[Federal Register Volume 77, Number 98 (Monday, May 21, 2012)]
[Notices]
[Pages 29969-29981]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2012-12270]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

RIN 0648-XA595


Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports

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

ACTION: Notice of availability; response to comments.

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SUMMARY: As required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NMFS 
has incorporated public comments into revisions of marine mammal stock 
assessment reports (SARs). The 2011 reports are final and available to 
the public.

ADDRESSES: Electronic copies of SARs are available on the Internet as 
regional compilations and individual reports at the following address: 
http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/sars/. You also may send requests for 
copies of reports to: Chief, Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Conservation 
Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries 
Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910-3226, Attn: 
Stock Assessments.
    Copies of the Alaska Regional SARs may be requested from Robyn 
Angliss, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, 7600 Sand Point Way, BIN 
15700, Seattle, WA 98115.
    Copies of the Atlantic Regional SARs may be requested from Gordon 
Waring, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, 166 Water Street, Woods 
Hole, MA 02543.
    Copies of the Pacific Regional SARs may be requested from Jim 
Carretta, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NMFS, 8604 La Jolla 
Shores Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037-1508.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Shannon Bettridge, Office of Protected 
Resources, 301-427-8402, Shannon.Bettridge@noaa.gov; Robyn Angliss, 
Alaska Fisheries Science Center, 206-526-4032, Robyn.Angliss@noaa.gov; 
Gordon Waring, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, 508-495-2311, 
Gordon.Waring@noaa.gov; or Jim Carretta, Southwest Fisheries Science 
Center, 858-546-7171, Jim.Carretta@noaa.gov.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

    Section 117 of the MMPA (16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.) requires NMFS and 
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to prepare SARs for each stock 
of marine mammals occurring in waters under the jurisdiction of the 
United States. These reports contain information regarding the 
distribution and abundance of the stock, population growth rates and 
trends, the stock's Potential Biological Removal (PBR) level, estimates 
of annual human-caused mortality and serious injury from all sources, 
descriptions of the fisheries with which the stock interacts, and the 
status of the stock. Initial reports were completed in 1995.
    The MMPA requires NMFS and FWS to review the SARs at least annually 
for strategic stocks and stocks for which significant new information 
is available, and at least once every 3 years for non-strategic stocks. 
NMFS and FWS are required to revise a SAR if the status of the stock 
has changed or can be more accurately determined. NMFS, in conjunction 
with the Alaska, Atlantic, and Pacific Scientific Review Groups (SRGs), 
reviewed the status of marine mammal stocks as required and revised 
reports in each of the three regions.
    As required by the MMPA, NMFS updated SARs for 2011, and the 
revised reports were made available for public review and comment for 
90 days (76 FR 52940, August 24, 2011). NMFS received comments on the 
draft SARs and has revised the reports as necessary. The final reports 
for 2011 are available on NMFS' Web site (see ADDRESSES).

Comments and Responses

    NMFS received letters containing comments on the draft 2011 SARs 
from the Marine Mammal Commission (Commission), six non-governmental 
organizations (Humane Society of the United States, Cascadia Research 
Collective, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Coastal 
Studies, Garden State Seafood Association, and Hawaii Longline 
Association), the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management 
Council, and one individual.
    Many comments recommended initiation or repetition of large data 
collection efforts, such as abundance surveys, observer programs, or 
other efforts to estimate mortality. Many comments, including those 
from the Commission, recommending additional data collection (e.g., 
additional

[[Page 29970]]

abundance surveys or observer programs) have been addressed in previous 
years. Although NMFS agrees that additional information would improve 
the SARs and inform conservation decisions, resources for surveys and 
observer programs are fully utilized and no new large surveys or other 
programs may be initiated until additional resources are available. 
Such comments on the 2011 SARs, and responses to them, may not be 
included in the summary below because the responses have not changed. 
Comments on actions not related to the SARs (e.g., convening a Take 
Reduction Team or listing a marine mammal species under the Endangered 
Species Act (ESA)) are not included below. Comments suggesting 
editorial or minor clarifying changes were incorporated in the reports 
but are not included in the summary of comments and responses below.
    In some cases, NMFS' responses state that comments would be 
considered or incorporated in future revisions of the SAR rather than 
being incorporated into the final 2011 SARs. These delays are due to 
the schedule of the review of the reports by the regional SRGs. NMFS 
provides preliminary copies of updated SARs to SRGs prior to release 
for public review and comment. If a comment on the draft SAR suggests a 
substantive change to the SAR, NMFS may discuss the comment and 
prospective change with the SRG at its next meeting.

