[Federal Register Volume 70, Number 248 (Wednesday, December 28, 2005)]
[Notices]
[Pages 76780-76783]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: E5-7989]


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

DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

[I.D. 122005C]


Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on 
Impacts of Research on Steller Sea Lions and Northern Fur Seals 
Throughout Their Range in the United States

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

ACTION: Notice of Intent to prepare environmental impact statement.

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

SUMMARY: The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announces its 
intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to analyze 
the environmental impacts of administering grants and issuing permits 
associated with research on endangered and threatened Steller sea lions 
(Eumetopias jubatus) and depleted northern fur seals (Callorhinus 
ursinus). Publication of this notice begins the official scoping 
process that will help identify alternatives and determine the scope of 
environmental issues to be addressed in the EIS. This notice requests 
public participation in the scoping process and provides information on 
how to participate.
    The purpose of conducting research on threatened and endangered 
Steller sea lions is to promote the recovery of the species' 
populations such that the protections of the Endangered Species Act 
(ESA; 16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.) are no longer needed. Consistent with the 
purpose of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA; 16 U.S.C. 1361 et 
seq.), the purpose of conducting research on northern fur seals is to 
contribute to the basic knowledge of marine mammal biology or ecology 
and to identify, evaluate, or resolve conservation problems for this 
depleted species.
    Research on Steller sea lions and northern fur seals considered in 
this EIS is funded and permitted by NMFS, which are both federal 
actions requiring National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA; 42 U.S.C. 
4321 et seq.) compliance. The need for these actions is to facilitate 
research to: (1) Prevent harm and avoid jeopardy or disadvantage to the 
species; (2) promote recovery; (3) identify factors limiting the 
population; (4) identify reasonable actions to minimize impacts of 
human-induced activities; (5) implement conservation and management 
measures; and (6) make data and results available in a timely manner 
for management of the species. As part of this action, NMFS is 
developing measures that will improve efficiency and avoid unnecessary 
redundancy in Steller sea lion and northern fur seal research, utilize 
best management practices, facilitate adaptive management, and 
standardize research protocols.

ADDRESSES: See SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION for specific dates, times, and 
locations of public scoping meetings for this issue.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Written statements and questions 
regarding the scoping process must be postmarked by February 13, 2006, 
and should be mailed to: Steve Leathery, Chief, Permits, Conservation 
and Education Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine 
Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Room 13705, Silver Spring, 
MD 20910-3226,

[[Page 76781]]

