[Federal Register Volume 77, Number 87 (Friday, May 4, 2012)]
[Proposed Rules]
[Pages 26478-26486]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2012-10845]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Parts 223 and 224

[Docket No. 120417006-1018-01]
RIN 0648-XA496


Endangered and Threatened Wildlife; 90-Day Finding on a Petition 
To List the Dwarf Seahorse as Threatened or Endangered Under the 
Endangered Species Act

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

ACTION: Ninety-day petition finding, request for information, and 
initiation of status review.

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SUMMARY: We, NMFS, announce a 90-day finding on a petition to list the 
dwarf seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae) as threatened or endangered and 
designate critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). We 
find that the petition and information in our files present substantial 
scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned 
actions may be warranted. We will conduct a status review of the 
species to determine if the petitioned action is warranted. To ensure 
that the status review is comprehensive, we are soliciting scientific 
and commercial information regarding this species (see below).

DATES: Information and comments on the subject action must be received 
by July 3, 2012.

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments, identified by the code NOAA-NMFS-
2012-0101, addressed to: Calusa Horn, Natural Resource Specialist, by 
any of the following methods:
     Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic comments via 
the Federal eRulemaking Portal http://www.regulations.gov
     Facsimile (fax): 727-824-5309.
     Mail: NMFS, Southeast Regional Office, 263 13th Avenue 
South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.
     Hand delivery: You may hand deliver written comments to 
our office during normal business hours at the street address given 
above.
    Instructions: All comments received are a part of the public record 
and may be posted to http://www.regulations.gov without change. All 
personally identifiable information (for example, name, address, etc.) 
voluntarily submitted by the commenter may be publicly accessible. Do 
not submit

[[Page 26479]]

confidential business information or otherwise sensitive or protected 
information. We will accept anonymous comments. Attachments to 
electronic comments will be accepted in Microsoft Word, Excel, Corel 
WordPerfect, or Adobe PDF file formats only.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Calusa Horn, NMFS, Southeast Region, 
(727) 824-5312; or Dwayne Meadows, NMFS, Office of Protected Resources, 
(301) 427-8403.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

    On April 7, 2010, we received a petition from the Center for 
Biological Diversity to list the dwarf seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae) 
as threatened or endangered under the ESA. The petitioner also 
requested that critical habitat be designated. The petition states that 
the species is declining and threatened with extinction due to loss or 
curtailment of seagrass habitat and range, overutilization resulting 
from commercial seahorse collection, inadequacy of existing regulatory 
mechanisms, vulnerable life-history parameters, noise, bycatch 
mortality, illegal fishing, invasive species, and tropical storms and 
hurricanes. Copies of this petition are available from us (see 
ADDRESSES, above) or at http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/ListingPetitions.htm.

ESA Statutory and Regulatory Provisions and Evaluation Framework

    Section 4(b)(3)(A) of the ESA of 1973, as amended (U.S.C. 1531 et 
seq.), requires, to the maximum extent practicable, that within 90 days 
of receipt of a petition to list a species as threatened or endangered, 
the Secretary of Commerce make a finding on whether that petition 
presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating 
that the petitioned action may be warranted, and to promptly publish 
such finding in the Federal Register (16 U.S.C. 1533(b)(3)(A)). When 
substantial scientific or commercial information in a petition 
indicates the petitioned action may be warranted (a ``positive 90-day 
finding''), we are required to promptly commence a review of the status 
of the species concerned during which we will conduct a comprehensive 
review of the best available scientific and commercial information. In 
such cases, within 12 months of receipt of the petition, we shall 
conclude the review with a finding as to whether, in fact, the 
petitioned action is warranted. Because the finding at the 12-month 
stage is based on a more thorough review of the available information, 
as compared to the narrow scope of review at the 90-day stage, a ``may 
be warranted'' finding does not prejudge the outcome of the status 
review.
    Under the ESA, a listing determination may address a ``species,'' 
which is defined to also include subspecies and, for any vertebrate 
species, any distinct population segment (DPS) that interbreeds when 
mature (16 U.S.C. 1532(16)). A joint NMFS-U.S. Fish and Wildlife 
Service (USFWS) policy clarifies the agencies' interpretation of the 
phrase ``distinct population segment'' for the purposes of listing, 
delisting, and reclassifying a species under the ESA (61 FR 4722; 
February 7, 1996). A species, subspecies, or DPS is ``endangered'' if 
it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion 
of its range, and ``threatened'' if it is likely to become endangered 
within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion 
of its range (ESA sections 3(6) and 3(20), respectively, 16 U.S.C. 
1532(6) and (20)). Pursuant to the ESA and our implementing 
regulations, we determine whether species are threatened or endangered 
because of any one or a combination of the following five section 
4(a)(1) factors: (1) The present or threatened destruction, 
modification, or curtailment of habitat or range; (2) overutilization 
for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (3) 
disease or predation; (4) inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; 
and (5) any other natural or manmade factors affecting the species' 
existence (16 U.S.C. 1533(a)(1), 50 CFR 424.11(c)).
    ESA-implementing regulations issued jointly by us and the USFWS (50 
CFR 424.14(b)) define ``substantial information'' in the context of 
reviewing a petition to list, delist, or reclassify a species, as the 
amount of information that would lead a reasonable person to believe 
that the measure proposed in the petition may be warranted. In 
evaluating whether substantial information is contained in a petition, 
the Secretary must consider whether the petition: (1) Clearly indicates 
the administrative measure recommended and gives the scientific and any 
common name of the species involved; (2) contains detailed narrative 
justification for the recommended measure, describing, based on 
available information, past and present numbers and distribution of the 
species involved and any threats faced by the species; (3) provides 
information regarding the status of the species over all or a 
significant portion of its range; and (4) is accompanied by the 
appropriate supporting documentation in the form of bibliographic 
references, reprints of pertinent publications, copies of reports or 
letters from authorities, and maps (50 CFR 424.14(b)(2)).
    Court decisions have clarified the appropriate scope and 
limitations of the Services' review of petitions at the 90-day finding 
stage, in making a determination that a petitioned action ``may be'' 
warranted. As a general matter, these decisions hold that a petition 
need not establish a ``strong likelihood'' or a ``high probability'' 
that a species is either threatened or endangered to support a positive 
90-day finding.
    We evaluate the petitioner's request based upon the information in 
the petition including its references and the information readily 
available in our files. We do not conduct additional research, and we 
do not solicit information from parties outside the agency to help us 
in evaluating the petition. We will accept the petitioner's sources and 
characterizations of the information presented, if they appear to be 
based on accepted scientific principles, unless we have specific 
information in our files that indicates the petition's information is 
incorrect, unreliable, obsolete, or otherwise irrelevant to the 
requested action. Information that is susceptible to more than one 
interpretation or that is contradicted by other available information 
will not be dismissed at the 90-day finding stage, so long as it is 
reliable and a reasonable person would conclude it supports the 
petitioner's assertions. In other words, conclusive information 
indicating the species may meet the ESA's requirements for listing is 
not required to make a positive 90-day finding. We will not conclude 
that a lack of specific information alone negates a positive 90-day 
finding, if a reasonable person would conclude that the unknown 
information itself suggests an extinction risk of concern for the 
species at issue.
    To make a 90-day finding on a petition to list a species, we 
evaluate whether the petition presents substantial scientific or 
commercial information indicating the subject species may be either 
threatened or endangered, as defined by the ESA. First we evaluate 
whether the information presented in the petition, along with the 
information readily available in our files, indicates that the 
petitioned entity constitutes a ``species'' eligible for listing under 
the ESA. Next, we evaluate whether the information indicates that the 
species at issue faces extinction risks that are cause for concern; 
this may be indicated in information