Comments on National Issues

    Comment 1: The Commission recommends that NMFS develop a 
nationwide, 5-year schedule for carrying out stock assessments that 
reflects projections and priorities for available ship and aircraft 
time, and identifies the funding necessary to complete marine mammal 
population surveys.
    Response: NMFS agrees that such a schedule would be useful, and is 
currently in the process of developing a strategic plan to focus on 
resource acquisition and a prioritization scheme to meet stock 
assessment goals. The plan is expected to address the economic value of 
conducting regular stock assessments, identifying data needs, and 
revising performance measures to track stock progress. In addition, 
such a plan would potentially account for depleting budgets and 
resource constraints by recommending more efficient use of ship time 
through multi-species ecosystem studies, better survey designs and 
sampling technologies, and leveraging inter- and intra-agency 
resources. A 2012 fall workshop is being planned to address some of 
these objectives.
    Comment 2: The Commission repeats its 2010 recommendation that NMFS 
review its observer programs nationwide, set standards for observer 
coverage, identify gaps in existing coverage, and determine the 
resources needed to (1) observe all fisheries that directly interact or 
may directly interact with marine mammals, especially strategic stocks 
and (2) provide reasonably accurate and precise estimates of serious 
injury and mortality levels.
    Response: NMFS has conducted multiple comprehensive nationwide 
reviews of its observer programs. In 2011, NMFS published the first 
edition of the National Bycatch Report, which provided a nation-wide 
compilation of bycatch estimates in U.S. commercial fisheries. The 
Report included information on bycatch sampling and estimation methods, 
a framework for evaluating the quality of bycatch estimates, and 
performance measures for monitoring improvements to bycatch data 
quality and estimates over time. The report identifies gaps in existing 
observer coverage with specific recommendations for additional 
resources required to improve bycatch data collection and estimation 
methods, which will form the basis of a funding strategy to support 
adequate observer programs for all living marine resources. The report 
is the first in a planned series of national bycatch reports designed 
to track and report on efforts to monitor bycatch.
    NMFS has taken several steps in recent years to address 
shortcomings in protected species observer coverage, including 
increased observer coverage in the Gulf of Mexico reef fish fishery, 
the North Carolina inshore gillnet fishery, the American Samoa longline 
fishery, and the Gulf of Mexico menhaden purse seine fishery. NMFS is 
preparing to observe the Southeast Alaska drift gillnet fishery, 
beginning in 2012.
    Comment 3: The Commission recommends that NMFS partner in 2012 with 
state fishery management agencies, the fishing industry, and other 
stakeholders to develop a funding strategy that will substantially 
improve the extent and level of observer coverage and data collection 
concerning incidental serious injury and mortality of marine mammals 
within five years.
    Response: NMFS is seeking to improve its capacity to address marine 
mammal interactions through the Marine Mammal Take Reduction Program, 
enhanced observer coverage and gear marking, and further 
characterizations of fishing gear and the nature of interactions. 
Observer coverage is not particularly helpful or practical in certain 
fisheries, such as those using trap/pot gear. For those trap/pot 
fisheries, NMFS is working to develop or increase requirements for gear 
marking to help identify gear that may be recovered from an entangled 
animal.
    Comment 4: The Commission recommends that NMFS develop alternative 
strategies for collecting information on mortality and serious injury 
levels in fisheries for which entanglements are difficult to detect or 
quantify using traditional observer programs. Alternatives include more 
comprehensive gear-marking or gear-tracking requirements. At a minimum, 
gear markings should enable NMFS to identify the fishery, region, and 
gear part of any gear removed from whales, and ideally markings should 
be ``readable'' at a distance.
    Response: See response to Comment 3.
    Comment 5: To best manage transboundary stocks, the Commission 
recommends that NMFS collaborate with other nations and international 
fishery management organizations to develop and implement cooperative 
or complementary strategies for assessing stock status and the rate of 
serious injury and mortality in fisheries. Priority should be given to 
those stocks that are known to interact significantly with fisheries. 
The goal should be to manage transboundary stocks using a PBR level 
calculated for the entire stock considering all bycatch, something that 
has been suggested in the proposed revisions to the stock assessment 
guidelines.
    Response: NMFS has previously responded to this comment (see 76 FR 
34054, June 10, 2011, comment 2) as follows: ``NMFS, through the Office 
of International Affairs, is preparing a comprehensive international 
action plan for marine mammal conservation. As this plan is being 
developed, NMFS is also evaluating strategies to obtain information on 
the marine mammal conservation programs in other nations pursuant to 
MMPA section 101(a)(2).'' This action plan will likely be released in 
mid- 2012. In addition, NMFS collaborates closely with Canada on 
research, monitoring, and management for species in the NMFS Northwest 
and Northeast regions and with Regional Fisheries Management 
Organizations where appropriate. NMFS is also working within Regional 
Fisheries Management Organizations to identify fisheries with bycatch 
and to adopt conservation and management measures to reduce that 
bycatch.

[[Page 29971]]

    Comment 6: The Commission recommends that NMFS consider the various 
approaches that are available for integrating all human-related risk 
factors into stock assessments and adopt an integration method that 
will produce, at a minimum, reasonable estimates of the lower and upper 
bounds of serious injury and mortality rates for every stock.
    Response: NMFS has previously responded to this comment (see 76 FR 
34054, June 10, 2011, comment 3). as follows: ``MMPA section 117(3) 
contains directions for including risk factors in SARs. The MMPA states 
that SARs should estimate annual human-caused mortality of each stock, 
by source, and, for strategic stocks, other factors that may be causing 
a decline or impeding recovery of the stock, including effects on 
marine mammal habitat and prey.''
    Comment 7: All stock assessments should be updated to include 
habitat issues. Habitat loss and degradation rank among the primary 
threats to most marine mammals. In light of changing ocean conditions 
in response to global warming and ocean acidification, these habitat 
threats should also be discussed in the habitat section.
    Response: NMFS has previously responded to this and similar 
comments (see 76 FR 34054, June 10, 2011, comment 22; 75 FR 12498, 
March 16, 2010, comments 1 and 6). Where appropriate, NMFS strives to 
include this information and will provide updates when new data become 
available.
    Comment 8: NMFS must update abundance estimates for many stocks 
with only old population data. Given the precautionary principles 
incorporated into the MMPA, any such stock should be declared 
``strategic,'' because the lack of a PBR makes it impossible for NMFS 
to conclude that the stock does not meet the definition of strategic.
    Response: According to the NMFS 2005 Guidelines for Assessing 
Marine Mammal Stocks, if abundance or human-related mortality levels 
are truly unknown, some judgment will be required to make this 
determination about stock status. If there is known or suspected human-
caused mortality of a stock, decisions about whether such stocks should 
be declared strategic or not should be made on a case-by-case basis. 
Stocks for which the minimum population estimate (Nmin) becomes unknown 
should not move from ``strategic'' to ``not-strategic'', or vice versa, 
solely because of an inability to estimate Nmin (or PBR).
    Comment 9: The threat of sonar and other military training 
exercises should be discussed for all stocks that may be exposed to 
such activities in the Atlantic and Pacific.
    Response: MMPA section 117(3) contains directions for including 
risk factors, stating that SARs should contain estimates of annual 
human-caused mortality of each stock, by source, and, for strategic 
stocks, other factors that may be causing a decline or impeding 
recovery of the stock, including effects on marine mammal habitat and 
prey. As very few serious injuries and mortalities can be directly 
attributable to military training exercises, the impacts of this 
potential threat can be difficult to assess. Where appropriate, NMFS 
strives to include this information and will provide updates when new 
data become available.