Fax: 301-427-2583 or e-mail at ssleis.comments@noaa.gov.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: NMFS is the Federal agency responsible for 
management of Steller sea lions and northern fur seals under the ESA 
and the MMPA. NMFS currently administers grants and issues permits to 
various individuals and institutions to conduct research on Steller sea 
lions and northern fur seals in lands and waters under U.S. 
jurisdiction.
    The grant monies administered by NMFS have been designated by 
Congress and allocated within NMFS annual budgets for the purpose of 
facilitating research on Steller sea lions and northern fur seals. The 
agency has determined that the act of awarding grants is a federal 
action requiring NEPA compliance. Similarly, issuance of permits for 
research activities on marine mammals is a federal action requiring 
NEPA compliance. These permits are issued pursuant to the provisions of 
the ESA, the MMPA, and NMFS regulations implementing these statutes. 
This EIS would satisfy the NEPA compliance requirements for awarding 
grants and issuing permits for research on Steller sea lions and 
northern fur seals.
    The statutory requirements for permits to allow research on marine 
mammals and on threatened and endangered species are described in 
Section 104 of the MMPA and Section 10 of the ESA, respectively. 
Specifically, Section 104(c)(3)(A) of the MMPA states that NMFS may 
issue a permit for scientific research purposes to an applicant, which 
submits with its permit application information indicating that the 
taking is required to further a bona fide scientific purpose. The MMPA 
defines bona fide scientific research as scientific research on marine 
mammals, the results of which: (1) likely would be accepted for 
publication in a refereed scientific journal; (2) are likely to 
contribute to the basic knowledge or marine mammal biology or ecology; 
or (3) are likely to identify, evaluate, or resolve conservation 
problems. Section 104 of the MMPA specifies additional conditions and 
requirements for permits including requiring permit applicants to 
demonstrate that the permit will be consistent with the purposes of the 
MMPA, which are specified in Section 2 of the statute.
    For marine mammals listed as threatened or endangered, the 
provisions of Section 10 of the ESA apply to permit issuance in 
addition to the provisions of the MMPA. Section 10(a)(1)(A) of the ESA 
states that NMFS may issue permits for otherwise prohibited acts for 
scientific purposes or to enhance the propagation or survival of the 
affected species. Section 10(d) of the ESA further states that NMFS may 
grant exceptions under subsection 10(a)(1)(A) only if the agency finds 
that: (1) Such exceptions were applied for in good faith, (2) if 
granted and exercised will not operate to the disadvantage of such 
endangered species, and (3) will be consistent with the purposes and 
policies set forth in Section 2 of the Act. The purposes of the ESA, 
which are stated in Section 2 of the statute, are to provide a means 
whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species 
depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of 
such endangered and threatened species, and to take such steps as may 
be appropriate to achieve the purposes of the treaties and conventions 
set forth in section 2(a) of the ESA.
    In addition to the requirements of section 10 of the ESA, NMFS must 
comply with section 7 of the ESA in issuing permits. According to 
Section 7 of the ESA, NMFS must insure that any action it authorizes 
(such as by permit), funds (such as by grants), or carries out, is not 
likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or 
result in destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.
    The purpose of issuing permits is to allow an exemption to the 
prohibitions on ``takes'' established under the ESA and MMPA. The ESA 
and the MMPA prohibit ``takes'' of threatened and endangered species, 
and of marine mammals, respectively. The ESA defines ``take'' as ``to 
harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or 
collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.'' Under the MMPA, 
``take'' is defined as to ``harass, hunt, capture, collect or kill, or 
attempt to harass, hunt, capture, collect or kill any marine mammal.'' 
Many research activities, including aerial and vessel-based surveys, 
tagging and marking procedures, attachment of scientific instruments, 
and collection of tissue samples require approaching or capturing 
animals and may result in harassment or other acts prohibited under the 
ESA and MMPA except where allowed by permit.
    Because some of the proposed research may result in adverse effects 
on threatened and endangered Steller sea lions and depleted northern 
fur seals, NMFS has decided to prepare an EIS to evaluate the 
cumulative impacts of continuing to fund and permit research activities 
on these species. This EIS will assess the likely environmental and 
socioeconomic effects of funding and permitting research under a range 
of alternatives and will address compliance of the alternatives with 
the ESA, MMPA, and other applicable laws.
    This notice initiates a public scoping period that will help 
determine the structure of each alternative considered in the EIS. The 
final scope and structure of the alternatives will reflect the combined 
input from the public, research institutions, affected state and 
federal agencies, and NMFS administrative and research offices. Based 
on comments received on Environmental Assessments prepared in 2002 and 
2005 for permitting research on Steller sea lions, the following issues 
that NMFS is seeking public comments on have been identified and may be 
incorporated into the analysis of alternatives in the EIS:
    (1) Types of research methods and protocols permitted. For example, 
are there critical research needs for these species other than those 
identified in the Recovery or Conservation Plans? If so, what are they 
and how are they likely to benefit the species? Of the research, 
information, and monitoring needs identified in the Recovery and 
Conservation Plans, what are the most appropriate methods to conduct 
the study or obtain the information? What criteria for developing and 
incorporating new research techniques should be used?
    (2) Level of research effort. For example, how much of a specific 
research activity (e.g., aerial survey, tagging, biopsy sampling, etc.) 
is enough for management and conservation needs? Can there be too much? 
If so, how should NMFS set limits? Are the current methods to assess 
and document numbers of different ``takes'' that occur as a result of 
permitted research appropriate? Should there be different standards or 
more restrictions placed on research conducted on certain age, sex, or 
life-history stages or on the geographic or temporal distribution of 
research effort? If so, what should those limitations be?
    (3) Coordination of research. For example, assuming permits are 
issued to multiple individuals, what are the most appropriate 
mechanisms for ensuring research is coordinated to maximize information 
and reduce adverse impacts? Alternatively, should NMFS consider 
limiting the number of permits to increase coordination and 
cooperation? If so, how should this be accomplished? Should researchers 
operating under different permits (but studying the same or related 
questions such as aerial survey for population census or biopsy for 
population

