SEDAR; Dolphin Wahoo; and Executive. The Council will also address advisory panel and SEDAR appointments. The Council will receive agency and liaison reports, discuss other business and upcoming meetings, and take action as necessary. Documents regarding these issues are available from the Council office (see ADDRESSES). Although non-emergency issues not contained in this agenda may come before this group for discussion, those issues may not be the subject of formal action during these meetings. Action will be restricted to those issues specifically identified in this notice and any issues arising after publication of this notice that require emergency action under section 305(c) of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, provided the public has been notified of the Council’s intent to take final action to address the emergency. Special Accommodations Note: The times and sequence specified in this agenda are subject to change. Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq. Dated: August 25, 2020. Tracey L. Thompson, Acting Deputy Director, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, National Marine Fisheries Service. [FR Doc. 2020–18964 Filed 8–27–20; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P 17:16 Aug 27, 2020 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [RTID 0648–XA373] Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to Office of Naval Research Arctic Research Activities National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Notice; issuance of Renewal incidental harassment authorization. AGENCY: In accordance with the regulations implementing the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), as amended, notification is hereby given that NMFS has issued a Renewal incidental harassment authorization (IHA) to the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) to harass marine mammals incidental to Arctic Research Activities in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. DATES: This Renewal IHA is valid from September 10, 2020 through September 9, 2021. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Amy Fowler, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, (301) 427–8401. Electronic copies of the original application, Renewal request, and supporting documents (including NMFS Federal Register notices of the original proposed and final authorizations, and the previous IHA), as well as a list of the references cited in this document, may be obtained online at: https:// www.fisheries.noaa.gov/permit/ incidental-take-authorizations-undermarine-mammal-protection-act. In case of problems accessing these documents, please call the contact listed above. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: SUMMARY: Background These meetings are physically accessible to people with disabilities. Requests for auxiliary aids should be directed to the Council office (see ADDRESSES) 5 days prior to the meeting. VerDate Sep<11>2014 DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE Jkt 250001 The MMPA prohibits the ‘‘take’’ of marine mammals, with certain exceptions. Sections 101(a)(5)(A) and (D) of the MMPA (16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.) direct the Secretary of Commerce (as delegated to NMFS) to allow, upon request, the incidental, but not intentional, taking of small numbers of marine mammals by U.S. citizens who engage in a specified activity (other than commercial fishing) within a specified geographical region if certain findings are made and either regulations are issued or, if the taking is limited to harassment, a notice of a proposed incidental take authorization is provided to the public for review. PO 00000 Frm 00017 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 53333 Authorization for incidental takings shall be granted if NMFS finds that the taking will have a negligible impact on the species or stock(s) and will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the species or stock(s) for taking for subsistence uses (where relevant). Further, NMFS must prescribe the permissible methods of taking and other ‘‘means of effecting the least practicable adverse impact’’ on the affected species or stocks and their habitat, paying particular attention to rookeries, mating grounds, and areas of similar significance, and on the availability of such species or stocks for taking for certain subsistence uses (referred to here as ‘‘mitigation measures’’). Monitoring and reporting of such takings are also required. The meaning of key terms such as ‘‘take,’’ ‘‘harassment,’’ and ‘‘negligible impact’’ can be found in section 3 of the MMPA (16 U.S.C. 1362) and the agency’s regulations at 50 CFR 216.103. NMFS’ regulations implementing the MMPA at 50 CFR 216.107(e) indicate that IHAs may be renewed for additional periods of time not to exceed one year for each reauthorization. In the notice of proposed IHA for the initial authorization, NMFS described the circumstances under which we would consider issuing a Renewal for this activity, and requested public comment on a potential Renewal under those circumstances. Specifically, on a caseby-case basis, NMFS may issue a onetime one-year Renewal IHA following notice to the public providing an additional 15 days for public comments when (1) up to another year of identical, or nearly identical, activities as described in the Description of the Specified Activities and Anticipated Impacts section of this notice is planned or (2) the activities as described in the Specified Activities section of this notice would not be completed by the time the IHA expires and a Renewal would allow for completion of the activities beyond that described in the Dates and Duration section of the notice of proposed IHA for the initial authorization, provided all of the following conditions are met: • A request for renewal is received no later than 60 days prior to the needed Renewal IHA effective date (recognizing that the Renewal IHA expiration date cannot extend beyond one year from expiration of the initial IHA). • The request for renewal must include the following: (1) An explanation that the activities to be conducted under the requested Renewal IHA are identical to the activities analyzed under the initial IHA, are a subset of the activities, or E:\FR\FM\28AUN1.SGM 28AUN1 53334 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 168 / Friday, August 28, 2020 / Notices include changes so minor (e.g., reduction in pile size) that the changes do not affect the previous analyses, mitigation and monitoring requirements, or take estimates (with the exception of reducing the type or amount of take). (2) A preliminary monitoring report showing the results of the required monitoring to date and an explanation showing that the monitoring results do not indicate impacts of a scale or nature not previously analyzed or authorized. Upon review of the request for Renewal, the status of the affected species or stocks, and any other pertinent information, NMFS determines that there are no more than minor changes in the activities, the mitigation and monitoring measures will remain the same and appropriate, and the findings in the initial IHA remain valid. An additional public comment period of 15 days (for a total of 45 days), with direct notice by email, phone, or postal service to commenters on the initial IHA, is provided to allow for any additional comments on the proposed Renewal. A description of the Renewal process may be found on our website at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/ marine-mammal-protection/incidentalharassment-authorization-renewals. The NDAA (Pub. L. 108–136) removed the ‘‘small numbers’’ and ‘‘specified geographical region’’ limitations indicated above and amended the definition of ‘‘harassment’’ as it applies to a ‘‘military readiness activity.’’ The activity for which incidental take of marine mammals is being requested addressed here qualifies as a military readiness activity. History of Request On September 9, 2019, NMFS issued an IHA to ONR to take marine mammals incidental to Arctic Research Activities in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas (84 FR 50007; September 24, 2019), effective from September 10, 2019 through September 9, 2020. On May 12, 2020, NMFS received an application for the Renewal of that initial IHA. As described in the application for Renewal, the activities for which incidental take is requested are identical to those covered in the initial authorization. As required, the applicant also provided a preliminary monitoring report (available at https:// www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/ marine-mammal-protection/incidentaltake-authorizations-military-readinessactivities) which confirms that the applicant has implemented the required mitigation and monitoring, and which also shows that no impacts of a scale or VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:16 Aug 27, 2020 Jkt 250001 nature not previously analyzed or authorized have occurred as a result of the activities conducted. Description of the Specified Activities and Anticipated Impacts ONR plans to continue its Arctic Research Activities for a third year, conducting activities identical to those analyzed in the initial IHA. In 2018, ONR began a three-year project involving several scientific objectives that support the Arctic and Global Prediction Program, as well as the Ocean Acoustics Program and the Naval Research Laboratory, for which ONR is the parent command. Specifically, the project includes the Stratified Ocean Dynamics of the Arctic (SODA), Arctic Mobile Observing System (AMOS), Ocean Acoustics field work (including the Coordinated Arctic Active Tomography Experiment (CAATEX)), and Naval Research Laboratory experiments in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. These experiments involve deployment of moored and icetethered active acoustic sources, primarily from the U.S Coast Guard Cutter (CGC) HEALY. The CGC HEALY may be required to perform icebreaking to access the northernmost portion of the Survey Area. Underwater sound from the acoustic sources and icebreaking may result in behavioral harassment of marine mammals. Detailed Description of the Activity A total of 12 moored acoustic navigation sources were planned to be deployed and operate through