[[Page 26480]]

expressly discussing the species' status and trends, or in information 
describing impacts and threats to the species. We evaluate any 
information on specific demographic factors pertinent to evaluating 
extinction risk for the species at issue (e.g., population abundance 
and trends, productivity, spatial structure, age structure, sex ratio, 
diversity, current and historical range, habitat integrity or 
fragmentation), and the potential contribution of identified 
demographic risks to extinction risk for the species. We then evaluate 
the potential links between these demographic risks and the causative 
impacts and threats identified in section 4(a)(1).
    Information presented on impacts or threats should be specific to 
the species and should reasonably suggest that one or more of these 
factors may be operative threats that act or have acted on the species 
to the point that it may warrant protection under the ESA. Broad 
statements about generalized threats to the species, or identification 
of factors that could negatively impact a species, do not constitute 
substantial information that listing may be warranted. We look for 
information indicating that not only is the particular species exposed 
to a factor, but that the species may be responding in a negative 
fashion; then we assess the potential significance of that negative 
response. Many petitions identify risk classifications made by other 
organizations or agencies, as evidence of extinction risk for a 
species. Risk classifications of the petitioned species by other 
organizations or made under other Federal or state statutes may be 
informative, but the classification alone may not provide the rationale 
for a positive 90-day finding under the ESA. Thus, when a petition 
cites such classifications, we will evaluate the source information 
that the classification is based upon, in light of the standards on 
extinction risk and impacts or threats discussed above.

Species Description

    Hippocampus zosterae is commonly known as the dwarf or pygmy 
seahorse (hereafter dwarf seahorse). The dwarf seahorse is one of the 
smallest species of seahorses, with adult height ranging from 2 to 2.5 
centimeters (Lourie et al., 2004). In general, seahorses have heads 
positioned at right angles to their bodies, curved trunks, and a 
prehensile, finless tail. The dwarf seahorse varies in coloration; 
individuals can be beige, yellow, green, or black, and some individuals 
have white marking or dark spots. Seahorses can change coloring and 
grow skin filaments over time to blend in with their surroundings. 
Short-term color changes may also occur during courtship and other 
intra-species interactions. Seahorse skin is stretched over a series of 
bony plates that form rings around the trunk and tail. The dwarf 
seahorse has 9 to 10 trunk rings, 31 to 32 tail rings, and 12 pectoral 
fin rays (Lourie et al., 2004). Seahorses in general are ambush 
predators, consuming primarily live, mobile prey, such as small 
amphipods and other invertebrates (Bruckner et al., 2005).
    Dwarf seahorse males and females are sexually dimorphic; males have 
a relatively longer tail and a shorter snout (Foster and Vincent, 
2004). Male and female dwarf seahorses form monogamous pair bonds and 
remain together and mate repeatedly over the course of a single 
breeding cycle (Masonjones and Lewis, 1996; 2000). The breeding season 
for the dwarf seahorse occurs February through November and appears to 
be influenced by environmental parameters such as day length and water 
temperature (Foster and Vincent, 2004). During copulation the female 
deposits her egg clutch into the male's brood pouch where it is 
fertilized (Foster and Vincent, 2004). The gestation period within the 
male's brood pouch is approximately 10 to 13 days, and males can carry 
two broods a month. Most male seahorse species can produce 100 to 300 
young per pregnancy cycle. However, smaller seahorse species, such as 
the dwarf seahorse, release 3 to 16 offspring per cycle (Masonjones and 
Lewis, 1996). Juvenile dwarf seahorses are independent at birth, 
receiving no further parental care. Juveniles reach maturity in 3 
months (Foster and Vincent, 2004). The dwarf seahorse generally lives 1 
to 2 years, though living longer than a year is considered rare (Alford 
and Grist, 2005).
    The dwarf seahorse's distribution ranges across the sub-tropical 
northwest Atlantic and has well-defined habitat preferences. Bruckner 
et al. (2005) describe the species' distribution as patchy and its 
abundance as generally low. This species occurs in insular locations, 
including Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Cuba; along Atlantic continental 
shorelines from northeast Florida through the Florida Keys; and, in the 
Gulf of Mexico south to the Gulf of Campeche (Bruckner et al., 2005). 
The dwarf seahorse's habitat is restricted almost completely to 
seagrass canopies (Bruckner et al., 2005). Seahorses are characterized 
as feeble swimmers with low mobility that may disperse by clinging to 
drift macroalgae or debris (Foster and Vincent, 2004; Masonjones et 
al., 2010). The dwarf seahorse exhibits preferences for areas with 
dense and high seagrass canopies, in shallow waters less than two 
meters, and higher salinities (~30 ppm) (Alford and Grist, 2005; 
Bruckner et al., 2005; Vincent, 2004). Sogard et al. (1987) found total 
seagrass shoot density is positively correlated with density of H. 
zosterae. Seahorse populations were significantly correlated with water 
flow, with individuals being more likely to be located in low-flow 
areas, such as protected bays and lagoons, rather than high-flow areas, 
such as bridge cuts (Bruckner et al., 2005). The species is described 
as occurring predominantly in Florida's estuaries, but is said to be 
``more abundant'' in south Florida and the Florida Keys. According to 
Bruckner et al. (2005), the dwarf seahorse does not appear to be common 
in many areas in the Gulf of Mexico, west of Florida.