[[Page 76782]]

genetics) be required to use the same or similar methods to ensure the 
information collected is comparable and useful for NMFS conservation of 
the species? If so, what methods are most appropriate (e.g., for aerial 
surveys; capture and restraint; tissue sampling; marking; etc.)? If 
not, how should NMFS compare or use the data from various permit 
holders in its management decisions?
    (4) Effects of research. NMFS will be assessing possible effects of 
the various research methods using all appropriate available 
information. Anyone having relevant information they believe NMFS 
should consider in its analysis should provide a complete citation or 
reference for retrieving the information. In addition, NMFS is seeking 
recommendations for study designs that could detect or predict the 
effects of research on Steller sea lions and northern fur seals.
    (5) Qualification of researchers. For example, to ensure the study 
is conducted successfully and with the minimum of adverse impacts, how 
much prior experience should a permit applicant, principal 
investigator, or anyone else operating under a permit have with the 
specific methods for which they seek a permit?
    (6) Criteria for allowing modifications or amendments to existing 
grants and permits; for denying permit amendments; and for suspending 
or revoking permits. In addition to the existing statutory and 
regulatory criteria for permit issuance and denial, should there be 
restrictions on the number or type of permit modifications or 
amendments issued over the life of a permit? With respect to 
environmental impacts, under what conditions should a permit be 
modified, revoked or suspended by NMFS?
    The exact number and structure of the alternatives that are 
analyzed in the EIS will be determined based on information gathered 
during scoping. To provide a framework for public comments, the range 
of potential alternatives currently includes the Proposed Action and 
several other action alternatives, as well as a No Action alternative. 
The Proposed Action alternative would result in issuance of permits to 
qualified individuals and institutions to conduct those research 
activities determined critical or essential to NMFS' conservation and 
recovery of Steller sea lions and northern fur seals. To minimize the 
cumulative impacts of research on these species, no permits would be 
issued for lower priority research activities until the highest 
priority tasks identified for species conservation and recovery were 
completed or unless there was sufficient information to determine that 
the cumulative impacts of allowing additional takes for research would 
not adversely impact, disadvantage, or jeopardize the continued 
existence of the species. The Proposed Action could thus be viewed as a 
minimum take alternative, allowing the least amount of research 
practicable to meet NMFS' needs for recovery and conservation of the 
species.
    In addition to the Proposed Action, NMFS will consider other 
alternatives for issuing permits for research on Steller sea lions and 
northern fur seals. One alternative to the Proposed Action is to issue 
all permits requested regardless of their relative potential 
contribution to conservation and recovery of the species, provided they 
meet all permit issuance criteria and would not jeopardize the 
continued existence of threatened or endangered species or result in 
significant adverse effects on depleted species. In contrast to the 
Proposed Action, this could be viewed as the maximum allowable take 
alternative.
    Another alternative to the Proposed Action is the No Action 
alternative, which CEQ regulations require be included for 
consideration. The No Action alternative would only allow conduct of 
that research on Steller sea lions and northern fur seals already 
allowed under existing permits, which are valid through 2010. No new 
permits would be issued to replace the expiring permits, nor would 
existing permits be amended to allow modifications in research 
activities, sample sizes, or objectives.
    A fourth alternative considered is the Status Quo. As with the No 
Action alternative, the Status Quo alternative would allow conduct of 
research on Steller sea lions and northern fur seals already identified 
under existing permits, and no permits would be amended to change 
research activities, sample sizes, or objectives. However, under the 
Status Quo Alternative, new permits would be issued to replace existing 
permits as they expire such that the current level of research and 
types of research activities would continue. Since the Status Quo would 
not allow issuance of permits for any research activities, objectives, 
or sample sizes not currently permitted, it would preclude adaptive 
changes in the research program that may be responsive to changes in 
the population status or threats to the recovery of the species.
    The Status Quo and two other alternatives considered by NMFS may be 
eliminated from detailed study because they would not allow conduct of 
research identified by NMFS as necessary for conservation of the 
species. The other two alternatives that may be eliminated from further 
study are: (1) imposing a research permit moratorium (i.e., suspending 
or revoking existing permits and not issuing new ones) and (2) 
suspending all intrusive research activities (i.e., stopping biopsy 
sampling, instrument attachment, and other activities that could result 
in physical injury). In addition to preventing collection of 
information about Steller sea lions and northern fur seals needed for 
NMFS conservation and recovery efforts for these species, a research 
permit moratorium would hinder NMFS ability to monitor the status of 
these populations, which is important in making informed management 
decisions. Suspending permits for intrusive research would impede 
collection of information on Steller sea lion and northern fur seal 
habitat use and population structure which is needed for NMFS' 
conservation and recovery efforts for these species.
    The EIS will assess the direct and indirect effects of the 
alternative approaches to funding and permitting Steller sea lion and 
northern fur seal research. The EIS will assess the effects on these 
species as well as other components of the marine ecosystem and human 
environment. The EIS will assess the contribution of research 
activities to the cumulative effects on these resources, including 
effects from past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future events 
and activities that are external to the research activities. The EIS 
will also assess the potential beneficial impacts of the research as it 
relates to conservation of Steller sea lions and northern fur seals. 
Anyone having relevant information they believe NMFS should consider in 
its analysis should provide a description of that information along 
with complete citations for supporting documents.
    For additional information about Steller seal lions, northern fur 
seals, the permit process, and related information for these species, 
please visit our website at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/permits/eis/
steller.htm.