the duration of the three-year project. Of those, seven moored navigation sources were deployed in 2018 and an additional navigation source was deployed in 2019, along with a very-low frequency source (30 hertz) in the northernmost portion of the Survey Area. These acoustic sources are deployed and left behind to transmit intermittently throughout the year. The acoustic sources deployed during the 2018 and 2019 scientific cruises would continue to operate through the course of this IHA Renewal and the remaining moored and drifting sources are also planned to be deployed in 2020, such that the acoustic transmissions from September 2020 through September 2021 would be identical to those analyzed in the initial IHA. As described in the notice of proposed IHA for the initial authorization (84 FR 37240; July 31, 2019), CGC HEALY may also be required to perform icebreaking to deploy the acoustic sources in deep water. No icebreaking was required in the 2019 research cruise, but as in the PO 00000 Frm 00018 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 initial IHA, ONR estimates up to six hours of icebreaking per day over 16 days may occur (e.g., eight days during the fall 2020 equipment deployment cruise and eight days during the fall 2021 equipment retrieval cruise). A detailed description of the scientific research program conducted by ONR is found in the notice of proposed IHA for the initial authorization (84 FR 37240; July 31, 2019). The location, timing, and nature of the activities, including the acoustic sources planned for use, are identical to those described in the previous notice. This IHA Renewal is effective for one year past the expiration of the initial IHA (i.e., from September 10, 2020 through September 9, 2021). Description of Marine Mammals A description of the marine mammals in the area of the activities for which authorization of take is proposed here, including information on abundance, status, distribution, and hearing, may be found in the notice of the proposed IHA (84 FR 37240; July 31, 2019). NMFS has reviewed the monitoring report from the initial IHA, recent draft Stock Assessment Reports (SARs), information on relevant Unusual Mortality Events (UMEs), and other scientific literature, and determined that neither this nor any other new information affects which species or stock have the potential to be affected or the pertinent information in the Description of the Marine Mammals in the Area of Specified Activities section contained in the supporting documents for the initial IHA. Ice Seals UME Since June 1, 2018, elevated strandings of ringed seals, bearded seals, and spotted seals (Phoca largha) have occurred in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. This event has been declared a UME. A UME is defined under the MMPA as a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant dieoff of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response. From June 1, 2018 to February 9, 2020, there have been 278 dead seals reported, with 112 stranding in 2018, 165 in 2019, and one in 2020, which is nearly five times the average number of strandings of about 29 seals annually. All age classes of seals have been reported stranded, and a subset of seals have been sampled for genetics and harmful algal bloom exposure, with a few having histopathology collected. Results are pending, and the cause of the UME remains unknown. There was a previous UME involving ice seals from 2011 to 2016, which was most active in 2011–2012. A minimum of 657 seals were affected. The UME E:\FR\FM\28AUN1.SGM 28AUN1 53335 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 168 / Friday, August 28, 2020 / Notices investigation determined that some of the clinical signs were due to an abnormal molt, but a definitive cause of death for the UME was never determined. The number of stranded ice seals involved in this UME, and their physical characteristics, is not at all similar to the 2011–2016 UME, as the seals in 2018–2020 have not been exhibiting hair loss or skin lesions, which were a primary finding in the 2011–2016 UME. The investigation into the cause of the most recent UME is ongoing. More detailed information is available at: https:// www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/ marine-life-distress/2018-2019-ice-sealunusual-mortality-event-alaska. Potential Effects on Marine Mammals and Their Habitat A description of the potential effects of the specified activity on marine mammals and their habitat for the activities for which take is authorized here may be found in the notice of the proposed IHA for the initial authorization (84 FR 37240; July 31, 2019). NMFS has reviewed the monitoring data from the initial IHA, recent draft SARs, information on relevant UMEs, other scientific literature, and the public comments, and determined that neither this nor any other new information affects our initial analysis of impacts on marine mammals and their habitat. Estimated Take A detailed description of the methods and inputs used to estimate take for the specified activity are found in the notices of the proposed and final IHAs for the initial authorization (84 FR 37240, July 31, 2019; 84 FR 50007, September 24, 2019). Specifically, the source levels, days of operation, and marine mammal density and occurrence data applicable to this authorization remain unchanged from the previously issued IHA. Similarly, the stocks taken, methods of take, and types of take remain unchanged from the previously issued IHA, as do the number of authorized takes, which are indicated below in Table 1. TABLE 1—AUTHORIZED TAKE OF MARINE MAMMALS AND PERCENT OF STOCKS TAKEN Density estimate within study area (animals per square km) a Species Beluga Whale (Beaufort Sea Stock) ........ Beluga Whale (Eastern Chukchi Sea stock) .................................................... Bearded Seal ........................................... Ringed Seal ............................................. Level B harassment from deployed sources Level B harassment from icebreaking Total authorized take Level A harassment Percentage of stock taken 0.0087 331 32 0 363 0.92 0.0087 0.0332 0.3760 178 0 6,773 18 0 1,072 0 0 0 196 b5 7,845 0.94 <0.01 2.17 a Kaschner et al. (2006); Kaschner (2004). modeling yielded zero takes of bearded seals. However, in an abundance of caution, we are proposing to authorize five takes of bearded seals by Level B harassment. b Quantitative Description of Mitigation, Monitoring and Reporting Measures The mitigation, monitoring, and reporting measures included as requirements in this authorization are identical to those included in the Federal Register notice announcing the issuance of the initial IHA (84 FR 50007; September 24, 2019), and the discussion of the least practicable adverse impact included in that document remains accurate. The following measures are required for this Renewal: Mitigation Measures Ships operated by or for the Navy have personnel assigned to stand watch at all times, day and night, when moving through the water. While in transit, ships must use extreme caution and proceed at a safe speed such that the ship can take proper and effective action to avoid a collision with any marine mammal and can be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions. During navigational source deployments, visual observation must start 30 minutes prior to and continue throughout the deployment within an exclusion zone of 55 meters (m; 180 feet VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:16 Aug 27, 2020 Jkt 250001 (ft), roughly one ship length) around the deployed mooring. Deployment must stop if a marine mammal is visually detected within the exclusion zone. Deployment will re-commence if any one of the following conditions are met: (1) The animal is observed exiting the exclusion zone, (2) the animal is thought to have exited the exclusion zone based on its course and speed, or (3) the exclusion zone has been clear from any additional sightings for a period of 15 minutes for pinnipeds and 30 minutes for cetaceans. Visual monitoring must continue through 30 minutes following the deployment of sources. Once deployed, the spiral wave beacon would transmit for five days. The ship will maintain position near the moored source and must monitor the surrounding area for marine mammals. Transmission must cease if a marine mammal enters a 55-m (180 ft) exclusion zone. Transmission will recommence if any one of the following conditions are met: (1) The animal is observed exiting the exclusion zone, (2) the animal is thought to have exited the exclusion zone based on its course and speed and relative motion between the animal and the source, or (3) the PO 00000 Frm 00019 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 exclusion zone has been clear from any additional sightings for a period of 15 minutes for pinnipeds and 30 minutes for cetaceans. The spiral wave beacon source must only transmit during daylight hours. Ships must avoid approaching marine mammals head on and must maneuver to maintain an exclusion zone of 1,500 ft (457 m) around observed mysticete whales, and 600 ft (183 m) around all other marine mammals, provided it is safe to do so in ice free waters. With the exception of the spiral wave beacon, moored/drifting sources are left in place and cannot be turned off until the following year during ice free months. Once they are programmed they will operate at the specified pulse lengths and duty cycles until they are either turned off the following year or there is failure of the battery and are not able to operate. Due to the ice covered nature of the Arctic is in not possible to recover the sources or interfere with their transmit operations in the middle of the deployment. These requirements do not apply if a vessel’s safety is at risk, such as when a change of course would create an imminent and serious threat to safety, person, vessel, or aircraft, and to the E:\FR\FM\28AUN1.SGM 28AUN1 53336 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 168 / Friday, August 28, 2020 / Notices extent vessels are restricted in their ability to maneuver. No further action is necessary if a marine mammal other than a whale continues to approach the vessel after there has already been one maneuver and/or speed change to avoid the animal. Avoidance