[Federal Register Volume 77, Number 74 (Tuesday, April 17, 2012)]
[Proposed Rules]
[Pages 22750-22753]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2012-9244]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Part 679

RIN 0648-XA975


Fisheries of the Exclusive Economic Zone Off Alaska; Groundfish 
Fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands

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

ACTION: Notice; intent to prepare an environmental impact statement, 
request for comments.

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SUMMARY: NMFS, in consultation with the North Pacific Fishery 
Management Council (Council), announces its intent to prepare an 
environmental impact statement (EIS) on Steller sea lion protection 
measures for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands management area (BSAI) 
groundfish fisheries, in accordance with the National Environmental 
Policy Act of 1969. The proposed action would restrict groundfish 
fishing in the BSAI to ensure the groundfish fisheries are not likely 
to result in jeopardy of continued existence or adverse modification or 
destruction of designated critical habitat (JAM) for the western 
distinct population segment (DPS) of Steller sea lions. The western DPS 
of Steller sea lions is listed as endangered under the Endangered 
Species Act (ESA) and NMFS must ensure that the groundfish fisheries 
are not likely to result in JAM for this DPS. NMFS intends to work with 
stakeholders to develop fisheries restrictions that avoid the 
likelihood of JAM and minimize the potential economic impact on the 
fishing industry to the extent practicable while meeting the 
requirements of the ESA. The analysis in the EIS will determine the 
impacts to the human environment resulting from this proposed action 
and the alternatives. In scoping for the EIS, NMFS will accept written 
comments from the public to determine the issues of concern; the 
appropriate range of management alternatives; and the direct, indirect, 
and cumulative impacts. NMFS, in coordination with the Council, will 
conduct a public meeting at the October 2012 Council meeting to inform 
the public of this proposed action and alternatives, present issues and 
potential impacts, and gather public comment.

DATES: Written comments must be received by 5 p.m. Alaska Standard Time 
(AST), October 15, 2012.

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments on this action, identified by NOAA-
NMFS-2012-0013, by any of the following methods:
     Electronic Submission: Submit all electronic public 
comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal www.regulations.gov. To 
submit comments via the e-Rulemaking Portal, first click the ``submit a 
comment'' icon, then enter NOAA-NMFS-2012-0013 in the keyword search. 
Locate the document you wish to comment on from the resulting list and 
click on the ``Submit a Comment'' icon on that line.
     Mail: Address written comments to Glenn Merrill, Assistant 
Regional Administrator, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region 
NMFS, Attn:

[[Page 22751]]

Ellen Sebastian. Mail comments to P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-
1668.
     Fax: Address written comments to Glenn Merrill, Assistant 
Regional Administrator, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region 
NMFS, Attn: Ellen Sebastian. Fax comments to 907-586-7557.
     Hand delivery to the Federal Building: Address written 
comments to Glenn Merrill, Assistant Regional Administrator, 
Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region NMFS, Attn: Ellen 
Sebastian. Deliver comments to 709 West 9th Street, Room 420A, Juneau, 
AK.
    Instructions: Comments must be submitted by one of the above 
methods to ensure that the comments are received, documented, and 
considered by NMFS. Comments sent by any other method, to any other 
address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period, 
may not be considered. All comments received are a part of the public 
record and will generally be posted for public viewing on 
www.regulations.gov without change. All personal identifying 
information (e.g., name, address) submitted voluntarily by the sender 
will be publicly accessible. Do not submit confidential business 
information, or otherwise sensitive or protected information. NMFS will 
accept anonymous comments (enter ``N/A'' in the required fields if you 
wish to remain anonymous). Attachments to electronic comments will be 
accepted in Microsoft Word or Excel, WordPerfect, or Adobe PDF file 
formats only.
    Electronic copies of the 2010 environmental assessment and 
biological opinion prepared for the Steller sea lion protection 
measures are available from http://www.regulations.gov or from the NMFS 
Alaska Region Web site at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/sslpm/.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Melanie Brown, (907) 586-7228.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery 
Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act), the United 
States has exclusive fishery management authority over all living 
marine resources found within the exclusive economic zone. The 
management of these marine resources, with the exception of certain 
marine mammals and birds, is vested in the Secretary of Commerce. The 
Council has the responsibility to prepare fishery management plans for 
those marine resources off Alaska requiring conservation and 
management. Management of the Federal groundfish fishery in the BSAI is 
carried out under the Fishery Management Plan for Groundfish of the 
Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Management Area (FMP). The FMP, its 
amendments, and implementing regulations (found at 50 CFR part 679) are 
developed in accordance with the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens 
Act and other applicable Federal laws and executive orders, notably the 
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the ESA.