Scoping Meetings Agenda

    Public scoping meetings will be held at the following dates, times, 
and locations:
    1. January 18, 2006, 1 - 4 p.m., Silver Spring Metro Center, 
Building 4, Science Center, 1301 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD;
    2. January 20, 2006, 4 - 7 p.m., Alaska Fisheries Science Center, 
7600 Sand

[[Page 76783]]

Point Way NE, Building 9, Seattle, WA; and
    3. January 23, 2006, 5 - 8 p.m., Hilton Anchorage, 501 West 3rd 
Avenue, Anchorage, AK.
    Comments will be accepted at these meetings as well as during the 
scoping period, and can be mailed to NMFS by February 13, 2006 (see FOR 
FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT).
    NMFS will consider all comments received during the comment period. 
All hardcopy submissions must be unbound, on paper no larger than 8 1/2 
by 11 inches (216 by 279 mm), and suitable for copying and electronic 
scanning. NMFS requests that you include in your comments:
    (1) Your name and address;
    (2) Whether or not you would like to receive a copy of the Draft 
EIS; and
    (3) Any background documents to support your comments as you feel 
necessary.

Special Accommodations

    These meetings are accessible to people with disabilities. Requests 
for sign language interpretation or other auxiliary aids should be 
directed to Tammy Adams or Andrew Wright, 301-713-2289 (voice) or 301-
427-2583 (fax), at least 5 days before the scheduled meeting date.

    Dated: December 20, 2005.
Stephen L. Leathery,
Chief, Permits, Conservation and Education Division, Office of 
Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. E5-7989 Filed 12-27-05; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-S