measures should continue for any observed whale in order to maintain an exclusion zone of 1,500 ft (457 m). All personnel conducting on-ice experiments, as well as all aircraft operating in the study area, are required to maintain a separation distance of 1,000 ft (305 m) from any sighted marine mammal. Monitoring Measures While underway, the ships (including non-Navy ships operating on behalf of the Navy) utilizing active acoustics must have at least one watch person during activities. Watch personnel undertake extensive training in accordance with the U.S. Navy Lookout Training Handbook or civilian equivalent, including on the job instruction and a formal Personal Qualification Standard program (or equivalent program for supporting contractors or civilians), to certify that they have demonstrated all necessary skills (such as detection and reporting of floating or partially submerged objects). Additionally, watch personnel have taken the Navy’s Marine Species Awareness Training. Their duties may be performed in conjunction with other job responsibilities, such as navigating the ship or supervising other personnel. While on watch, personnel employ visual search techniques, including the use of binoculars, using a scanning method in accordance with the U.S. Navy Lookout Training Handbook or civilian equivalent. A primary duty of watch personnel is to detect and report all objects and disturbances sighted in the water that may be indicative of a threat to the ship and its crew, such as debris, or surface disturbance. Per safety requirements, watch personnel also report any marine mammals sighted that have the potential to be in the direct path of the ship as a standard collision avoidance procedure. The U.S. Navy has coordinated with NMFS to develop an overarching program plan in which specific monitoring would occur. This plan is called the Integrated Comprehensive Monitoring Program (ICMP) (Navy 2011). The ICMP has been developed in direct response to Navy permitting requirements established through various environmental compliance efforts. As a framework document, the ICMP applies by regulation to those activities on ranges and operating areas for which the Navy is seeking or has VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:16 Aug 27, 2020 Jkt 250001 sought incidental take authorizations. The ICMP is intended to coordinate monitoring efforts across all regions and to allocate the most appropriate level and type of effort based on a set of standardized research goals, and in acknowledgement of regional scientific value and resource availability. The ICMP is focused on Navy training and testing ranges where the majority of Navy activities occur regularly as those areas have the greatest potential for being impacted. ONR’s Arctic Research Activities in comparison is a less intensive test with little human activity present in the Arctic. Human presence is limited to a minimal amount of days for source operations and source deployments, in contrast to the large majority (>95 percent) of time that the sources will be left behind and operate autonomously. Therefore, a dedicated monitoring project is not warranted. However, ONR will record all observations of marine mammals, including the marine mammal’s location (latitude and longitude), behavior, and distance from project activities, including icebreaking. Reporting Measures The Navy is committed to documenting and reporting relevant aspects of research and testing activities to verify implementation of mitigation, comply with permits, and improve future environmental assessments. If any injury or death of a marine mammal is observed during the 2020–21 Arctic Research Activities, the Navy must immediately halt the activity and report the incident to the Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, and the Alaska Regional Stranding Coordinator, NMFS. The following information must be provided: • Time, date, and location of the discovery; • Species identification (if known) or description of the animal(s) involved; • Condition of the animal(s) (including carcass condition if the animal is dead); • Observed behaviors of the animal(s), if alive; • If available, photographs or video footage of the animal(s); and • General circumstances under which the animal(s) was discovered (e.g., during use of towed acoustic sources, deployment of moored or drifting sources, during on-ice experiments, or by transiting vessel). ONR must provide NMFS with a draft exercise monitoring report within 90 days of the conclusion of the proposed activity. The draft exercise monitoring report must include data regarding acoustic source use and any mammal PO 00000 Frm 00020 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 sightings or detection must be documented. The report must include the estimated number of marine mammals taken during the activity. The report must also include information on the number of shutdowns recorded. If no comments are received from NMFS within 30 days of submission of the draft final report, the draft final report will constitute the final report. If comments are received, a final report must be submitted within 30 days after receipt of comments. Public Comments A notice of NMFS’ proposal to issue a Renewal IHA to ONR was published in the Federal Register on July 10, 2020 (85 FR 41560). That notice either described, or referenced descriptions of, ONR’s activity, the marine mammal species that may be affected by the activity, the anticipated effects on marine mammals and their habitat, proposed amount and manner of take, and proposed mitigation, monitoring and reporting measures. NMFS received a comment letter from the Marine Mammal Commission (Commission). The comments and our responses are summarized below. Comment 1: The Commission noted that ONR did not stipulate the type and number of sources that would transmit or how many days of icebreaking could occur in 2020–2021 in their Renewal request. The Commission stated that without that information, NMFS cannot judge whether the activities proposed to occur in 2020–2021 are identical to or are a subset of those that were conducted in 2019–2020, whether the estimated numbers of marine mammals taken in 2019–2020 were within the authorized limits, and whether the original determinations would still be valid for the 2020–2021 IHA Renewal. Thus, the Commission recommended NMFS deny ONR’s request for IHA Renewal as submitted. Response: NMFS appreciates the Commission’s comment regarding the information provided in ONR’s Renewal request. Although that information was not provided in the Renewal request letter itself, ONR informed NMFS that the activities planned for 2020–2021 would be identical to those analyzed in the 2019–2020 IHA and . provided the information discussed in the Detailed Description of the Activity section of this notice. Additionally, although no marine mammals were directly observed during any source deployment in 2019, ONR provided an estimate of the number of marine mammals that may have been exposed based on the number of sources deployed and operational during 2019–2020. Eight of 21 possible E:\FR\FM\28AUN1.SGM 28AUN1 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 168 / Friday, August 28, 2020 / Notices acoustic sources were in use, thus ONR estimated 8/21 (38.1 percent) of total calculated takes from acoustic sources occurred during the 2019–2020 IHA, for a total of 194 belugas (from either stock) and 2,580 ringed seals. No bearded seal takes were modeled using the Navy Acoustic Effects Model (NAEMO), but out of an abundance of caution, NMFS authorized five takes of bearded seals by Level B harassment in the event bearded seals were observed during source deployment. No bearded seals were observed in 2019, therefore no takes likely occurred. Based on the information provided by the applicant, NMFS has determined that the estimated numbers of marine mammals taken in 2019–2020 were within the authorized limits, the original determinations are still valid for the 2020–2021 IHA Renewal, and an IHA Renewal is appropriate for ONR’s activities. NMFS is consistently working on refining protocols for processing IHA Renewals, and will ensure that future Renewal requests include all information necessary for our determinations prior to publication of the proposed Renewal. Comment 2: The Commission recommends that NMFS refrain from issuing renewals for any authorization and instead use its abbreviated Federal Register notice process. Response: In prior responses to comments about IHA Renewals (e.g., 84 FR 52464; October 02, 2019), NMFS has explained how the Renewal process, as implemented, is consistent with the statutory requirements contained in section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA and, therefore, we plan to continue to issue qualifying Renewals when the requirements outlined on our website are met. Thus, NMFS agrees with the Commission’s recommendation that we should not issue a renewal for any authorization unless it is consistent with the procedural requirements specified in section 101(a)(5)(D)(iii) of the MMPA. Additionally, regarding the recommendation to use abbreviated notices, we agree that they are a useful tool by which to increase efficiency in conjunction with the use of Renewals, but we disagree that their use alone would equally fulfill NMFS’ goal to maximize efficiency and provide regulatory certainty for applicants, with no reduction in protections for marine mammals. The Renewal process, with its narrowly described qualifying actions, specific issuance criteria, and additional 15-day comment period, allows for NMFS to broadly commit to a 60-day processing time. This commitment, which would not be VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:16 Aug 27, 2020 Jkt 250001 possible in the absence of this narrow definition and the 15-day additional comment period, provides both a meaningfully shortened processing time and regulatory certainty for planning purposes. Increasing the comment period for Renewals to 30 days would increase processing time by 25% and is unnecessary, given the legal sufficiency of the process as it stands, as described above, and no additional protections for marine mammals that would result. NMFS uses abbreviated notices when proposed actions do not qualify for