Alaska Groundfish Fisheries Steller Sea Lion Protection Measures

    Steller sea lion protection measures have been used to manage the 
groundfish fisheries since 1999 (64 FR 3437, January 22, 1999) and have 
been annually revised in 2000 through 2004. Details of these rules are 
available at the NMFS Alaska Region Web site at http://www.alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/sslpm/. The 
protection measures have been used to mitigate the potential adverse 
effects of the groundfish fisheries on Steller sea lions and on their 
designated critical habitat. Steller sea lions may be incidentally 
taken in fishing gear, may be disturbed by fishing activities, and may 
compete with groundfish fisheries for important prey species. Atka 
mackerel, Pacific cod, and pollock are important Steller sea lion prey 
species that also are harvested in the groundfish fisheries. The 
protection measures temporally and spatially disperse Atka mackerel, 
Pacific cod, and pollock harvest to reduce potential impacts from the 
groundfish fisheries on Steller sea lions and on their designated 
critical habitat. Spatial protection measures include closures of areas 
to groundfish fishing near Steller sea lion haulouts and rookeries, and 
in foraging areas, to reduce potential interactions with Steller sea 
lions and fishing vessels and to reduce potential impacts on prey 
resources in locations important to Steller sea lions. Harvest of 
pollock, Pacific cod, and Atka mackerel also is temporally dispersed 
through seasonal apportionments of the annual total allowable catch for 
these species. The details of the current Steller sea lion protection 
measures for the Alaska groundfish fisheries are available on the NMFS 
Alaska Region Web site at http://www.alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/sslpm/.
    In 2010, NMFS completed an ESA section 7 consultation on the 
effects of the Alaska groundfish fisheries on ESA-listed species, 
including the western DPS of Steller sea lions, and on designated 
critical habitat. Based on the best available commercial and scientific 
information, the consultation resulted in a biological opinion (2010 
Biop) that found that the Steller sea lion protection measures 
implemented in the BSAI since 2003 could not ensure that the groundfish 
fisheries were not likely to result in JAM for the western DPS of 
Steller sea lions. A reasonable and prudent alternative (RPA) to the 
protection measures was included in the 2010 Biop to ensure the 
groundfish fisheries were not likely to result in JAM. This RPA was 
implemented by an interim final rule as the 2011 Steller sea lion 
protection measures (75 FR 77535, December 13, 2010, corrected 75 FR 
81921, December 29, 2010).
    The 2011 Steller sea lion protection measures primarily affected 
the Pacific cod and Atka mackerel fisheries in the Aleutian Islands 
subarea and were in addition to previous measures adopted since 2004. 
The 2010 Biop determined that the weight of evidence indicated that 
fisheries may remove prey species important to Steller sea lions, which 
may affect the reproduction and numbers of Steller sea lions and 
adversely modify the conservation value of their critical habitat in 
Statistical Areas 543, 542, and 541. Competition with fisheries for 
prey is likely one component of an intricate suite of natural and 
anthropogenic factors affecting Steller sea lion numbers and 
reproduction. While natural factors may be contributing, NMFS must 
ensure that actions authorized by NMFS are not likely to appreciably 
reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery of the western DPS of 
Steller sea lions, which is required to avoid the likelihood of JAM.
    The RPA was developed based on performance standards that address 
the effects of the groundfish fisheries--and the population status and 
foraging behavior of Steller sea lions--in the Aleutian Islands 
subarea. The details of these standards are in the 2010 Biop (see 
ADDRESSES). The RPA was structured to mitigate effects of the fishery 
in locations where Steller sea lion abundance continues to decline 
(Statistical Areas 543, 542, and 541). One of the performance standards 
requires that the protection measures be commensurate with the rate of 
Steller sea lion population declines, with more stringent measures in 
those locations with greater population declines. The RPA meets this 
standard by applying more fisheries restrictions in Area 543, where 
Steller sea lions have the highest population decline, and applying 
fewer fisheries restrictions in Areas 542 and 541, where Steller sea 
lion population decline is less than in Area 543.