Analysis of the Petition

    We evaluated whether the petition presented the information 
indicated in 50 CFR 424.14(b)(2). The petition states the 
administrative measures recommended, and provides the scientific and 
common name of the species. The dwarf seahorse is taxonomically 
classified as a species and thus is an eligible entity for listing 
under the ESA. The petition includes a detailed narrative justification 
for the recommended measure, including some information on numbers of 
the species, historical geographic occurrences of the species, and 
threats faced by the species (see summary below). The petition provides 
some information relevant to the status of the species. The petition 
includes supporting references and documentation. Therefore, we 
conclude the petition meets the requirements of 50 CFR 424.14(b)(2). A 
detailed description of their narrative justification follows.
    According to the petitioner, at least four of the five causal 
factors in section 4(a)(1) of the ESA are adversely affecting the 
continued existence of the dwarf seahorse, specifically: (A) Present or 
threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or 
range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 
educational purposes; (D) inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; 
and (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued 
existence. In the following sections, we use the information presented 
in the petition and in our files to determine whether the petitioned 
action may be warranted.

[[Page 26481]]

Information on Extinction Risk and Species Status

    Information on extinction risk and species status in the petition 
includes references cited in support of the conclusion that the dwarf 
seahorse has declined or is declining, several risk classifications by 
governmental and non-governmental organizations, and discussion of life 
history and demographic characteristics that make the species 
intrinsically vulnerable to decline, particularly in conjunction with 
threats and impacts such as habitat loss.
    The petitioner characterizes H. zosterae as numerically low in 
abundance where it occurs, and describes numerous studies as indicating 
the species' population trend is declining. In addition, the petitioner 
states that a declining population trend can be inferred from loss of 
seagrass habitats, because the species is a habitat generalist. The 
petitioner cites various surveys and studies that indicate that dwarf 
seahorse populations have declined in many estuarine and bay systems 
throughout the species range. Several citations characterize the dwarf 
seahorse as common, abundant, or a dominant species. However, the 
petitioner believes that these characterizations are not supported, 
because the number of dwarf seahorses collected was a numerically low 
component of the studies and surveys. The information provided in some 
of the studies is limited and it is difficult to determine whether the 
sampling methodology was appropriate for dwarf seahorse collection. For 
example, studies that sampled a variety of habitat types (i.e., 
seagrass, mud or sand banks, and deeper bays or channels, etc.) using a 
methodology that may not be conducive for seahorse collection (e.g., 
larger mesh sizes), would likely collect few dwarf seahorses. 
Therefore, the study results may not necessarily represent low 
abundance or a declining population trend, but could be due to use of a 
sampling method that is not conducive for surveying the species. 
However, the petitioner also cites several studies that indicate that 
the species is not very common or abundant throughout most of its range 
(i.e., Gulf of Mexico, west of Florida). Several citations have also 
documented dwarf seahorse declines in many surveyed seagrass systems in 
Florida. Declining populations of the dwarf seahorse have been observed 
to occur in conjunction with seagrass loss.
    The petitioner cites various status classifications made by the 
American Fisheries Society (AFS), International Union for Conservation 
of Nature (IUCN), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 
(FFWCC), the Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 
and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation to support its claim 
that the dwarf seahorse should be listed as threatened or endangered 
under the ESA. As discussed above, we do not give any particular weight 
to classifications established by other scientific and conservation 
organizations, which may or may not be based on criteria that directly 
correspond to the listing standards of the ESA. However, we have 
reviewed and evaluated the underlying information used to develop the 
various classifications given to the dwarf seahorse by entities listed 
in the petition.
    The AFS designated the dwarf seahorse as ``vulnerable'' in 2000. 
According to AFS, this classification is given to species that are 
``(special concern) not endangered or threatened severely but at 
possible risk of falling into one of these categories in the near 
future.'' AFS gave the dwarf seahorse this categorization based on (1) 
rarity, (2) habitat degradation, and (3) restricted habitat. AFS 
provided several citations to supporting these characterizations, but 
only one of them was available to us or provided by the petitioner. The 
available citation, Fourqurean and Robblee (1999), analyzed ecological 
changes (i.e., seagrass die-off, algal blooms, and increased turbidity) 
in the Florida Bay estuary. The study examined the ecological changes 
that transpired as a result of a large seagrass die-off that occurred 
in Florida Bay during the late 1980s. The study noted that fish and 
invertebrates inextricably associated with seagrass habitat 
dramatically declined following the referenced seagrass die-off, 
lending support to the AFS classification.
    The petition cites the IUCN's classification of the dwarf seahorse 
as ``Data Deficient,'' which the IUCN assigns to a species ``when there 
is inadequate information to make a direct, or indirect, assessment of 
its risk of extinction based on its distribution and/or population 
status.'' The IUCN database entry for dwarf seahorse does not contain 
any information directly assessing the species' population trends or 
its extinction risk. However, the entry does include referenced 
conclusions in support of the petition's conclusion that the species' 
status may be inferable from losses of and threats to its seagrass 
habitats, at least in the United States (``This species may be 
particularly susceptible to decline. The information on habitat 
suggests they inhabit shallow seagrass beds (Lourie et al., 1999) that 
are susceptible to human degradation, as well as making them 
susceptible to being caught as bycatch * * * The American Fisheries 
Society (AFS) lists the United States populations of H. zosterae as 
Threatened due to habitat degradation (Musick et al., 2000). While this 
status may apply on a national level, we did not find information that 
would justify such a listing for the species as a whole.'').
    The FFWCC lists the dwarf seahorse as a Species of Greatest 
Conservation Need (SGCN) in the state of Florida's Wildlife Action Plan 
(FFWCC, 2005). SGCN's are defined as ``animals that are at risk or are 
declining.'' The Action Plan categorizes the dwarf seahorse's 
population status as low and population trend as stable. We cannot 
evaluate any underlying information used to categorize the dwarf 
seahorse as a SGCN because the information provided in Florida's 
Wildlife Action Plan does not include species-specific information, 
although the plan does also describe the status of submerged aquatic 
vegetation in Florida, particularly seagrasses, as ``poor and 
declining,'' ranking numerous threats to these habitats as ``very 
high'' or ``high.''
    TNC listed the dwarf seahorse as imperiled in their 
``Identification of Priority Sites for Conservation in the Northern 
Gulf of Mexico: An Ecoregional Plan'' (Beck et al., 2000). The 
objective of the Ecoregional Plan was to identify biologically diverse 
habitats within the northern Gulf of Mexico, defined as extending from 
Anclote Key, FL to the Laguna Madre de Tamaulipas, Mexico, and to 
establish high priority sites for conservation. The plan also 
identified individual species as ``conservation targets'' in addition 
to identification of priority habitat sites for conservation. 
``Conservation target'' species were included if: ``(i) They were 
imperiled and conservation of their habitats would be insufficient for 
their conservation or (ii) they were declining faster than their 
habitats.'' The plan identified the following species as conservation 
target species, notably including several species listed under the ESA 
as threatened or endangered: the dwarf seahorse, fringed pipefish, 
opossum pipefish, Texas pipefish, diamondback terrapin, Gulf sturgeon, 
Florida manatee, and the Kemp's ridley sea turtle. The plan was based 
in part on a Geographic Information Systems database developed from 
``all the readily available information on the distribution of these 
[conservation] targets.''