Renewals, but still allow for reliance upon previous documentation and analyses. These abbreviated notice projects, which deviate from the narrow qualifications of a Renewal, require some additional time for the analyst to appropriately review the small changes from the initial IHA and further necessitate the 30-day public review required for a new IHA. NMFS has evaluated the use of both the Renewal and abbreviated notice processes, as well as the associated workload for each, and determined that using both of these processes provides maximum efficiency for the agency and applicants, regulatory certainty, and appropriate protections for marine mammals consistent with the statutory standards. Using the abbreviated notice process, however, is unnecessary and unwarranted for projects that meet the narrow qualifications for a Renewal IHA. As previously noted, we have found that the Renewal process is consistent with the statutory requirements of the MMPA and, further, promotes NMFS’ goals of improving conservation of marine mammals and increasing efficiency in the MMPA compliance process. Therefore, we intend to continue implementing the Renewal process. National Environmental Policy Act In 2018, the U.S. Navy prepared an Environmental Assessment analyzing the project. Prior to issuing the IHA for the first year of this project, we reviewed the 2018 EA and the public comments received, determined that a separate NEPA analysis was not necessary, and subsequently adopted the document and issued our own Finding of No Significant Impact in support of the issuance of an IHA. In 2019, the U.S. Navy prepared a supplemental EA. Prior to issuing the IHA in 2019, we reviewed the supplemental EA and the public comments received, determined that a separate NEPA analysis was not necessary, and subsequently adopted the document and issued our own PO 00000 Frm 00021 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 53337 Finding of No Significant Impact in support of the issuance of an IHA. We have reviewed ONR’s application for a renewed IHA for ongoing Arctic Research Activities from September 2020 to September 2021 and the 2019 IHA monitoring report. Based on that review, we have determined that the proposed action is identical to that considered in the previous IHA. In addition, no significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns have been identified. Thus, we have determined that the preparation of a new or supplemental NEPA document is not necessary. Determinations The action of this Renewal IHA, ONR’s Arctic Research Activities, are identical to the activities analyzed in the initial IHA. Based on the analysis detailed in the notices of the initial authorization of the likely effects of the specified activity on marine mammals and their habitat, and taking into consideration the implementation of the monitoring and mitigation measures, NMFS found that the total marine mammal take from the activity would have a negligible impact on all affected marine mammal species and stocks. There is an ongoing UME for ice seals, including ringed and bearded seals. Elevated strandings have occurred in the Bering and Chukchi Seas since June 2018. Though elevated numbers of seals have stranded during this UME, this event does not provide cause for concern regarding population-level impacts, as the population abundance estimates for each of the affected species number in the hundreds of thousands. ONR’s Arctic Research Activities Study Area is in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, well north and east of the primary area where seals have stranded along the western coast of Alaska (see map of strandings at: https:// www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/ marine-life-distress/2018-2019-ice-sealunusual-mortality-event-alaska). The location of ONR’s Arctic Research Activities, combined with the low-level potential effects on marine mammals, suggest that the proposed activities are not expected to contribute to, or combine with, the ongoing UME in a manner that would lead to impacts on reproduction or survivorship of any individuals. Therefore, NMFS has determined that there is no new information suggesting that our analysis or findings should change from those reached for the initial IHA. NMFS has concluded that there is no new information suggesting that our analysis or findings should change from E:\FR\FM\28AUN1.SGM 28AUN1 53338 Federal Register / Vol. 85, No. 168 / Friday, August 28, 2020 / Notices those reached for the initial IHA. Based on the information and analysis contained here and in the referenced documents, NMFS has determined the following: (1) The required mitigation measures will effect the least practicable impact on marine mammal species or stocks and their habitat; (2) the authorized takes will have a negligible impact on the affected marine mammal species or stocks; (3) the authorized takes represent small numbers of marine mammals relative to the affected stock abundances; (4) ONR’s activities will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on taking for subsistence purposes as no relevant subsistence uses of marine mammals are implicated by this action; and (5) appropriate monitoring and reporting requirements are included. Endangered Species Act Section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 (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 NMFS Alaska Regional Office (AKR), whenever we propose to authorize take for endangered or threatened species. The effects of this Federal action were adequately analyzed in NMFS’ Biological Opinion for the ONR Arctic Research Activities 2018–2021, dated August 27, 2019, which concluded that the take NMFS proposes to authorize through this IHA would not jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or destroy or adversely modify any designated critical habitat. Renewal NMFS has issued a Renewal IHA to ONR for the take of marine mammals incidental to conducting Arctic Research Activities in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas from September 10, 2020 through September 9, 2021. Dated: August 21, 2020. Donna S. Wieting, Director, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service. [FR Doc. 2020–18971 Filed 8–27–20; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P VerDate Sep<11>2014 17:16 Aug 27, 2020 Jkt 250001 DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE 1623 prior to the meeting, along with meeting materials. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Connection Information [RTID 0648–XA425] North Pacific Fishery Management Council; Public Meeting National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Notice of public meeting. AGENCY: The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) Crab Plan Team will meet September 14, 2020 through September 17, 2020. DATES: The meeting will be held on Monday, September 14, 2020 through Wednesday September 16, 2020 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Thursday, September 17, 2020 Alaska Time. ADDRESSES: The meeting will be a web conference. Join online through the link at https://npfmc.adobeconnect.com/ cptsept2020/. Council address: North Pacific Fishery Management Council, 1007 W 3rd Ave., Anchorage, AK 99501–2252; telephone: (907) 271–2809. Instructions for attending the meeting via video conference are given under SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION, below. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Jim Armstrong, Council staff; phone: (907) 271–2809; email: james.armstrong@ noaa.gov. For technical support please contact our admin Council staff, email: npfmc.admin@noaa.gov. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: SUMMARY: Agenda Monday, September 14, 2020 through Thursday, September 17, 2020 The agenda will include: (a) Final 2020 stock assessments for Eastern Bering Sea snow crab, Bristol Bay red king crab, Eastern Bering Sea Tanner crab, Pribilof Islands red king crab, and Saint Matthew Island blue king crab; (b) stock assessment modeling scenarios for Norton Sound red king crab; (c) other discussions including survey contingency plans for 2021, catch and bycatch updates, a discussion about crab stock boundaries, the crab ecosystem status report, the ecosystem and socioeconomic profiles for Bristol Bay red king crab and Saint Matthew blue king crab, prohibited species catch of crab in groundfish fisheries, and (d) planning for future meetings. The agenda is subject to change, and the latest version will be posted at https:// meetings.npfmc.org/Meeting/Details/ PO 00000 Frm 00022 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 You can attend the meeting online using a computer, tablet, or smart phone; or by phone only. Connection information will be posted online at: https://meetings.npfmc.org/Meeting/ Details/1623. Public Comment Public comment letters will be accepted and should be submitted electronically to https:// meetings.npfmc.org/Meeting/Details/ 1623. Special Accommodations The meeting is accessible to people with disabilities. Requests for sign language interpretation or other auxiliary aids should be directed to Shannon Gleason at (907) 903–3107 at least 7 working days prior to the meeting date. Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq. Dated: August 25, 2020. Tracey L. Thompson, Acting Deputy Director, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, National Marine Fisheries Service. [FR Doc. 2020–18968 Filed 8–27–20; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [RTID 0648–XA379] Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to National Wildlife Refuge Complex Research, Monitoring, and Maintenance Activities in Massachusetts National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Notice; issuance of Renewal incidental harassment authorization. AGENCY: In accordance with the regulations implementing the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), as amended, notification is hereby given that NMFS has issued a Renewal incidental harassment authorization (IHA) to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to incidentally harass marine mammals incidental to conducting biological research, monitoring, and maintenance at the Eastern Massachusetts (MA) National Wildlife Refuge Complex (Complex). SUMMARY: E:\FR\FM\28AUN1.SGM 28AUN1