[[Page 22752]]

Implementation of the RPA is expected to minimize local competition 
between Steller sea lions and the Atka mackerel and Pacific cod 
fisheries in Area 543. This is intended to improve foraging success and 
prey availability for juvenile and adult Steller sea lions, which is 
expected to lead to higher survival and natality rates. The RPA also 
reduces the competitive overlap between Steller sea lions and fisheries 
for Atka mackerel and Pacific cod in Areas 542 and 541. This is 
intended to improve foraging success and prey availability for Steller 
sea lions, particularly adult females with dependent young in winter, 
which is expected to lead to higher natality rates and survival.

Litigation on the 2011 Steller Sea Lion Protection Measures

    On March 5, 2012, NMFS was ordered by the U.S. District Court of 
Alaska to prepare an EIS on the Steller sea lion protection measures 
implemented in January 2011 (75 FR 77535, December 13, 2010, corrected 
75 FR 81921, December 29, 2010). The Court's decision and order for 
this action are available on the NMFS Alaska Region Web site at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/sslpm/eis/. The Court 
ordered NMFS to prepare an EIS for the Steller sea lion protection 
measures because NMFS failed to provide sufficient environmental 
information for informed public comment to the agency decision-making 
and failed to provide for adequate public participation when it 
prepared the environmental assessment for this action in 2010 (see 
ADDRESSES). Two areas identified by the Court as scientifically 
controversial were the use of single species rather than multispecies 
models for groundfish fisheries stock assessments and the effects of 
the groundfish fisheries on the availability of Steller sea lion prey 
resources.
    The Court ordered the completion of the final EIS by March 2, 2014. 
The Court also ordered that any subsequent rulemaking for the BSAI 
groundfish fisheries as a result of the EIS must be completed by 
January 1, 2015.

Proposed Action

    The proposed action is a set of protection measures that would 
ensure groundfish fishing in the BSAI is not likely to result in JAM 
for the western DPS of Steller sea lions. Spatial and temporal 
dispersion of the harvest of Steller sea lion prey species would be 
included in the protection measures to reduce potential adverse 
impacts. The protection measures should ensure the groundfish fisheries 
are not likely to result in JAM while minimizing economic impact on 
fishery participants to the extent practicable.

Alternative Management Measures

    The EIS will evaluate a range of alternative management measures 
for the BSAI groundfish fisheries with focus on the Aleutian Islands 
groundfish fisheries management. Alternatives may be developed based on 
the elements identified here, and those developed through the public 
scoping and Council processes. Possible alternatives could be 
constructed from one or more of the following alternatives, and public 
suggestions on the specific features for these alternatives are 
requested:
    1. The status quo alternative to continue implementation of the 
2011 Steller sea lion protection measures and management of the 
groundfish fisheries under the FMP.
    2. An alternative recommended by the Council that is intended to 
maintain protection of Steller sea lions while reducing fishing 
restrictions imposed by the 2011 Steller sea lion protection measures, 
particularly for the Pacific cod and Atka mackerel fisheries in the 
Aleutian Islands subarea.
    3. An alternative that provides precautionary, additional 
protection to Steller sea lions in the Aleutian Islands beyond those 
provided by the 2011 Steller sea lion protection measures.
    4. An alternative that changes the 2011 Steller sea lion protection 
measures based on information since development of the 2010 biological 
opinion, and may be more or less restrictive than status quo.
    The Council will recommend alternatives for analysis in the EIS. 
The Council's Steller Sea Lion Mitigation Committee may review the 
latest scientific information regarding the biology of Steller sea 
lions and fisheries interaction, and may develop alternative Steller 
sea lion protection measures for the Aleutian Islands groundfish 
fisheries for the Council's consideration. NMFS may develop additional 
alternatives to ensure that a reasonable range of alternatives is 
analyzed and that its responsibilities under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, 
the ESA, and other applicable law are met.