Comments on Atlantic Regional Reports

    Technical changes: First, since publication of the draft 2011 SAR 
for North Atlantic right whales, three technical changes have been made 
to the report. In its February 2012 meeting, the Atlantic SRG 
recommended that for the North Atlantic right whale SAR, the default 
Rmax for cetaceans (0.04) be used rather than the observed net growth 
rate (0.024). This results in an increase in PBR from 0.5 to 0.8.
    Second, subsequent to publication of the draft 2011 North Atlantic 
right whale SAR, NMFS noticed a mistake in reporting the U.S. and 
Canadian serious injuries and mortalities. In the draft SAR, all the 
reported fishery-caused serious injuries and mortalities were 
attributed to U.S. fisheries (i.e., all injured or dead animals were 
seen in U.S. waters and no information was available to indicate that 
the serious injuries or mortalities were caused by a Canadian fishery). 
The report writers mistakenly recorded the ratio of seriously injured 
animals to mortalities (0.4 to 0.6) as the ratio of U.S. to Canadian 
serious injuries and mortalities. In the final 2011 SAR, the ratio of 
U.S. to Canadian serious injuries and mortalities is corrected, and all 
fishery serious injury and mortality is correctly assigned to U.S. 
fisheries (0.8).
    Third, adult (North Atlantic right whale) male 1980, which 
was observed on 2/3/2008 with an apparent constricting wrap of line and 
in declining condition, was initially determined to be a serious 
injury. That animal was observed gear free in 2011, and has been 
removed from the serious injury list. This resulted in a decrease in 
the reported fishery serious injuries and mortalities from 1.0 to 0.8 
in the final 2011 SAR.
    Comment 10: The Commission recommends that NMFS conduct the 
required surveys of North Atlantic pinniped stocks, incorporate the 
results into SARs, and use that information to manage those stocks and 
the risk factors affecting them.
    Response: In spring 2011, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center 
(NEFSC) conducted live capture/tagging of harbor seals to obtain a 
survey correction factor for the scheduled late May/early June 
abundance survey along the coast of Maine. The aerial survey was not 
completed due to fog during the entire survey window. The NEFSC is 
scheduled to repeat this project in spring 2012. Further, the NEFSC has 
begun counting archived images collected during the 2005-2011 seasonal 
monitoring surveys in southeastern Massachusetts coastal waters. These 
areas contain the largest number of gray seals in U.S. waters. The goal 
is to obtain a minimum raw count of non-pup gray seals. In addition, 
images from monitoring surveys of gray seal pupping colonies in Maine 
and Massachusetts are also scheduled to be counted.
    Comment 11: The Commission recommends that NMFS improve stock 
assessments for bottlenose dolphins in both the Atlantic and the Gulf 
of Mexico by conducting the research needed to resolve questions 
concerning stock structure, provide more accurate and precise estimates 
of the abundance and trends of the various stocks, and provide more 
accurate and precise estimates of the level of serious injury and 
mortality in fisheries and from other human activities.
    Response: NMFS has taken a number of actions that will improve 
stock assessments of bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico and 
Atlantic Ocean. In 2010, NMFS collected biopsy samples of bottlenose 
dolphins in Pamlico Sound, NC. These samples and those collected in 
adjacent areas will be used to further refine the genetic stock 
structure of bottlenose dolphins in the North Carolina region and aid 
in the ongoing Bottlenose Dolphin Take Reduction Plan. As part of the 
Deep Water Horizon oil spill Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), 
NMFS and the National Ocean Service have been conducting seasonal stock 
structure and abundance research in oiled areas of Louisiana and 
Mississippi (Barataria Bay, Mississippi Sound, and Chandeleur Sound). 
These studies began in May 2010 and will continue through at least 
spring 2012. NMFS and the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean 
Energy Management, working under an Interagency Agreement, will conduct 
bottlenose dolphin stock structure research in the northern Gulf of 
Mexico in 2012 and 2013. This work

[[Page 29972]]

will be conducted in bay, sound or estuary areas that have not been 
previously sampled. NMFS conducted a Commission-supported workshop in 
2011 to refine best practices for conducting mark-recapture studies to 
estimate the abundance of bay, sound and estuary populations of 
bottlenose dolphins. The report of the workshop proceedings was 
prepared and is available for the public.
    Comment 12: The Commission recommends that NMFS develop a stock 
assessment plan for the Gulf of Mexico that describes (1) a feasible 
strategy for assessing the Gulf's marine mammal stocks and (2) the 
infrastructure, expertise, and funding needed to implement it.
    Response: NMFS has produced two documents that describe a feasible 
strategy for assessing the Gulf's marine mammal stocks and the required 
infrastructure, expertise, and funding to implement the strategy: (1) 
The Southeast Fisheries Science Center Marine Mammal Program Strategic 
Plan (2008) and (2) the North-Central Gulf of Mexico Bottlenose Dolphin 
Research Plan (2007). Both plans need to be updated to reflect changes 
in staffing, resources, and research conducted since 2008. NMFS also 
worked closely with the Commission to develop a strategic marine mammal 
research plan in response to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill.
    Comment 13: While we understand that these SARs provide mortality 
information only through 2009, the fact that NMFS is aware of the 
Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010 warrants a mention in SARs for the 
Gulf of Mexico. The only discussion of habitat impacts relates to 
disturbance from construction or removal operations.
    Response: As the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process 
continues and is not complete, NMFS cannot report on unconfirmed 
mortalities or speculate on habitat impacts. The potential impacts of 
the Deep Water Horizon oil spill on Gulf of Mexico cetacean stocks and 
habitat are expected to be included in the 2012 SARs.
    Comment 14: Bottlenose dolphin stocks in the Gulf of Mexico should 
be designated strategic. NMFS should convene a bottlenose dolphin take 
reduction team for the Gulf. Between February 2010 and October 30, 
2011, NMFS has documented 586 cetacean ``strandings'' in the Northern 
Gulf of Mexico, of which 95% stranded dead. Most of these were 
bottlenose dolphins. A common bacterium known to cause abortions in 
marine mammals killed some of the hundreds of dolphins--more than 100 
of them calves and fetuses.
    Response: The status of stocks in the 2011 SARs is based on 
mortality and serious injury data through 2009. All of the 32 Gulf of 
Mexico bay, sound and estuary, and the western coastal bottlenose 
dolphin stocks are designated as strategic in the 2011 SAR. We will 
continue evaluating the status of these stocks as well as the eastern 
and northern coastal, continental shelf and oceanic bottlenose dolphin 
stocks for the 2012 SARs.
    NMFS does not have enough information to convene a take reduction 
team for the Gulf of Mexico, which would be based only on fisheries-
related mortality. While an unprecedented number of bottlenose dolphins 
continue stranding in the northern Gulf, data have not yet been 
analyzed to determine which stocks are affected by the ongoing Unusual 
Mortality Event (UME). NMFS will continue evaluating the impact of 
these mortalities as part of the UME investigation and the need for a 
take reduction team.
    Comment 15: Long-finned and short-finned pilot whales should both 
be considered strategic. In the Atlantic, two short-finned pilot whales 
died stranded on Massachusetts beaches in 2011. These pilot whales 
typically are not found this far north and range in the warmer waters 
such as the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean off Florida. Additionally, a 
pod of more than 20 pilot whales stranded in multiple areas in shallow 
Gulf of Mexico waters and mangroves. A majority of the pilot whales 
died.
    Response: Strandings are not part of the status of stocks 
determination unless the cause of the stranding is attributed to human 
activity. Human factors were not identified in these two stranding 
events. In the cases where strandings are caused by human activities, 
any human-caused mortality and serious injury data would be compiled 
and evaluated with respect to the PBR for the stock.
    Comment 16: All SARs for marine mammals that range in the Gulf of 
Mexico should be updated to include threats from oil spills and 
associated oil and gas drilling activities, including seismic 
exploration activities. Specifically, NMFS must consider the Deepwater 
Horizon oil spill in 2010 as well as any new information concerning its 
impacts on marine mammals.
    Response: NOAA is estimating the impacts of the Deep Water Horizon 
oil spill, including mortality, as part of the ongoing Natural Resource 
Damage Assessment process. When that process is complete, the SARs will 
be updated to reflect any potential impacts to marine mammals. NMFS 
agrees that a summary of the potential impacts of oil and gas-related 
activities on marine mammals is appropriate for the Gulf of Mexico 
SARs. For each SAR, NMFS is developing a habitat section that will be 
included in future SARs. This section will attempt to address the 
potential impacts of human activities on a marine mammal stock 
including, if appropriate, oil and gas-related activities.
    Comment 17: We ask that the SAR for right whales include 
mortalities and serious injuries more recent than 2 years old (in this 
case from 2009, so the data will be 3 years behind by the time the SAR 
is finalized). NMFS provides more timely summaries to the Atlantic 
Large Whale Take Reduction Team on an annual or shorter basis, and the 
annual meeting of the right whale Consortium has a presentation of 
mortalities and serious injuries since the prior meeting 12 month 
earlier. NMFS has this information and should use it in the SAR for 
this species where no extrapolation for fishing effort is required that 
would slow the process. Delaying this information hampers efforts to 
the magnitude of (or trend in) anthropogenic impacts to the species. 
This comment is also germane to humpback and fin whales.
    Response: NMFS strives to include the most recent data on serious 
injury and mortality in each SAR, but this information requires 
analysis and confirmation before being included and published. Draft 
SARs are reviewed by regional SRGs as early as the fall of the year 
prior to publication, and the information must be accurate at that 
time. Further lag time is necessitated by the 90-day public comment 
period and the agency clearance and publication processes.
    Comment 18: It is not clear why the region proposes removing the 
last paragraph of the section on Human-Caused Mortality and Serious 
Injury in the humpback whale report that contains a discussion of the 
need to better understand the level of anthropogenic mortality by 
assuring recovery of carcasses and necropsy.
    Response: NMFS acknowledges that the reference to observer coverage 
in the paragraph is misleading because those activities have almost no 
influence on the counts of takes. Because these counts are minimums, 
they most likely understate the level of human interactions mentioned 
in paragraph 3 of the ``annual human-caused serious injury and 
mortality'' section. The paragraph is retained and the phrase ``fishery 
observer data'' is changed to ``data assessed for serious injury and 
mortality.''