Agencies

[Federal Register Volume 85, Number 168 (Friday, August 28, 2020)]
[Notices]
[Pages 53333-53338]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2020-18971]


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

DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

[RTID 0648-XA373]


Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; 
Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to Office of Naval Research Arctic 
Research Activities

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

ACTION: Notice; issuance of Renewal incidental harassment 
authorization.

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

SUMMARY: In accordance with the regulations implementing the Marine 
Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), as amended, notification is hereby given 
that NMFS has issued a Renewal incidental harassment authorization 
(IHA) to the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR) to harass 
marine mammals incidental to Arctic Research Activities in the Beaufort 
and Chukchi Seas.

DATES: This Renewal IHA is valid from September 10, 2020 through 
September 9, 2021.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Amy Fowler, Office of Protected 
Resources, NMFS, (301) 427-8401. Electronic copies of the original 
application, Renewal request, and supporting documents (including NMFS 
Federal Register notices of the original proposed and final 
authorizations, and the previous IHA), as well as a list of the 
references cited in this document, may be obtained online at: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/permit/incidental-take-authorizations-under-marine-mammal-protection-act. In case of problems accessing these 
documents, please call the contact listed above.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 

Background

    The MMPA prohibits the ``take'' of marine mammals, with certain 
exceptions. Sections 101(a)(5)(A) and (D) of the MMPA (16 U.S.C. 1361 
et seq.) direct the Secretary of Commerce (as delegated to NMFS) to 
allow, upon request, the incidental, but not intentional, taking of 
small numbers of marine mammals by U.S. citizens who engage in a 
specified activity (other than commercial fishing) within a specified 
geographical region if certain findings are made and either regulations 
are issued or, if the taking is limited to harassment, a notice of a 
proposed incidental take authorization is provided to the public for 
review.
    Authorization for incidental takings shall be granted if NMFS finds 
that the taking will have a negligible impact on the species or 
stock(s) and will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the 
availability of the species or stock(s) for taking for subsistence uses 
(where relevant). Further, NMFS must prescribe the permissible methods 
of taking and other ``means of effecting the least practicable adverse 
impact'' on the affected species or stocks and their habitat, paying 
particular attention to rookeries, mating grounds, and areas of similar 
significance, and on the availability of such species or stocks for 
taking for certain subsistence uses (referred to here as ``mitigation 
measures''). Monitoring and reporting of such takings are also 
required. The meaning of key terms such as ``take,'' ``harassment,'' 
and ``negligible impact'' can be found in section 3 of the MMPA (16 
U.S.C. 1362) and the agency's regulations at 50 CFR 216.103.
    NMFS' regulations implementing the MMPA at 50 CFR 216.107(e) 
indicate that IHAs may be renewed for additional periods of time not to 
exceed one year for each reauthorization. In the notice of proposed IHA 
for the initial authorization, NMFS described the circumstances under 
which we would consider issuing a Renewal for this activity, and 
requested public comment on a potential Renewal under those 
circumstances. Specifically, on a case-by-case basis, NMFS may issue a 
one-time one-year Renewal IHA following notice to the public providing 
an additional 15 days for public comments when (1) up to another year 
of identical, or nearly identical, activities as described in the 
Description of the Specified Activities and Anticipated Impacts section 
of this notice is planned or (2) the activities as described in the 
Specified Activities section of this notice would not be completed by 
the time the IHA expires and a Renewal would allow for completion of 
the activities beyond that described in the Dates and Duration section 
of the notice of proposed IHA for the initial authorization, provided 
all of the following conditions are met:
     A request for renewal is received no later than 60 days 
prior to the needed Renewal IHA effective date (recognizing that the 
Renewal IHA expiration date cannot extend beyond one year from 
expiration of the initial IHA).
     The request for renewal must include the following:
    (1) An explanation that the activities to be conducted under the 
requested Renewal IHA are identical to the activities analyzed under 
the initial IHA, are a subset of the activities, or

[[Page 53334]]

include changes so minor (e.g., reduction in pile size) that the 
changes do not affect the previous analyses, mitigation and monitoring 
requirements, or take estimates (with the exception of reducing the 
type or amount of take).
    (2) A preliminary monitoring report showing the results of the 
required monitoring to date and an explanation showing that the 
monitoring results do not indicate impacts of a scale or nature not 
previously analyzed or authorized.
    Upon review of the request for Renewal, the status of the affected 
species or stocks, and any other pertinent information, NMFS determines 
that there are no more than minor changes in the activities, the 
mitigation and monitoring measures will remain the same and 
appropriate, and the findings in the initial IHA remain valid.
    An additional public comment period of 15 days (for a total of 45 
days), with direct notice by email, phone, or postal service to 
commenters on the initial IHA, is provided to allow for any additional 
comments on the proposed Renewal. A description of the Renewal process 
may be found on our website at: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-mammal-protection/incidental-harassment-authorization-renewals.
    The NDAA (Pub. L. 108-136) removed the ``small numbers'' and 
``specified geographical region'' limitations indicated above and 
amended the definition of ``harassment'' as it applies to a ``military 
readiness activity.'' The activity for which incidental take of marine 
mammals is being requested addressed here qualifies as a military 
readiness activity.

History of Request

    On September 9, 2019, NMFS issued an IHA to ONR to take marine 
mammals incidental to Arctic Research Activities in the Beaufort and 
Chukchi Seas (84 FR 50007; September 24, 2019), effective from 
September 10, 2019 through September 9, 2020. On May 12, 2020, NMFS 
received an application for the Renewal of that initial IHA. As 
described in the application for Renewal, the activities for which 
incidental take is requested are identical to those covered in the 
initial authorization. As required, the applicant also provided a 
preliminary monitoring report (available at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-mammal-protection/incidental-take-authorizations-military-readiness-activities) which confirms that 
the applicant has implemented the required mitigation and monitoring, 
and which also shows that no impacts of a scale or nature not 
previously analyzed or authorized have occurred as a result of the 
activities conducted.

Description of the Specified Activities and Anticipated Impacts

    ONR plans to continue its Arctic Research Activities for a third 
year, conducting activities identical to those analyzed in the initial 
IHA. In 2018, ONR began a three-year project involving several 
scientific objectives that support the Arctic and Global Prediction 
Program, as well as the Ocean Acoustics Program and the Naval Research 
Laboratory, for which ONR is the parent command. Specifically, the 
project includes the Stratified Ocean Dynamics of the Arctic (SODA), 
Arctic Mobile Observing System (AMOS), Ocean Acoustics field work 
(including the Coordinated Arctic Active Tomography Experiment 
(CAATEX)), and Naval Research Laboratory experiments in the Beaufort 
and Chukchi Seas. These experiments involve deployment of moored and 
ice-tethered active acoustic sources, primarily from the U.S Coast 
Guard Cutter (CGC) HEALY. The CGC HEALY may be required to perform 
icebreaking to access the northernmost portion of the Survey Area. 
Underwater sound from the acoustic sources and icebreaking may result 
in behavioral harassment of marine mammals.