Preliminary Identification of Issues

    A principal objective of the scoping and public input process is to 
identify potentially significant impacts to the human environment that 
should be analyzed in the EIS. The analysis will evaluate the impacts 
of the alternatives for all resources, species, and issues that may be 
directly or indirectly affected by the Steller sea lion protection 
measures for the BSAI groundfish fisheries. The following components of 
the biological and physical environment may be evaluated: (1) Target 
and non-target fish stocks, forage fish, and prohibited species 
(including Pacific halibut, Pacific salmon, and crab); (2) species 
listed under the ESA and their critical habitat; (3) seabirds; (4) 
marine mammals; (5) habitat; and (6) the ecosystem. The target species 
analysis would include examination of the use of single species and 
multispecies stock assessment models. The latest information regarding 
interactions between the groundfish fisheries and Steller sea lions for 
prey resources would be examined in the EIS. The direct, indirect, and 
cumulative impacts on the environmental components would be based on 
the environmental assessment prepared for the 2011 Steller sea lion 
protection measures with revisions based on the alternatives and issues 
identified in scoping, and the best available information during the 
development of the EIS.
    The baseline used to compare the impacts of the alternatives on the 
human environment is recommended to be the human environment in the 
BSAI between 2004 and 2010. This time period represents the condition 
of the environment before the implementation of the 2011 Steller sea 
lion protection measures, includes the most complete data set of 
fisheries catch information, and provides a reasonable time period to 
compare potential effects of all alternatives, including status quo, 
which has only been implemented for 1 year. Public review and comments 
on the baseline for the analysis during the scoping period are welcome.
    Social and economic impacts caused by changes to Steller sea lion 
protection measures also would be considered in terms of the effects on 
the following groups of individuals: (1) Those who participate in 
harvesting groundfish (particularly Pacific cod and Atka mackerel in 
the Aleutian Islands subarea); (2) those who process and market Pacific 
cod and Atka mackerel and their products; (3) those who consume Pacific 
cod and Atka mackerel products; (4) those who rely on living marine 
resources caught in the management area, particularly Pacific cod, Atka 
mackerel and Steller sea lions; (5) those who benefit from commercial, 
subsistence, and recreational fisheries and Steller sea lion harvest; 
and (6) fishing communities, including Adak, AK.

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Public Involvement

    Scoping is an early and open process for determining the scope of 
issues, alternatives, and impacts to be addressed in an EIS, and for 
identifying the significant issues related to the proposed action. A 
principal objective of the scoping and public involvement process is to 
identify a range of reasonable management alternatives that, with 
adequate analysis, will delineate critical issues and provide a clear 
basis for distinguishing among those alternatives and selecting a 
preferred alternative. Through this notice, NMFS is notifying the 
public that an EIS and decision-making process for this proposed action 
have been initiated so that interested or affected people may 
participate and contribute to the final decision.
    NMFS is seeking written public comments on the scope of issues, 
potential impacts, and alternatives that should be considered for the 
Steller sea lion protection measures. Written comments will be accepted 
at the address above (see ADDRESSES). Written comments should be as 
specific as possible to be the most helpful. Written comments received 
during the scoping process, including the names and addresses of those 
submitting them, will be considered part of the public record for this 
proposal and will be available for public inspection.
    The public is invited to participate at the Council and any Steller 
Sea Lion Mitigation Committee meetings where the latest scientific 
information regarding Steller sea lions and fisheries interactions with 
the BSAI groundfish fisheries is reviewed and alternative Steller sea 
lion protection measures may be developed and evaluated. During the 
scoping period, and in conjunction with the October 2012 Council 
meeting, a public meeting will be held where this proposed action and 
alternatives, issues, and potential impacts will be discussed. The 
public may participate by submitting written comments or by testifying 
at these public meetings. Notice of future Council and Steller Sea Lion 
Mitigation Committee meetings, and any other public meetings where 
these issues will be discussed, will be published in the Federal 
Register and posted on the Internet at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/sslpm/eis/. Please visit this Web site for more 
information on this EIS and for guidance on submitting effective public 
comments.

    Dated: April 12, 2012.
Emily H. Menashes,
Acting Director, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 2012-9244 Filed 4-16-12; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-P