[[Page 29973]]

    Comment 19: There is an apparent omission in the detailing of 
mortalities of humpback whales. We note the following case from the 
NOAA's large whale stranding data base (NER020608Mn). The comment 
accompanying the documentation of this February 6, 2008 mortality was 
``Carcass reported by NOAA Fisheries observer Red nylon cord wrapped 
~4-5 times around fluke, possibly identified as lobster gear.''
    Response: This event did not meet the criteria for inclusion 
because NMFS could not confirm from the available data that the wraps 
were constricting, and no necropsy was conducted to confirm the 
associated hemorrhaging.
    Comment 20: The SAR for short-beaked common dolphin states that 
there were ``annual research activity mortalities and serious injuries 
that were not included in the bycatch estimates.'' We believe that 
these fishery-related mortalities (albeit during research activities) 
must be included in the estimates. We assume that the 0.2 estimate for 
the 5 year average is the result of the single take in a monkfish 
research gillnet in 2009 as discussed in the text. We also remind the 
region that, to the best of our knowledge, it does not possess 
authorization for these sorts of mortalities and should seek formal 
incidental take authorization for its research.
    Response: Wording in the SAR that says the common dolphin research 
take was not included in the bycatch estimates is not correct and has 
been removed. In fact, the 0.2 addition to the five-year average for 
this take was added twice, as it was already accounted for in the 
bycatch table. However, the Northeast Sink Gillnet fishery mean annual 
mortality number has been revised to 27 to account for a rounding 
error. The NEFSC is in the process of obtaining authorization for 
fishery-related research takes (see response to comment 21).
    Comment 21: It is evident that harbor porpoise mortality continues 
to exceed PBR. To add to the species' woe, the SAR details the 
mortality of 12 porpoises in a monkfish research fishery in 2009. If 
this level of mortality resulted from nets fished outside the harbor 
porpoise management areas, it may be an indication that these areas are 
not sufficiently protective of this stock. It is also important to note 
that, to the best of our knowledge, the region does not possess 
authorization for research-related mortalities and needs to seek formal 
incidental take authorization for its fishery research.
    Response: The NEFSC is in the process of issuing letters of 
authorization under the MMPA for fishery-related research takes where 
needed to supplement existing MMPA and ESA scientific research permits.
    Comment 22: Abundance estimates are outdated for harbor, harp, and 
gray seals. The sections on other mortality give short shrift to the 
discussion of illegal shooting that is an increasing problem. The 
region needs to devote at least a sentence or two in the SARs 
addressing the numbers of animals found illegally shot as it helps 
inform potential trends in and sources of anthropogenic mortality.
    Response: Information has been added to the 2011 SARs indicating 
the estimated number of seals injured and killed by illegal shootings. 
From 2005-2009, there were 7 harbor seals, 3 harp seals, 1 gray seal, 1 
hooded seal, and 2 unidentified seals reported as having been shot in 
the NOAA Northeast and Southeast marine mammal stranding databases.
    Comment 23: The change in the abundance estimate for Atlantic 
white-sided dolphins and consequent reduction in the PBR results in 
fishery-related mortality once again exceeding PBR. NMFS has convened 
take reduction teams to address fishery-related bycatch of this and 
other species. It would seem particularly important to review the 
measures under the take reduction plan for the Northeast Bottom Trawl 
fishery.
    Response: The NEFSC is currently investigating the past and present 
trends in abundance and bycatch estimates of Atlantic white-sided 
dolphins. This will determine the most appropriate current bycatch 
estimates and determine whether the abundance estimates are changing 
due to analytical reasons, changes in the dolphin's spatial-temporal 
use of U.S. waters, or fishery-related mortality. The results of these 
investigations will likely be available in early 2013, at which time 
NMFS will determine if the Atlantic Trawl Gear Take Reduction Team will 
meet to review and discuss possible measures to reduce bycatch to below 
PBR.
    Comment 24: According to the draft SAR, the population estimate for 
white-sided dolphin is based upon ``the sum of the 2006 and 2007 
surveys,'' yet the 2006 and 2007 surveys covered an area where you 
would not expect to find components of the white-sided dolphin stock 
and was conducted during a time when you would expect low observations, 
resulting in low estimates. Why is there no ``Current Population Trend 
Analysis'' for this stock? What are the results of the 2008, 2009, 2010 
surveys for the white-sided dolphins?
    Response: See response to comment 23.
    Comment 25: The estimate of Nmin for white-sided dolphin is the 
only case in the Atlantic Ocean in 2011 in which the population 
estimate fluctuated more than 1% in either direction, in fact it was 
reduced by about 60%. This reduction has caused the stock to be 
considered strategic, a designation that usually triggers a take 
reduction team meeting and possibly the implementation of additional 
regulations with serious negative impacts on the fishing fleets. What 
additional analyses will be conducted to verify this estimate? Why 
would the Agency initiate a Take Reduction Team without the results of 
Spring/Fall Surveys conducted in 2011 and 2012?
    Response: See response to comment 23.
    Comment 26: The draft 2011 white-sided dolphin SAR contains the 
statement that ``The total number of white-sided dolphins along the 
eastern U.S. and Canadian Atlantic coast is unknown.'' The Summary 
Table 1 for all ``Atlantic Marine Mammal Stocks'' shows that the Nmin 
and PBR estimates for 19 stocks are considered ``unknown'', and that 32 
other separate stocks are considered ``undetermined.'' Why is the Nmin 
& PBR for white-sided dolphin not ``unknown'' or ``undetermined''? What 
is the justification for a ``strategic'' designation?
    Response: To clarify this section, NMFS has reworded the text in 
the SAR to read ``Abundance estimates of white-sided dolphins from 
various portions of their range are available * * *.''. The designation 
of a population estimate as ``unknown'' is used for stocks which are 
rarely seen in surveys and thus no estimates can be generated. The 
designation ``undetermined'' is used for the PBR of a stock with 
abundance estimates too old to be used in the PBR calculation. Atlantic 
white-sided dolphins became strategic because the best abundance 
estimate resulted in a PBR that was lower than the mortality estimate. 
It is recognized, however, that the inter-annual variability of recent 
white-sided dolphin estimates has been high, and, as mentioned above, 
this is something NMFS is investigating.
    Comment 27: The draft 2011 gray seal SAR states that ``Present data 
are insufficient to calculate the minimum population estimate for U.S. 
waters.'' Identical statements have been made in every Marine Mammal 
Stock Assessment since 2005. Furthermore, the draft 2011 SAR states 
that ``Current estimates of the total western Atlantic gray seal 
population are not available.''