Detailed Description of the Activity

    A total of 12 moored acoustic navigation sources were planned to be 
deployed and operate through the duration of the three-year project. Of 
those, seven moored navigation sources were deployed in 2018 and an 
additional navigation source was deployed in 2019, along with a very-
low frequency source (30 hertz) in the northernmost portion of the 
Survey Area. These acoustic sources are deployed and left behind to 
transmit intermittently throughout the year. The acoustic sources 
deployed during the 2018 and 2019 scientific cruises would continue to 
operate through the course of this IHA Renewal and the remaining moored 
and drifting sources are also planned to be deployed in 2020, such that 
the acoustic transmissions from September 2020 through September 2021 
would be identical to those analyzed in the initial IHA.
    As described in the notice of proposed IHA for the initial 
authorization (84 FR 37240; July 31, 2019), CGC HEALY may also be 
required to perform icebreaking to deploy the acoustic sources in deep 
water. No icebreaking was required in the 2019 research cruise, but as 
in the initial IHA, ONR estimates up to six hours of icebreaking per 
day over 16 days may occur (e.g., eight days during the fall 2020 
equipment deployment cruise and eight days during the fall 2021 
equipment retrieval cruise).
    A detailed description of the scientific research program conducted 
by ONR is found in the notice of proposed IHA for the initial 
authorization (84 FR 37240; July 31, 2019). The location, timing, and 
nature of the activities, including the acoustic sources planned for 
use, are identical to those described in the previous notice. This IHA 
Renewal is effective for one year past the expiration of the initial 
IHA (i.e., from September 10, 2020 through September 9, 2021).

Description of Marine Mammals

    A description of the marine mammals in the area of the activities 
for which authorization of take is proposed here, including information 
on abundance, status, distribution, and hearing, may be found in the 
notice of the proposed IHA (84 FR 37240; July 31, 2019). NMFS has 
reviewed the monitoring report from the initial IHA, recent draft Stock 
Assessment Reports (SARs), information on relevant Unusual Mortality 
Events (UMEs), and other scientific literature, and determined that 
neither this nor any other new information affects which species or 
stock have the potential to be affected or the pertinent information in 
the Description of the Marine Mammals in the Area of Specified 
Activities section contained in the supporting documents for the 
initial IHA.

Ice Seals UME

    Since June 1, 2018, elevated strandings of ringed seals, bearded 
seals, and spotted seals (Phoca largha) have occurred in the Bering and 
Chukchi Seas. This event has been declared a UME. A UME is defined 
under the MMPA as a stranding that is unexpected; involves a 
significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands 
immediate response. From June 1, 2018 to February 9, 2020, there have 
been 278 dead seals reported, with 112 stranding in 2018, 165 in 2019, 
and one in 2020, which is nearly five times the average number of 
strandings of about 29 seals annually. All age classes of seals have 
been reported stranded, and a subset of seals have been sampled for 
genetics and harmful algal bloom exposure, with a few having 
histopathology collected. Results are pending, and the cause of the UME 
remains unknown.
    There was a previous UME involving ice seals from 2011 to 2016, 
which was most active in 2011-2012. A minimum of 657 seals were 
affected. The UME

[[Page 53335]]

investigation determined that some of the clinical signs were due to an 
abnormal molt, but a definitive cause of death for the UME was never 
determined. The number of stranded ice seals involved in this UME, and 
their physical characteristics, is not at all similar to the 2011-2016 
UME, as the seals in 2018-2020 have not been exhibiting hair loss or 
skin lesions, which were a primary finding in the 2011-2016 UME. The 
investigation into the cause of the most recent UME is ongoing. More 
detailed information is available at: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-life-distress/2018-2019-ice-seal-unusual-mortality-event-alaska.

Potential Effects on Marine Mammals and Their Habitat

    A description of the potential effects of the specified activity on 
marine mammals and their habitat for the activities for which take is 
authorized here may be found in the notice of the proposed IHA for the 
initial authorization (84 FR 37240; July 31, 2019). NMFS has reviewed 
the monitoring data from the initial IHA, recent draft SARs, 
information on relevant UMEs, other scientific literature, and the 
public comments, and determined that neither this nor any other new 
information affects our initial analysis of impacts on marine mammals 
and their habitat.

Estimated Take

    A detailed description of the methods and inputs used to estimate 
take for the specified activity are found in the notices of the 
proposed and final IHAs for the initial authorization (84 FR 37240, 
July 31, 2019; 84 FR 50007, September 24, 2019). Specifically, the 
source levels, days of operation, and marine mammal density and 
occurrence data applicable to this authorization remain unchanged from 
the previously issued IHA. Similarly, the stocks taken, methods of 
take, and types of take remain unchanged from the previously issued 
IHA, as do the number of authorized takes, which are indicated below in 
Table 1.

                                         Table 1--Authorized Take of Marine Mammals and Percent of Stocks Taken
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                                              Density
                                                             estimate         Level B         Level B
                                                           within study     harassment      harassment        Level A          Total       Percentage of
                         Species                          area  (animals   from deployed       from         harassment      authorized      stock taken
                                                          per square km)      sources       icebreaking                        take
                                                                \a\
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Beluga Whale (Beaufort Sea Stock).......................          0.0087             331              32               0             363            0.92
Beluga Whale (Eastern Chukchi Sea stock)................          0.0087             178              18               0             196            0.94
Bearded Seal............................................          0.0332               0               0               0           \b\ 5           <0.01
Ringed Seal.............................................          0.3760           6,773           1,072               0           7,845            2.17
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
\a\ Kaschner et al. (2006); Kaschner (2004).
\b\ Quantitative modeling yielded zero takes of bearded seals. However, in an abundance of caution, we are proposing to authorize five takes of bearded
  seals by Level B harassment.

Description of Mitigation, Monitoring and Reporting Measures

    The mitigation, monitoring, and reporting measures included as 
requirements in this authorization are identical to those included in 
the Federal Register notice announcing the issuance of the initial IHA 
(84 FR 50007; September 24, 2019), and the discussion of the least 
practicable adverse impact included in that document remains accurate. 
The following measures are required for this Renewal:

Mitigation Measures

    Ships operated by or for the Navy have personnel assigned to stand 
watch at all times, day and night, when moving through the water. While 
in transit, ships must use extreme caution and proceed at a safe speed 
such that the ship can take proper and effective action to avoid a 
collision with any marine mammal and can be stopped within a distance 
appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.
    During navigational source deployments, visual observation must 
start 30 minutes prior to and continue throughout the deployment within 
an exclusion zone of 55 meters (m; 180 feet (ft), roughly one ship 
length) around the deployed mooring. Deployment must stop if a marine 
mammal is visually detected within the exclusion zone. Deployment will 
re-commence if any one of the following conditions are met: (1) The 
animal is observed exiting the exclusion zone, (2) the animal is 
thought to have exited the exclusion zone based on its course and 
speed, or (3) the exclusion zone has been clear from any additional 
sightings for a period of 15 minutes for pinnipeds and 30 minutes for 
cetaceans. Visual monitoring must continue through 30 minutes following 
the deployment of sources.
    Once deployed, the spiral wave beacon would transmit for five days. 
The ship will maintain position near the moored source and must monitor 
the surrounding area for marine mammals. Transmission must cease if a 
marine mammal enters a 55-m (180 ft) exclusion zone. Transmission will 
re-commence if any one of the following conditions are met: (1) The 
animal is observed exiting the exclusion zone, (2) the animal is 
thought to have exited the exclusion zone based on its course and speed 
and relative motion between the animal and the source, or (3) the 
exclusion zone has been clear from any additional sightings for a 
period of 15 minutes for pinnipeds and 30 minutes for cetaceans. The 
spiral wave beacon source must only transmit during daylight hours.
    Ships must avoid approaching marine mammals head on and must 
maneuver to maintain an exclusion zone of 1,500 ft (457 m) around 
observed mysticete whales, and 600 ft (183 m) around all other marine 
mammals, provided it is safe to do so in ice free waters.
    With the exception of the spiral wave beacon, moored/drifting 
sources are left in place and cannot be turned off until the following 
year during ice free months. Once they are programmed they will operate 
at the specified pulse lengths and duty cycles until they are either 
turned off the following year or there is failure of the battery and 
are not able to operate. Due to the ice covered nature of the Arctic is 
in not possible to recover the sources or interfere with their transmit 
operations in the middle of the deployment.
    These requirements do not apply if a vessel's safety is at risk, 
such as when a change of course would create an imminent and serious 
threat to safety, person, vessel, or aircraft, and to the

[[Page 53336]]

extent vessels are restricted in their ability to maneuver. No further 
action is necessary if a marine mammal other than a whale continues to 
approach the vessel after there has already been one maneuver and/or 
speed change to avoid the animal. Avoidance measures should continue 
for any observed whale in order to maintain an exclusion zone of 1,500 
ft (457 m).
    All personnel conducting on-ice experiments, as well as all 
aircraft operating in the study area, are required to maintain a 
separation distance of 1,000 ft (305 m) from any sighted marine mammal.

Monitoring Measures

    While underway, the ships (including non-Navy ships operating on 
behalf of the Navy) utilizing active acoustics must have at least one 
watch person during activities. Watch personnel undertake extensive 
training in accordance with the U.S. Navy Lookout Training Handbook or 
civilian equivalent, including on the job instruction and a formal 
Personal Qualification Standard program (or equivalent program for 
supporting contractors or civilians), to certify that they have 
demonstrated all necessary skills (such as detection and reporting of 
floating or partially submerged objects). Additionally, watch personnel 
have taken the Navy's Marine Species Awareness Training. Their duties 
may be performed in conjunction with other job responsibilities, such 
as navigating the ship or supervising other personnel. While on watch, 
personnel employ visual search techniques, including the use of 
binoculars, using a scanning method in accordance with the U.S. Navy 
Lookout Training Handbook or civilian equivalent. A primary duty of 
watch personnel is to detect and report all objects and disturbances 
sighted in the water that may be indicative of a threat to the ship and 
its crew, such as debris, or surface disturbance. Per safety 
requirements, watch personnel also report any marine mammals sighted 
that have the potential to be in the direct path of the ship as a 
standard collision avoidance procedure.
    The U.S. Navy has coordinated with NMFS to develop an overarching 
program plan in which specific monitoring would occur. This plan is 
called the Integrated Comprehensive Monitoring Program (ICMP) (Navy 
2011). The ICMP has been developed in direct response to Navy 
permitting requirements established through various environmental 
compliance efforts. As a framework document, the ICMP applies by 
regulation to those activities on ranges and operating areas for which 
the Navy is seeking or has sought incidental take authorizations. The 
ICMP is intended to coordinate monitoring efforts across all regions 
and to allocate the most appropriate level and type of effort based on 
a set of standardized research goals, and in acknowledgement of 
regional scientific value and resource availability.
    The ICMP is focused on Navy training and testing ranges where the 
majority of Navy activities occur regularly as those areas have the 
greatest potential for being impacted. ONR's Arctic Research Activities 
in comparison is a less intensive test with little human activity 
present in the Arctic. Human presence is limited to a minimal amount of 
days for source operations and source deployments, in contrast to the 
large majority (>95 percent) of time that the sources will be left 
behind and operate autonomously. Therefore, a dedicated monitoring 
project is not warranted. However, ONR will record all observations of 
marine mammals, including the marine mammal's location (latitude and 
longitude), behavior, and distance from project activities, including 
icebreaking.

Reporting Measures

    The Navy is committed to documenting and reporting relevant aspects 
of research and testing activities to verify implementation of 
mitigation, comply with permits, and improve future environmental 
assessments. If any injury or death of a marine mammal is observed 
during the 2020-21 Arctic Research Activities, the Navy must 
immediately halt the activity and report the incident to the Office of 
Protected Resources, NMFS, and the Alaska Regional Stranding 
Coordinator, NMFS. The following information must be provided:
     Time, date, and location of the discovery;
     Species identification (if known) or description of the 
animal(s) involved;
     Condition of the animal(s) (including carcass condition if 
the animal is dead);
     Observed behaviors of the animal(s), if alive;
     If available, photographs or video footage of the 
animal(s); and
     General circumstances under which the animal(s) was 
discovered (e.g., during use of towed acoustic sources, deployment of 
moored or drifting sources, during on-ice experiments, or by transiting 
vessel).
    ONR must provide NMFS with a draft exercise monitoring report 
within 90 days of the conclusion of the proposed activity. The draft 
exercise monitoring report must include data regarding acoustic source 
use and any mammal sightings or detection must be documented. The 
report must include the estimated number of marine mammals taken during 
the activity. The report must also include information on the number of 
shutdowns recorded. If no comments are received from NMFS within 30 
days of submission of the draft final report, the draft final report 
will constitute the final report. If comments are received, a final 
report must be submitted within 30 days after receipt of comments.

Public Comments

    A notice of NMFS' proposal to issue a Renewal IHA to ONR was 
published in the Federal Register on July 10, 2020 (85 FR 41560). That 
notice either described, or referenced descriptions of, ONR's activity, 
the marine mammal species that may be affected by the activity, the 
anticipated effects on marine mammals and their habitat, proposed 
amount and manner of take, and proposed mitigation, monitoring and 
reporting measures. NMFS received a comment letter from the Marine 
Mammal Commission (Commission). The comments and our responses are 
summarized below.
    Comment 1: The Commission noted that ONR did not stipulate the type 
and number of sources that would transmit or how many days of 
icebreaking could occur in 2020-2021 in their Renewal request. The 
Commission stated that without that information, NMFS cannot judge 
whether the activities proposed to occur in 2020-2021 are identical to 
or are a subset of those that were conducted in 2019-2020, whether the 
estimated numbers of marine mammals taken in 2019-2020 were within the 
authorized limits, and whether the original determinations would still 
be valid for the 2020-2021 IHA Renewal. Thus, the Commission 
recommended NMFS deny ONR's request for IHA Renewal as submitted.
    Response: NMFS appreciates the Commission's comment regarding the 
information provided in ONR's Renewal request. Although that 
information was not provided in the Renewal request letter itself, ONR 
informed NMFS that the activities planned for 2020-2021 would be 
identical to those analyzed in the 2019-2020 IHA and . provided the 
information discussed in the Detailed Description of the Activity 
section of this notice. Additionally, although no marine mammals were 
directly observed during any source deployment in 2019, ONR provided an 
estimate of the number of marine mammals that may have been exposed 
based on the number of sources deployed and operational during 2019-
2020. Eight of 21 possible