[[Page 26482]]

    In their 2009 report on Marine Ecoregions of North America, the 
Commission for Environmental Cooperation categorized the dwarf seahorse 
as a ``species at risk'' within the northern Gulf of Mexico (Wilkinson 
et al., 2009). However, because there is no description of how the ``at 
risk'' categorization was determined, we cannot further assess the 
Commission for Environmental Cooperation's ``species at risk'' 
categorization. The petitioner also states that the dwarf seahorse is 
recognized as a Species of Concern by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 
but provides no citation or information on this designation; we were 
unable to evaluate the referenced categorization made by the 
petitioner.
    The petitioner describes life history characteristics generally 
applicable to the genus Hippocampus that could be indicative of its 
extinction risk, for which the petition provides supporting information 
(Baum et al., 2003; Foster and Vincent, 2004; Lourie et al., 2004; 
Masonjones et al., 2010). We believe that the dwarf seahorse's life 
history characteristics in and of themselves are likely well-adapted 
for the species' ecological niche. However, the petition presents 
information on other threats (i.e., habitat loss and overutilization) 
that may interact with these life history characteristics to increase 
extinction risk. The dwarf seahorse's narrow habitat preference and low 
mobility could increase the species' ecological vulnerability. 
Similarly, patchy spatial distributions in combination with low 
population density make a species susceptible to habitat loss or 
change. The petition and references also suggest that other life 
history characteristics, such as low fecundity, complex reproductive 
behavior, and monogamous mating systems may also increase the species' 
vulnerability. Seahorse species have complex reproductive behavior and 
appear to be monogamous at least within a single breeding cycle; if 
courting or pair bonds are disrupted due to removal or disturbance 
during courtship or mating it may diminish the productivity within a 
single breeding cycle. Low fecundity could reduce the ability for 
population recovery from overexploitation of particular areas. The low 
mobility and patchy distribution of dwarf seahorse suggest that the 
species may be slow to recolonize depleted areas. This is particularly 
true given that the dwarf seahorse is restricted to seagrasses (Alford 
and Grist 2005; Lourie et al., 2004), which in some areas have declined 
substantially over the course of several decades (Waycott et al., 
2009). The importance of life history characteristics in determining 
responses to exploitation has been demonstrated for a number of species 
(Jennings et al., 1998).
    In summary, the information presented indicates that the dwarf 
seahorse has a patchy distribution and is not very abundant or common 
in many areas throughout its range. Declines in the dwarf seahorse 
population have been documented in a number of Florida's estuaries and 
bays. It is evident that the dwarf seahorse is inextricably associated 
with seagrass and the inferences made about the species' declining 
status due to habitat loss are supported.
    The petition also includes risk classifications for the dwarf 
seahorse made by other organizations; however these do not include a 
specific analysis of extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse. While the 
species is present on these lists, they provide no analysis of 
population size and trends or other information directly addressing 
whether the species faces extinction risk that is cause for concern. 
However, in some of these classifications the dwarf seahorse's status 
is linked to the degraded or threatened status of seagrass habitats, 
which supports a similar contention made by the petition. The 
petitioner presents substantial scientific or commercial information 
indicating that the species' life history and demographic 
characteristics make it vulnerable to decline and potential extinction 
risk, particularly in conjunction with threats to the species including 
loss of its habitat.

Information on Impacts and Threats to the Species

    The petitioner states that impacts and threats corresponding with 
four factors in section 4(a)(1) of the ESA are impacting the dwarf 
seahorse. Specifically, the petitioner states that the following 
factors are affecting the dwarf seahorses continued existence: (A) 
Present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its 
habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, 
scientific, or educational purposes; (D) inadequacy of existing 
regulatory mechanisms; and (E) other natural or manmade factors.