[[Page 29974]]

We strongly recommend that resources be immediately devoted to 
delivering a valid determination.
    Response: See response to comment 10.
    Comment 28: The draft 2011 Gulf of Maine humpback whale SAR states 
that ``Not all whales migrate to the West Indies every winter * * *.'' 
As a minor point of clarification, the only direct support for 
overwintering by this stock is in the Gulf of Maine, where a small 
number of individual juveniles have been re-sighted across a winter 
season (Clapham et al., 1993; Robbins, 2007). It has not yet been 
determined whether whales observed off the mid-Atlantic and southeast 
U.S. necessarily overwinter.
    Response: NMFS agrees that more research is needed to determine 
whether these whales remain in the Gulf of Maine. NMFS maintains that 
the sentence is accurate as written, as it does not specify wintering 
grounds.
    Comment 29: There is a long paragraph in the draft report that 
discusses changes in the spatial distribution of Gulf of Maine humpback 
whales in relation to prey abundance. I suggest that this paragraph be 
revised, as it is now quite dated and missing information from more 
recent years.
    Response: The paragraph is still accurate and discusses an 
important aspect of humpback ecology.
    Comment 30: Robbins (2009) calculated the minimum number of Gulf of 
Maine humpback whales alive in 2003 to be 783 individuals. This was 
based on the number photo-identified in 2003 plus the whales that were 
seen both before and after that year. This number was calculated based 
on intensive research effort as part of the MONAH project and is likely 
the best minimum estimate available for this population.
    Response: The 2003 estimate to which the commenter refers has 
considerable unquantifiable uncertainty due to its age. As recommended 
in the Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks Workshop Report 
(Wade and Angliss 1997), abundance estimates older than eight years 
should not be used for calculationing PBR.
    Comment 31: The draft 2011 Gulf of Maine humpback whale SAR states 
that 6.5% growth is close to the theoretical maximum for this 
population, while it appears to have been calculated using only the 
observed survival and reproduction values from the same time period. 
Seeing as none of the population growth rate estimates are current, I 
am uncertain of the value of comparing them to a theoretical maximum. 
Zerbini et al. (2010) is now the most recent reference for this work.
    Response: NMFS has added references and raised Rmax in the SAR for 
this stock based on the literature referenced. Given regional 
variability across different ecosystems and MMPA's precautionary 
appraoch, NMFS will not apply the global theoretical value noted in 
Zerbini, et al. (2010).
    Comment 32: Previous Gulf of Maine humpback whale SARs have 
considered unassigned human-caused serious injury and mortality cases 
to be all or none Gulf of Maine whales. I suggest that takes instead be 
allocated probabilistically based on the proportion of Gulf of Maine 
whales identified in these areas.
    Response: Unless proven to be from a different stock, NMFS assigns 
Gulf of Maine humpback whale human-caused mortality or serious injury 
cases first discovered in U.S. waters to the Gulf of Maine stock. This 
is the most risk-averse approach for the stock. Given the very small 
sample sizes of serious injuries and mortalities for this stock, it is 
not practicable to allocate takes probabilistically.
    Comment 33: Minimum serious injury and mortality determinations may 
not be appropriate for comparison to PBR based on studies evaluating 
the effectiveness of PBR with underestimated mortality (Wade, 1998). I 
recommend that further work be done to assess the appropriateness of a 
minimum mortality metric for comparison to PBR or evaluate the possible 
effect on stocks using a plausible range of mortality estimates.
    Response: NMFS is considering adopting this approach and, once the 
methods are vetted and approved, will include it in future stock 
assessments.
    Comment 34: The information presented for scar-based studies of 
entanglement is outdated. Current results and inferences should be 
drawn from the most recent technical reports (Robbins, 2009, 2010, 
2011). For example, data support that juveniles (not just yearlings) 
are more likely to be entangled, and that less than 10% of 
entanglements are reported annually, with approximately 3% of the 
population dying from entanglement each year. Benjamins et al. (2011) 
is now the most current publication on humpback whale entanglements off 
Newfoundland.
    Response: The commenter listed two publications not available until 
after the draft 2011 SAR was made available to the public. This 
information will be incorporated into the 2012 SAR as appropriate.