[[Page 53337]]

acoustic sources were in use, thus ONR estimated 8/21 (38.1 percent) of 
total calculated takes from acoustic sources occurred during the 2019-
2020 IHA, for a total of 194 belugas (from either stock) and 2,580 
ringed seals. No bearded seal takes were modeled using the Navy 
Acoustic Effects Model (NAEMO), but out of an abundance of caution, 
NMFS authorized five takes of bearded seals by Level B harassment in 
the event bearded seals were observed during source deployment. No 
bearded seals were observed in 2019, therefore no takes likely 
occurred.
    Based on the information provided by the applicant, NMFS has 
determined that the estimated numbers of marine mammals taken in 2019-
2020 were within the authorized limits, the original determinations are 
still valid for the 2020-2021 IHA Renewal, and an IHA Renewal is 
appropriate for ONR's activities. NMFS is consistently working on 
refining protocols for processing IHA Renewals, and will ensure that 
future Renewal requests include all information necessary for our 
determinations prior to publication of the proposed Renewal.
    Comment 2: The Commission recommends that NMFS refrain from issuing 
renewals for any authorization and instead use its abbreviated Federal 
Register notice process.
    Response: In prior responses to comments about IHA Renewals (e.g., 
84 FR 52464; October 02, 2019), NMFS has explained how the Renewal 
process, as implemented, is consistent with the statutory requirements 
contained in section 101(a)(5)(D) of the MMPA and, therefore, we plan 
to continue to issue qualifying Renewals when the requirements outlined 
on our website are met. Thus, NMFS agrees with the Commission's 
recommendation that we should not issue a renewal for any authorization 
unless it is consistent with the procedural requirements specified in 
section 101(a)(5)(D)(iii) of the MMPA.
    Additionally, regarding the recommendation to use abbreviated 
notices, we agree that they are a useful tool by which to increase 
efficiency in conjunction with the use of Renewals, but we disagree 
that their use alone would equally fulfill NMFS' goal to maximize 
efficiency and provide regulatory certainty for applicants, with no 
reduction in protections for marine mammals. The Renewal process, with 
its narrowly described qualifying actions, specific issuance criteria, 
and additional 15-day comment period, allows for NMFS to broadly commit 
to a 60-day processing time. This commitment, which would not be 
possible in the absence of this narrow definition and the 15-day 
additional comment period, provides both a meaningfully shortened 
processing time and regulatory certainty for planning purposes. 
Increasing the comment period for Renewals to 30 days would increase 
processing time by 25% and is unnecessary, given the legal sufficiency 
of the process as it stands, as described above, and no additional 
protections for marine mammals that would result. NMFS uses abbreviated 
notices when proposed actions do not qualify for Renewals, but still 
allow for reliance upon previous documentation and analyses. These 
abbreviated notice projects, which deviate from the narrow 
qualifications of a Renewal, require some additional time for the 
analyst to appropriately review the small changes from the initial IHA 
and further necessitate the 30-day public review required for a new 
IHA. NMFS has evaluated the use of both the Renewal and abbreviated 
notice processes, as well as the associated workload for each, and 
determined that using both of these processes provides maximum 
efficiency for the agency and applicants, regulatory certainty, and 
appropriate protections for marine mammals consistent with the 
statutory standards. Using the abbreviated notice process, however, is 
unnecessary and unwarranted for projects that meet the narrow 
qualifications for a Renewal IHA.
    As previously noted, we have found that the Renewal process is 
consistent with the statutory requirements of the MMPA and, further, 
promotes NMFS' goals of improving conservation of marine mammals and 
increasing efficiency in the MMPA compliance process. Therefore, we 
intend to continue implementing the Renewal process.

National Environmental Policy Act

    In 2018, the U.S. Navy prepared an Environmental Assessment 
analyzing the project. Prior to issuing the IHA for the first year of 
this project, we reviewed the 2018 EA and the public comments received, 
determined that a separate NEPA analysis was not necessary, and 
subsequently adopted the document and issued our own Finding of No 
Significant Impact in support of the issuance of an IHA. In 2019, the 
U.S. Navy prepared a supplemental EA. Prior to issuing the IHA in 2019, 
we reviewed the supplemental EA and the public comments received, 
determined that a separate NEPA analysis was not necessary, and 
subsequently adopted the document and issued our own Finding of No 
Significant Impact in support of the issuance of an IHA.
    We have reviewed ONR's application for a renewed IHA for ongoing 
Arctic Research Activities from September 2020 to September 2021 and 
the 2019 IHA monitoring report. Based on that review, we have 
determined that the proposed action is identical to that considered in 
the previous IHA. In addition, no significant new circumstances or 
information relevant to environmental concerns have been identified. 
Thus, we have determined that the preparation of a new or supplemental 
NEPA document is not necessary.

Determinations

    The action of this Renewal IHA, ONR's Arctic Research Activities, 
are identical to the activities analyzed in the initial IHA. Based on 
the analysis detailed in the notices of the initial authorization of 
the likely effects of the specified activity on marine mammals and 
their habitat, and taking into consideration the implementation of the 
monitoring and mitigation measures, NMFS found that the total marine 
mammal take from the activity would have a negligible impact on all 
affected marine mammal species and stocks.
    There is an ongoing UME for ice seals, including ringed and bearded 
seals. Elevated strandings have occurred in the Bering and Chukchi Seas 
since June 2018. Though elevated numbers of seals have stranded during 
this UME, this event does not provide cause for concern regarding 
population-level impacts, as the population abundance estimates for 
each of the affected species number in the hundreds of thousands. ONR's 
Arctic Research Activities Study Area is in the Beaufort and Chukchi 
Seas, well north and east of the primary area where seals have stranded 
along the western coast of Alaska (see map of strandings at: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-life-distress/2018-2019-ice-seal-unusual-mortality-event-alaska). The location of ONR's Arctic 
Research Activities, combined with the low-level potential effects on 
marine mammals, suggest that the proposed activities are not expected 
to contribute to, or combine with, the ongoing UME in a manner that 
would lead to impacts on reproduction or survivorship of any 
individuals. Therefore, NMFS has determined that there is no new 
information suggesting that our analysis or findings should change from 
those reached for the initial IHA.
    NMFS has concluded that there is no new information suggesting that 
our analysis or findings should change from

[[Page 53338]]

those reached for the initial IHA. Based on the information and 
analysis contained here and in the referenced documents, NMFS has 
determined the following: (1) The required mitigation measures will 
effect the least practicable impact on marine mammal species or stocks 
and their habitat; (2) the authorized takes will have a negligible 
impact on the affected marine mammal species or stocks; (3) the 
authorized takes represent small numbers of marine mammals relative to 
the affected stock abundances; (4) ONR's activities will not have an 
unmitigable adverse impact on taking for subsistence purposes as no 
relevant subsistence uses of marine mammals are implicated by this 
action; and (5) appropriate monitoring and reporting requirements are 
included.

Endangered Species Act

    Section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 (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 NMFS Alaska Regional 
Office (AKR), whenever we propose to authorize take for endangered or 
threatened species.
    The effects of this Federal action were adequately analyzed in 
NMFS' Biological Opinion for the ONR Arctic Research Activities 2018-
2021, dated August 27, 2019, which concluded that the take NMFS 
proposes to authorize through this IHA would not jeopardize the 
continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or destroy 
or adversely modify any designated critical habitat.

Renewal

    NMFS has issued a Renewal IHA to ONR for the take of marine mammals 
incidental to conducting Arctic Research Activities in the Beaufort and 
Chukchi Seas from September 10, 2020 through September 9, 2021.

    Dated: August 21, 2020.
Donna S. Wieting,
Director, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries 
Service.
[FR Doc. 2020-18971 Filed 8-27-20; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-P