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

    Information from the petition and in our files suggests that the 
primary threat to the dwarf seahorse is from habitat decline. The 
petitioner states that the dwarf seahorse is threatened by the loss and 
degradation of seagrass habitat, which increases the species' 
vulnerability. The petitioner references considerable seagrass loss 
throughout the species range and especially in the northern Gulf of 
Mexico which has occurred over the course of several decades, and 
provides summaries of indirect and direct anthropogenic factors that 
continue to impact seagrasses (oil and gas development, loss and 
degradation of mangrove habitat, declining water quality, development 
and human population growth, damage from vessels, trawling and global 
climate change). Seagrass declines cited within the petition range from 
6-90 percent (Waycott et al., 2009), depending on the timeframe, 
geographic area, and system (i.e., estuary, coastal water, or bay).
    In Texas, the petition cites a 90 percent decline in ``vascular 
vegetation'' which occurred within the Galveston Bay system on the 
upper Texas coast from 1956 to 1990 (Pulich and White, 1990). Waycott 
et al. (2009) also documented a 90 percent decline in seagrass acreage 
within the Galveston Bay system from 1956 to 1998. Hadley et al. (2007) 
reported that nearly all seagrass beds ``disappeared from the main 
parts of Galveston Bay in the 1970's'' and attributed the decline to a 
variety of anthropogenic impacts, as well as natural events. The 
petitioner notes that eutrophication and harmful algal blooms have 
caused seagrass declines in Corpus Christi, Laguna Madre, and Baffin 
Bay (An and Gardner, 2000; Breier et al., 2004). Several factors, both 
natural (i.e., droughts, hurricanes, fresh water flows, etc.) and 
human-induced (i.e., nutrient loading or water quality, sedimentation 
caused by dredging, prop scarring caused by vessel traffic, and direct 
physical disturbance), are believed to be affecting the health, 
abundance, distribution, and density of seagrasses in Texas (Handley et 
al., 2007; Pulich and White, 1997).
    The petition provides evidence that Alabama and Mississippi have 
also experienced extensive seagrass loss. Alabama documented an 82 
percent decline in seagrass coverage within Mobile Bay between 1981 and 
2003. Perdido Bay lost approximately 75 percent of its seagrass 
coverage from 1940 to 2003. Similarly, Mississippi Sound experienced a 
50 percent decline in seagrass coverage from 1992 to 2003 (Waycott et 
al., 2009).
    For Florida, the petitioner references a USFWS Conservation Plan 
and Environmental Assessment for Pine Island, Matlacha Pass, Island 
Bay, and Caloosahatchee National Wildlife Refuges, which states that 
Florida has lost more than 50 percent of its seagrass

[[Page 26483]]

habitat since the 1950s (USFWS, 2010). The petition also cites the 
Florida State Wildlife Action Plan's status rank for Florida's 
submerged aquatic vegetation of ``poor and declining,'' and the Plan's 
identification of numerous stresses to seagrass ranked as ``very high'' 
or ``high'' (e.g., altered water quality, habitat destruction, altered 
species composition, and sedimentation) (FFWCC, 2005). The petition 
references seagrass loss in northwestern Florida (e.g., Pensacola Bay, 
Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrew Bay, and the Big Bend region) (USGS, 
2004; Waycott et al., 2009). Florida's Big Bend region lost 
approximately 667,184 acres of seagrass between 1984 and 1992 (USGS, 
2004). The petition references several studies that report seagrass 
loss in southwestern Florida's estuary and bay systems, including Tampa 
Bay, Sarasota Bay, Greater Charlotte Harbor, Naples Bay, Faka Union 
Bay, Fakahatchee Bay, and Florida Bay. The petition states that Tampa 
Bay lost approximately 60 percent of seagrass coverage between 1879 and 
2006 (Waycott et al., 2009), that seagrass in Sarasota Bay decreased 
from 12,073 acres in 1950 to approximately 9,063 acres in 2001 (Waycott 
et al., 2009), and that seagrass in Naples Bay decreased by 90 percent 
since the 1950s (FDEP, 2010). The 2010 Florida Department of 
Environmental Protection (FDEP) Environmental Assessment for Southwest 
Coastal Estuaries refers to an ``ecosystem analysis'' conducted by 
Carter et al. (1973) which documented that Fakahatchee Bay contained 57 
percent seagrass coverage and Union Bay contained 23.1 percent seagrass 
coverage in the early 1970s. Carter et al. (1973) also documented three 
species of seagrasses in these areas (Halophila decipiens, H. wrightii, 
and Thalassia testudinum), however the FDEP assessment cites an 
unpublished 2005 study by Locker that suggests that since the 1970s 
seagrass species composition in Fakahatchee Bay has been reduced to a 
single species (H. decipiens) and that Faka Union Bay has lost all 
seagrass cover.
    The petitioner identifies oil and gas refining and the byproducts 
from such activities as a specific source of ongoing impacts to 
seagrass habitats. The petition references the DWH oil spill, stating 
that ``a significant portion of H. zosterae's range is threatened by 
pollution from the spill, which covered vast areas in the Gulf.'' The 
petitioner states that oil pollution and the use of dispersants has 
resulted in the direct mortality of the dwarf seahorse, the destruction 
and degradation of their seagrass habitat, and contamination and 
reduction of their invertebrate prey. The petition references a Project 
Seahorse news release (2010) where scientists at the organization 
caution that the dwarf seahorse could face extinction as a result of 
the DWH oil spill, citing impacts such as direct mortality due to high 
toxin levels, contamination of habitat, as well as contamination of the 
species food sources. The petition cites peer-reviewed scientific 
literature which supports the claim that oil pollution and the use of 
dispersants can adversely affect seagrasses and fishes at all life 
stages. Information was provided on the quantities of oil and methane 
released into the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the amount of coastal 
shoreline damaged by the DWH oil spill. The petitioner also discusses 
the long-term pollution that the oil industry causes to coastal 
environments in general.
    The petitioner also presents arguments that the destruction of 
Florida's mangrove habitats may be adversely affecting the dwarf 
seahorse ``to the extent that seagrass beds are negatively affected by 
the loss of mangroves, or that mangroves provide direct habitat value 
for the seagrasses,'' because ``in some areas seagrass beds occur in 
close association with mangroves, with mangroves protecting seagrass 
beds by trapping sediments and stabilizing shorelines (Hoff et al., 
2010; Pauly and Ingles, 1999).'' However, the petition does not provide 
information to characterize the extent of the association between 
mangroves and seagrasses, and the petition is limited to generalized 
statements of potential sources of threats to seagrasses from impacts 
to mangroves. We acknowledge that mangroves in Florida have been 
destroyed or degraded in large amounts over the course of decades, and 
face many of the same ongoing threats of loss and degradation as do 
seagrasses, discussed elsewhere in this finding.
    The petition lists several other factors it identifies as 
contributing to seagrass loss including declining water quality, 
development and human population growth, damage from vessels, trawling, 
and global climate change. As discussed above, extensive seagrass loss 
has occurred throughout the Northern Gulf of Mexico over the last 
several decades. The causes for these losses are many, but include 
climate and water-level variations, physical removal, smothering with 
sedimentation, light reduction resulting from turbidity or 
phytoplankton, and increased nutrient loading (Handley et al., 2011). 
Seagrasses are highly dependent on water quality and clarity for their 
survival, and reduced water quality due to nutrient loading, algal 
blooms, and contamination resulting from non-point source pollution, 
such as storm water run-off, has been identified as a threat/stressor 
to seagrass. The petition cites development and human population growth 
as a factor which increases the dwarf seahorse's risk of extinction. 
The petition cites Lellis-Dibble et al. (2008) as support for its 
statement that human population growth affects coastal resources, 
stating that ``53 percent of the current U.S. population lives in 
coastal counties, creating tremendous stress on coastal resources.'' 
The petition references various activities that are often associated 
with coastal development (i.e., dredging and channelization, vessel 
prop scarring, increased water pollution, altered hydrologic and 
salinity regimes), which are all also recognized to cause stress and/or 
degradation to seagrass habitat. The potential consequences of threats 
to the dwarf seahorse habitat are discussed above.
    In summary, the petition and its references present substantial 
information that indicates the present or threatened destruction, 
modification, or curtailment of habitat or range may be causing or 
contributing to extinction risk that is cause for concern for the dwarf 
seahorse.

Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or 
Educational Purposes

    The petitioner cites information that dwarf seahorse populations 
are declining and that their life history characteristics (sparse 
distribution, low population densities, low mobility, small home 
ranges, slow re-colonization potential, low rates of population 
increase, highly structured social and reproductive behavior) increase 
their vulnerability to overexploitation, and that the demand for 
seahorses in the aquarium, curio, and traditional Chinese medicine 
trades is increasing, further exasperating the species' exploited 
status.
    Dwarf seahorses are harvested commercially to be sold and traded 
live as aquarium fishes, and are also dried and sold at curio shops as 
souvenirs, or processed into key chains, jewelry, ornaments, 
paperweights, etc. There is also a high demand for seahorses in the 
traditional Chinese medicine trade where they are believed to cure 
several health disorders (Vincent, 1995). Smaller sized, bony 
seahorses, such as the dwarf seahorse, are less desirable for the 
purpose of traditional Chinese medicine (Lourie et al., 2004). However, 
Vincent (1995) stated that ``poor quality'' seahorses are increasingly

[[Page 26484]]

susceptible to overexploitation by the traditional Chinese medicine 
trade because the supplies of larger ``good quality'' seahorses are in 
decline. In 2004, concerns over the international trade of seahorses 
resulted in all seahorse species being protected under Appendix II of 
the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered and Threatened 
Species (CITES; for further discussion, see next section). A CITES 
technical memorandum on the international conservation and trade of 
seahorses (Bruckner et al., 2005) noted that the dwarf seahorse is one 
of 17 seahorse species observed or reported to be traded. Several 
publications have noted the popularity of the dwarf seahorse in the 
aquarium trade (Vincent, 1996; Woods, 2001). Woods (2001) found that 
the dwarf seahorse is the second most exported ornamental fish in 
Florida. Koldewey et al. (2010) conducted an international review of 
the seahorse aquaculture trade from 1997 to 2008 and found that 100 
percent of dwarf seahorse exports were wild-caught individuals, not 
captive-bred. Alford and Grist (2005) suggest that wild dwarf seahorse 
populations have decreased in Florida and that the species is difficult 
to locate and harvest in areas where it was once considered common.
    The only seahorse commercial fishery in the United States is 
located in the state of Florida. Bruckner et al. (2005) state that most 
of the seahorse harvest in Florida is for the dried curio market. Dwarf 
seahorses are primarily harvested in state waters as targeted catch by 
divers using nets or as bycatch by fishers using trawls (e.g., in the 
live-bait shrimp fishery) with some seahorse harvest conducted by seine 
or dredge (Bruckner et al., 2005). A study conducted on the Marine Life 
Fishery in Florida from 1990 to 1998 (Adams et al., 2001) documented a 
five-fold increase in seahorse landings between 1991 and 1992 (from 
14,000 harvested in 1991 to 83,700 harvested in 1992). The increased 
landings primarily consisted of the dwarf seahorse. Bruckner et al. 
(2005), state that 90 percent of the dwarf seahorse harvest is in 
southeast Florida and the Florida Keys region and that more than 50 
percent of the harvest in southwest Florida was collected by divers 
from 1990 to 2003. The number of seahorses landed in Florida varied 
between 1990 and 2003, from 6,000 to 111,000 individuals per year. 
Approximately 91 percent of those landings were dwarf seahorses, so the 
number of dwarf seahorses landed (1990-2003) ranged from 2,142 to 
98,779 individuals per year (Bruckner et al., 2005). The petition 
provides data on the quantities of seahorses being exported, allotted 
bag limits permitted by the State of Florida, and the ways in which the 
species is commercially utilized (e.g., aquarium market, curio market, 
and Chinese traditional medicine trade).
    Commercial harvest may be negatively affecting dwarf seahorse 
populations. The petition and its supporting citations also indicate 
that commercial demand for the dwarf seahorse is extensive, and that 
populations in some geographic areas where they are harvested may have 
declined. Therefore, based on the standards for making 90-day findings, 
we accept the petition's characterizations of the information presented 
and conclude that substantial information in the petition and in our 
files suggest overutilization may be a factor contributing to 
extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse.

Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

    The petitioner states that regulatory mechanisms at the 
international, federal, and state level are inadequate to protect the 
dwarf seahorse from commercial overharvest and trade, and inadequate to 
protect its seagrass habitat from loss and degradation. As such, the 
petitioner argues that inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms is 
one of the factors causing the species to be threatened or endangered.
    The petition notes that in 2004, the entire genus Hippocampus, 
including the dwarf seahorse, was listed under Appendix II of CITES. 
Species listed under Appendix II are those in which trade must be 
controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their 
survival, but are not necessarily at risk of extinction. International 
trade of CITES Appendix II species can take place if an export permit 
is issued. Export permits are only issued if the Management Authority 
of the exporting country is satisfied that the specimens were ``legally 
obtained'' and the Scientific Authority of the exporting country 
advises that the ``export will not be detrimental to the survival of 
the species in the wild.'' The petition lists several reasons it 
believes that CITES Appendix II does not effectively protect the dwarf 
seahorse from overexploitation: it does not apply to seahorses that are 
traded entirely within the U.S. domestic markets, not all exports are 
inspected, and certification that trade is not detrimental to the 
persistence of the dwarf seahorse is not possible because no 
comprehensive population data is available. The petition and citations 
indicate that no stock assessment has been conducted for the dwarf 
seahorse.
    The petitioner also states that the CITES listing is not sufficient 
to protect the dwarf seahorse from illegal trade occurring in Mexico, 
and cites references finding that most seahorse trade in Mexico occurs 
on the black market. Mexican populations of dwarf seahorse are listed 
in the NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2001 as species subject to special protection; 
Mexico prohibits the intentional capture and trade of wild seahorses, 
permitting only the commercialization of cultured and incidentally 
caught seahorses (Lourie et al., 2004). The petitioner acknowledges 
that Mexico prohibits the deliberate capture and trade of wild 
seahorses and only authorizes the trade of seahorses if they are 
``incidentally caught in non-selective fishing gear.'' However, the 
petitioner asserts that Mexico's regulations and enforcement of those 
regulations are inadequate to protect the dwarf seahorse from decline 
or illegal harvest.
    The petitioner also argues that other existing regulatory 
mechanisms at the Federal (Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and 
Management Act, National Marine Sanctuaries Act) and state level 
relevant to the U.S. seahorse trade (Florida laws and regulations, 
discussed below) are also inadequate to protect the species. Neither 
Federal law prohibits collection of the dwarf seahorse. Florida has 
regulatory mechanisms that require anyone wishing to collect or sell 
dwarf seahorses to have a Saltwater Product License, a Marine Life 
Endorsement, and a Restricted Species Endorsement under Florida law 
(Chapter 370.021.01(2)(a)) and Administrative Code 16R-500). There is a 
commercial bag limit of 400 dwarf seahorses per person or per vessel 
per day (whichever is less), and a recreational bag limit of 5 dwarf 
seahorses per person, per day (FL 68B-42.005), but no apparent cap on 
total annual take of the species. There are no seasonal restrictions or 
closures for this fishery. There does not appear to be a limit on the 
number of seahorses that can be collected as bycatch, but the landings 
value of all marine life bycatch must be less than $5,000 annually 
(Florida Marine Fisheries Commission, 2009).
    The petitioner also argues that existing regulatory measures do not 
adequately protect the dwarf seahorse's seagrass habitat. The petition 
references declining water quality and the physical damage (prop 
scarring) caused by recreational and commercial vessels as contributing 
to the decline of seagrass

[[Page 26485]]

habitat throughout the dwarf seahorse's range. The petition states that 
the protections of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary have not 
prevented ongoing threats to seagrasses since the sanctuary's 
designation. Similarly, the petition states that loss and degradation 
of seagrasses is not prevented within other areas protected by the 
state or federal governments. The petitioner acknowledges that federal 
regulations such as the Coastal Zone Management Act provide a degree of 
habitat protection, but say that despite the Act's intentions, seagrass 
habitat continues to decline throughout the dwarf seahorse's range.
    The petitioner also states that protection from oil pollution is 
inadequate because, while the Oil Pollution Act is intended to protect 
the species' habitat from spilled oil, accidental spills inevitably 
occur. Finally, the petition states that regulation of greenhouse gases 
is inadequate. However, the discussion does not explain how the 
described potential increases in atmospheric concentrations of 
CO2 that may result in the absence of adequate regulations 
may result in extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse.
    In summary, the petition presents substantial information 
indicating that inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms may be 
contributing to extinction risk that is cause for concern for the dwarf 
seahorse, particularly in regards to regulations intended to control 
harvest for domestic markets and international trade, and we will 
evaluate these regulations' impacts on dwarf seahorse during the status 
review. We will also evaluate whether existing regulatory mechanisms 
relevant to preventing damage to seagrasses are inadequate in a manner 
that contributes to extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse. Similarly, 
we will evaluate whether existing regulatory mechanisms relevant to 
preventing oil pollution are inadequate in a manner that contributes to 
extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse.