Comments on Pacific Regional Reports

    Comment 35: The Commission recommends that NMFS conduct the 
necessary surveys to update SARs for harbor seals along the Oregon and 
Washington coasts and in Washington inland waters.
    Response: The Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Northwest 
Regional Office requested funding for both harbor seal and harbor 
porpoise surveys in 2011; however, these surveys were not funded.
    Comment 36: The Commission recommends that NMFS maintain and 
enhance existing collaborations to obtain the data necessary to 
generate stock assessments for all Pacific Island cetaceans within U.S. 
jurisdiction, and to seek new opportunities, such as collaborating with 
the Navy, to leverage resources for accomplishing this challenging 
task.
    Response: NMFS agrees and is actively engaged in collaborative 
research within the Pacific Islands region to generate the data 
necessary for future stock assessments. In 2011 and in 2012, the U.S. 
Navy provided partial support to NMFS for surveys in the Marianas 
regions, a partnership NMFS hopes to maintain in to the future in order 
to satisfy NMFS and Navy mandates.
    Comment 37: Though the region may have reviewed the stock 
assessments for the ESA-listed stocks (e.g., blue whales, humpback 
whales, etc.), there is no mention made of this. In fact, there is new 
information for a number of these stocks, and their SARs should have 
been revised to provide it. As one example, the most recent mortality 
data in the Eastern North Pacific blue whale SAR is for 2008, but there 
is documentation of mortality to at least one blue whale in 2009. 
Importantly, this particular instance was in a NOAA-contracted research 
vessel, and the region lacks an Incidental Take Authorization for 
research-related mortality.
    Response: The SARs for all strategic stocks (including stocks for 
which strategic status is due to listing under the ESA) are reviewed 
annually, as required. The inclusion of a relatively small change in 
estimated mortality or abundance would not change the status of these 
stocks nor provide for a more accurate assessment of their status. 
Although NMFS attempts to update SARs when information becomes 
available (whether the new information would change the status or not), 
some minor changes might not be incorporated into a SAR in any given 
year.

[[Page 29975]]

    Comment 38: NMFS should update the false killer whale abundance 
estimate based on recent surveys as soon as possible.
    Response: NMFS plans to update the false killer whale SAR to 
include a new abundance estimate from the 2011 survey as soon as the 
analyses are completed and have been peer-reviewed.
    Comment 39: While the primary cause for the decline in Hawaiian 
monk seals is limited food availability, this assessment should include 
more information about the loss of pupping habitat due to sea level 
rise which will continue to threaten the monk seals. Additionally, 
Hawaiian monk seals on the Main Hawaiian Islands are increasingly 
injured by fishing hooks, and the use of barbless hooks could reduce 
serious injuries. There is newer information on the Main Hawaiian 
Islands population that should be incorporated into the stock 
assessment. A series of articles on Hawaiian monk seals was published 
in a special issue of Aquatic Mammals 37:1 (2011).
    Response: Regarding sea level rise, the SAR notes this as a 
potential threat and cites the single research paper that analyzes 
this. There is no additional information to characterize the threat at 
this time, though additional analysis of climate impacts on the 
Northwest Hawaiian Islands is currently underway. Regarding hooking 
incidents within the Main Hawaiian Islands, the SAR contains updated 
information through 2008, the most recent when the SAR was drafted in 
2010. The Main Hawaiian Island monk seal population is estimated to be 
growing robustly despite the unknown fisheries interaction rate. 
Therefore, while the absolute number of hookings appears to be growing, 
it is not possible to determine whether the rates of hooking, injury or 
mortality is changing significantly.
    The noted Aquatic Mammals special issue was published after the 
2011 SAR was drafted in 2010. The SAR is not meant to review all 
aspects of research and management of the species, but instead focuses 
on stock assessment issues prescribed to be addressed in the current 
Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks. Critical habitat 
revisions for Hawaiian monk seals would be covered at such time that a 
new critical habitat designation occurs.
    Comment 40: The stock assessment for long-beaked common dolphin 
should be updated due to new information. At least three dolphins died 
as a result of an underwater blast during Navy training exercises. Two 
additional dolphins were found dead later, which may have been related 
to the exercise off the San Diego coast.
    Response: A draft 2012 SAR for long-beaked common dolphin is 
currently in revision and will be released for public review in mid-
2012. This SAR will include information on the blast trauma incident.
    Comment 41: A number of stocks have abundance estimates that were 
becoming outdated (i.e., 8 or more years old) and yet were provided 
with PBRs (e.g., Spinner dolphins--Hawaiian Islands, Short-finned pilot 
whales--Hawaii stock). We see that the final SARs for these stocks that 
were not reviewed this year still retain this information even though 
population abundance estimates were based on a now-outdated 2002 
survey. This is also true for some stocks in the current SARs. Where 
surveys are from 2002 or prior years, SARs should be corrected such 
that PBRs based on outdated information default to ``undetermined.''
    Response: Draft 2013 SARs for all Hawaiian stocks will include new 
abundance information based on the 2010 survey. Those reports were not 
revised in 2011 because the status of those stocks with outdated 
abundance estimates will not change, i.e. changing the PBRs to 
``undetermined'' would not change the status of those stock from ``not 
strategic'' to ``strategic.''
    Comment 42: It would seem important for the region to speculate on 
possible reasons for the decline in harbor seal California stock counts 
between 2005 and 2009 (as illustrated in Figure 2). It is striking and 
begs explanation.
    Response: A similar decline in counts was observed in 1993 (shown 
in Fig. 2 of the SAR), with subsequent year counts rebounding to levels 
previously observed in 1991 and 1992. Declines in any given year may 
result from inter-annual oceanographic variability, which can influence 
the amount of time animals spend foraging away from haulouts (e.g., 
during El Nino periods, animals may spend more time away from land, 
which would result in lower survey counts). The number of animals 
ashore may vary considerably depending on the time of day, weather, 
tidal phase, or prey availability (Harvey and Goley 2011). While 
surveys are conducted to coincide with low tides that are generally 
favorable for observing the maximum number of animals ashore, weather 
and other logistics do not always allow for surveys to be conducted at 
optimal times, contributing to the inter-annual variability in counts. 
NMFS is planning to conduct a harbor seal survey during 2012 and will 
re-evaluate trends when these data have been analyzed.
    Comment 43: Although we recognize that the harbor seals--WA/OR 
stock and WA inland waters stock SAR was not reviewed or revised since 
2010, we wish to point out that it states that tribal subsistence takes 
may be occurring. It should be noted that these takes are illegal in 
the absence of a waiver of the requirements of the MMPA.
    Response: The SARs include all takes of marine mammals reported by 
Northwest Tribes. MMPA section 117(a) explicitly lists the information 
that should be included in the SARs. Section 117(a) requires 
identifying authorized and unauthorized take. Accordingly, such 
language is inappropriate for the SARs. The NOAA Office for Law 
Enforcement conducts investigations into complaints of potential 
violations of the MMPA involving all citizens within the jurisdiction 
of the United States.
    Comment 44: According to information at the start of the Harbor 
Porpoise: Northern Oregon/Washington Coast SAR, it was prepared in 
April 2011. The most recent abundance survey is stated to be September 
2002. This arguably exceeds the 8-year guideline for considering 
estimates to be outdated. Although most of the verbiage in the section 
on ``other mortality'' is not changed from the prior SAR, we are 
concerned that there is so little fishery-related mortality documented 
in the tables and discussion that precede that section. Despite this, 
the section states that in the 2006-2007 UME, where cause of death 
could be attributed, much of it was due to trauma and ``[s]uspected or 
confirmed fishery interactions were the primary cause of adult/subadult 
traumatic injuries.'' This might suggest that unobserved fisheries are 
having an impact that is not properly accounted.
    Response: In both the Northern Oregon/Washington Coast and the 
Washington Inland Waters harbor porpoise SARs, the last sentence in the 
Population Size section states ``However, because the most recent 
abundance estimate is >8 years old, there is no current estimate of 
abundance available for this stock.''
    The Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Northwest Regional 
Office requested funding for both harbor seal and harbor porpoise 
surveys in 2011; however, these surveys were not funded in 2011. The 
Southwest Fisheries Science Center will analyze aerial surveys that 
have been conducted for leatherback sea turtles in 2010-2011 to 
determine whether there are sufficient harbor porpoise sightings to 
estimate

[[Page 29976]]

their abundance in waters off of Washington and Oregon. Recent vessel 
surveys may also be used to estimate the abundance of harbor porpoise 
in Washington inland waters.
    Comment 45: In the harbor porpoise Washington Inland Waters SAR, we 
continue to be concerned that tribal gillnet fisheries are unobserved. 
Gillnet gear is implicated in harbor porpoise deaths wherever they co-
occur, and the SAR indicates that there are even some limited self-
reports of interactions with this stock. As the region acknowledged in 
a prior (1999) SAR for this same stock of harbor porpoise ``* * * 
because logbook records (fisher self-reports required during 1990-94) 
are most likely negatively biased (Credle et al., 1994), these are 
considered to be minimum estimates.'' Perhaps a similar caveat should 
be re-inserted, and the region should make a concerted effort to work 
with tribes to try to better quantify interactions.
    Response: NMFS continues to encourage tribal co-managers to obtain 
and provide information on interactions between tribal fishermen and 
marine mammals. At this time, self-reporting is the only source of 
information on bycatch of marine mammals in all Pacific Northwest 
salmon gillnet fisheries (non-treaty and treaty), and based on the 
analysis by Credle et al. (1994), self-reports represent minimum 
estimates.
    Comment 46: In response to comments on the draft 2010 SARs 
regarding evidence of at least two populations of melon-headed whales 
in Hawaiian waters, NMFS stated that new information would be included 
in the 2011 SARs. However no updated report for melon-headed whales in 
Hawaiian waters is presented in the draft 2011 SARs.
    Response: Melon-headed whales, with all other stocks in Hawaiian 
waters, will be updated in 2013. Non-strategic stocks are reviewed 
every three years, such that the next review and update will occur in 
2013.
    Comment 47: For the Hawaii Pelagic stock of false killer whale, the 
Status of Stock Section notes that ``no habitat issues are known to be 
of concern for this stock.'' However, two habitat issues identified in 
the draft SAR for the Hawaii Insular Stock, elevated levels of PCBs and 
declines in the biomass of some false killer whale prey species in 
Hawaiian waters also apply to this stock.
    Response: There are no published reports that address 
polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels in pelagic false killer whales, 
and it is inappropriate to assume that a pelagic population would be 
exposed to these pollutants at the same level as an island-associated 
stock that feeds closer to land-based pollution sources. We have added 
text to the SAR acknowledging the potential impacts of reductions in 
biomass of some prey species.
    Comment 48: The NMFS delineation of Pacific false killer whale 
stocks is artificial and inaccurate.
    Response: NMFS has previously responded to this and related 
comments (see 73 FR 21111, April 18, 2008, Comment 47; 74 FR 19530, 
April 29, 2009, Comment 34; 75 FR 100316, March 16, 2010, Comment 53; 
and 76 FR 34054, June 10, 2011, comment 52) and reiterates that the 
stock division for false killer whales is consistent with the MMPA and 
with NMFS 2005 Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks, which 
were finalized after opportunity for public review and comment, and 
provide guidance on abundance and PBR of transboundary stocks. Since 
the response to previous comments, the evidence for multiple stocks of 
false killer whales in the central North Pacific has only grown 
stronger (see Chivers et al., 2010, referenced in the SAR). Further, as 
noted in Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal Stocks, the lack of 
genetic differences among false killer whale samples from the broader 
eastern North Pacific region does not imply that these animals are from 
a single Pacific stock.
    Comment 49: NMFS's abundance estimate for the pelagic stock of 
false killer whales is inaccurate, arbitrary, and not based on the best 
available science.
    Response: The abundance estimate for the pelagic stock of false 
killer whales was derived from peer-reviewed and well-established 
statistical methods for treating line-transect survey data. A new 
survey was recently completed, as referenced in the 2011 SAR, and the 
data from that survey are currently undergoing analysis. Using the new 
data, false killer whale abundance estimates will be revised for the 
2012 SARs.
    Comment 50: The draft false killer whale SAR determinations 
regarding the insular stock are inaccurate and arbitrary. Specifically, 
it inaccurately represents that the Insular Stock is ``declining;'' it 
wrongly assigns a deep-set fishery false killer whale interaction to 
the Insular Stock; and it improperly uses a recovery factor of 0.1 to 
calculate PBR for the Insular Stock.
    Response: NMFS has previously responded to this and similar 
comments (see 75 FR 12505, March 16, 2010, comment 57; 76 FR 34054, 
June 10, 2011, comment 54) and reiterates the scientific information 
supporting the decline has been peer-reviewed and clearly outlines the 
data and basis for their conclusions. There is no attributed cause of 
this decline within the SAR, and fisheries have not been implicated at 
this time. The assignment of take within the insular-pelagic overlap 
zone is supported by the 2005 Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal 
Stocks. The recovery factor of 0.1 is also appropriate given the 
proposed listing and is supported by the Pacific SRG.
    Comment 51: NMFS arbitrarily picks and chooses which information it 
will use to support the draft SAR.
    Response: NMFS has previously responded to this comment (see 76 FR 
34054, June 10, 2011, comment 56).
    Comment 52: In the draft SAR, NMFS implements two new changes that 
result in the allocation of additional false killer whale interactions 
to the fisheries. NMFS assigns a proportion of false killer whale 
interactions for which no injury determination has been made and 
assigns a proportion of ``blackfish'' interactions as false killer 
whale interactions that also count against the fisheries. Neither of 
these changes in methodology is reasonable or lawful. In the first 
instance, NMFS proposes to categorize certain interactions as ``serious 
injuries'' when, in fact, no data exist from which NMFS is able to 
ascertain whether the specific interactions in question were serious or 
not. In the second instance, NMFS proposes to categorize certain 
interactions as false killer whale interactions when, in fact, no data 
exist from which NMFS can reliably determine that the interactions in 
question involved false killer whales. In both cases, interactions are 
unfairly counted against the fisheries in the absence of data.
    Response: The NMFS 2005 Guidelines for Assessing Marine Mammal 
Stocks state ``* * * in some cases, mortality occurs in areas where 
more than one stock of marine mammals occurs. When biological 
information (e.g., genetics, morphology) is sufficient to identify the 
stock from which a dead animal came, then the mortality should be 
associated only with that stock. When a dead animal cannot be assigned 
directly to a stock, then mortality may be partitioned by the 
abundances of the stocks vulnerable to the mortality (i.e., based on 
the abundances of each stock within the appropriate geographic area), 
provided there is sufficient information on stock abundance. When 
mortality is partitioned among overlapping stocks proportional to the 
abundances of the affected stocks, the reports will contain a 
discussion of the potential for over or