Other Natural or Manmade Factors

    The petition describes other natural or manmade factors that may be 
affecting the dwarf seahorse, including life history characteristics, 
bycatch mortality, noise, and unintentional and illegal fishing, 
hurricanes or tropical storms, and invasive species. As described 
previously, the petition provides information describing how ``life 
history parameters'' in the form of complex reproductive strategies, 
low population density, and patchy spatial distribution, are affecting 
the species' ability to recover from habitat loss and overexploitation. 
The available information indicates that the dwarf seahorse has some 
life history characteristic that may increase the species' 
vulnerability, in conjunction with habitat decline and overutilization.
    The petitioner also suggests that the dwarf seahorse is vulnerable 
to increased risk of extinction, because ``low frequency boat motor 
noise negatively impacts the health, behavior, and reproductive success 
of dwarf seahorses (Masonjones and Babson 2003).'' The petition cites a 
single reference, Masonjones and Babson (2003), to support its 
assertion that vessel noise is a threat to the dwarf seahorse. We 
attempted to evaluate the referenced citation, which is an abstract 
from the 17th Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology--
Book of Abstracts (2003). According to the Masonjones and Babson (2003) 
abstract, dwarf seahorses were exposed to recordings of low frequency 
boat motor noise (ranging from 70-110 dB and 60-600 HZ) with 
``continuous'' and ``intermittent'' noise treatments, as well as 
``quiet'' treatments. The abstract states that adult dwarf seahorses 
exposed to ``noise conditions showed a significantly higher incidence 
of gas bladder disease, behavioral differences, and had significantly 
longer gestation lengths than controls. Fewer offspring were born to 
parents exposed to continuous noise and the offspring were smaller and 
had lower growth rates than control offspring.'' The abstract provides 
minimal information, and we cannot determine whether this study was 
conducted in a laboratory or in the species' natural environment, 
though we assume from the limited information the study was conducted 
in a laboratory. Based on information in the abstract we cannot 
determine what the study's limitations were for ``continuous'' and 
``intermittent'' noise exposures levels, as well as ``quiet'' 
treatments. Likewise, we cannot determine the intensity levels the 
seahorses were exposed to or the duration of exposure time. We 
recognize that dwarf seahorses in the wild are exposed to levels of low 
frequency noise transmitted from vessels, but exposure levels are 
likely temporary and infrequent (i.e., only when a vessel is operating 
within the vicinity of a seahorse). Without additional information 
(e.g., exposure duration, how noise levels tested in the laboratory 
environment compare to noise levels in the natural environment, and how 
noise levels may be attenuated at distances from the noise source given 
water depths, turbidity, currents, and other natural factors) we cannot 
conclude how the results of this study on vessel noise correspond to 
impacts on wild populations. The information presented in the 
referenced abstract does not constitute substantial information 
indicating that low frequency vessel noise is an operative threat that 
has acted or is acting on the species to the point that it is 
contributing to an extinction risk of concern for the dwarf seahorse.
    As described previously, bycatch of the dwarf seahorse in trawl 
fisheries, specifically the live-bait trawl fishery in Florida, is a 
source of commercial harvest. According to the petitioner, seahorses 
are affected by nonselective fishing gear because trawling often covers 
seahorse habitat and their life history characteristics render them 
particularly vulnerable to overexploitation. The petitioner states that 
seahorses likely experience injuries or mortality during towing and 
sorting, but notes that the post-release mortality of bycaught 
seahorses is unknown. The petitioner also references a study that 
suggests discarded seahorses are subject to increased predation upon 
release and experience deleterious effects as a result of being 
bycaught (Foster and Vincent, 2004). It is conceivable that 
incidentally caught seahorses that are not retained for commercial sale 
could be injured or die post-release and that unintentional collection 
could disrupt natural behaviors. However, as the petition notes, post-
release mortality estimates are not available for seahorses. The 
available information is insufficient to indicate post-release 
mortality or bycatch mortality is a threat that is contributing to an 
extinction risk of concern for the dwarf seahorse. Nonetheless, as 
described in the overutilization section of this finding, we will 
evaluate to what extent the dwarf seahorse is affected by indirect 
(i.e., bycatch) and direct commercial harvest during the status review.
    Last, the petitioner asserts that unintentional and illegal 
fishing, hurricanes and tropical storms, and invasive species are 
``potentially threatening'' the dwarf seahorse. Broad statements about 
generalized threats to the species do not constitute substantial 
information that listing may be warranted. The petition does not 
present information indicating that the dwarf seahorse is responding in 
a negative fashion to unintentional and illegal fishing, hurricanes and 
tropical storms, or invasive species. Therefore, we find that the 
petition does not present substantial information to indicate that 
these generalized threats are operative and have acted or acting on the 
species to the point that it may

[[Page 26486]]

warrant protection under the ESA. Nonetheless, during the status review 
we will research and consider all information submitted relevant to 
these potential threats.

Summary of Section 4(a)(1) Factors

    We conclude that the petition presents substantial scientific or 
commercial information indicating that a combination of at least four 
of the section 4(a)(1) factors may be causing or contributing to 
extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse: present or threatened 
destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range, 
overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 
educational purposes, inadequate existing regulatory mechanisms, and 
other natural or manmade factors.

Petition Finding

    After reviewing the information contained in the petition, as well 
as information readily available in our files, we conclude the petition 
presents substantial scientific information indicating the petitioned 
action of listing the dwarf seahorse as threatened or endangered may be 
warranted. In accordance with section 4(b)(3)(B) of the ESA and our 
implementing regulations (50 CFR 424.14(b)(2)), we will commence a 
review of the status of the dwarf seahorse and make a final 
determination as to whether the petitioned action is warranted. During 
our status review, we will determine whether the species is in danger 
of extinction (endangered) or likely to become so in the foreseeable 
future (threatened) throughout all or a significant portion of its 
range, or that the species does not warrant listing under the ESA.

Information Solicited

    To ensure that the status review is based on the best available 
scientific and commercial data, we are soliciting information on 
whether the dwarf seahorse is endangered or threatened. Specifically, 
we are soliciting information in the following areas: (1) Historical 
and current distribution and abundance of this species throughout its 
range; (2) historical and current population status and trends; (3) 
life history in marine environments; (4) curio, traditional medicine, 
and aquarium trade or other trade data; (5) any current or planned 
activities that may adversely impact the species; (6) historical and 
current seagrass trends and status; (7) ongoing or planned efforts to 
protect and restore the species and their seagrass habitats; (8) 
management, regulatory, and enforcement information; and (9) any 
biological information on this species. We request that all information 
be accompanied by: (1) Supporting documentation such as maps, 
bibliographic references, or reprints of pertinent publications; and 
(2) the submitter's name, address, and any association, institution, or 
business that the person represents.

References Cited

    A complete list of references is available upon request from the 
Protected Resources Division on NMFS Southeast Regional Office (see 
ADDRESSES).

Authority

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

    Dated: April 30, 2012.
Paul Doremus,
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Operations, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 2012-10845 Filed 5-3-12; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-P