[[Page 29977]]

under-estimating stock-specific mortality.'' Regarding allocation of 
serious injury/mortality of ``blackfish,'' these animals were 
identified as either false killer whales or pilot whales, and to 
exclude them from the reports would underestimate mortality. The 
prorating of unidentified animals was recommended and reviewed by the 
Pacific SRG in 2009 and 2010.
    Comment 53: The Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management 
Council notes an inconsistent application of the underlying assumptions 
in calculating PBR between the Hawaiian monk seal and Hawaii insular 
stock of false killer whale. The draft 2011 SAR reports that the 
population of Hawaii insular stock of false killer whales has exhibited 
a statistically significant decline in recent decades, and that model 
results indicate current declines at an average rate of 9% since 1989. 
It is not clear from the draft 2011 SAR why the Hawaiian insular stock 
of false killer whales fails to meet the underlying assumptions of the 
PBR calculation.
    Response: The PBR framework was designed to maintain stocks as 
functioning elements of their ecosystem in the face of anthropogenic 
removals. If a stock is below its Optimum Sustainable Population and 
all anthropogenic factors have been removed, the population should 
presumably grow. If there are no fishery takes driving the population 
down (like monk seals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands) and the 
population is still declining, then the stock dynamics are not 
conforming to the assumptions of PBR. Long-term and detailed 
demographic data are available for monk seals in the Northwest Hawaiian 
Islands, where most of the stock resides. These data provide 
unequivocal evidence that the population is declining in the Northwest 
Hawaiian Islands overall. Further, the current lack of any fisheries in 
the Northwest Hawaiian Islands means that direct fishery takes cannot 
be responsible for the decline. Other factors (prey limitation, 
entanglement in marine debris, shark predation and male seal 
aggression) are known contributors to the decline. The fact that 
Hawaiian monk seals are declining despite the lack of direct fishery 
takes in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands is the basis for the conclusion 
that the stock does not conform to PBR assumptions. The decline in 
Hawaiian insular false killer whales is not as well understood, and a 
cause cannot be absolutely attributed. As described in Oleson et al. 
(2010), it is highly likely that fishery interactions have impacted 
insular false killer whales, even if other environmental factors also 
impact that population. For this reason, application of PBR for this 
stock is appropriate.
    Comment 54: The reported declining trend of the Hawaiian insular 
stock of false killer whales is inconsistent with NMFS' own best 
population estimate of the stock over the last decade. The abundance 
estimate of the insular population has, at minimum, remained stable 
since the 2000 SAR. At the time, an abundance estimate of 121 false 
killer whales was used based on calculations made in 2000 using aerial 
surveys conducted in 1993, 1995, and 1998 within approximately 25 nm of 
the Main Hawaiian Islands. The draft 2011 SAR estimates the current 
abundance at 170 false killer whales. The population, therefore, has 
not declined for at least 10 years and likely since the 1993 aerial 
survey, thus contradicting the population trend results derived in the 
Status Review of Hawaiian insular false killer whales.
    Response: The draft 2011 SAR discusses the decline of insular false 
killer whales following the Biological Review conducted for this 
population under the ESA. The Biological Review Team agreed that the 
Mobley et al. (2000) abundance estimate of 121 individuals was 
negatively biased because observers were not able to detect groups 
below the plane and no adjustment was made for this or for animals that 
were submerged when the aircraft passed overhead in the calculation of 
abundance from those surveys, as is suggested in Buckland et al. (2001) 
``Introduction to Distance Sampling.'' The 1993 to 1997 estimates also 
carry high uncertainty due to the unsurveyed 400 m wide strip 
underneath the plane. For these reasons, the Biological Review Team 
felt that the 1993 to 1997 estimate of 121 animals was unreliable and 
chose, instead, to use the encounter rate from each individual aerial 
survey in its assessment of population trend and extinction risk. The 
1993 to 1997 aerial surveys may also be negatively biased due to the 
small average group size reported, suggesting that the aerial observers 
did not see the entire group. More recent analyses by Baird et al. 
(2008) have indicated that group size is positively related to 
encounter duration and that boat-based encounters less than two hours 
generally yield an underestimate of total group size. When circling 
small groups in an airplane, sub-groups on the periphery of the circled 
group can easily be missed, especially when observers are focused on 
obtaining group size estimates for the group being circled. For these 
reasons, it is inappropriate to directly compare the 2000 versus 2010 
estimates of population size for false killer whales. The Population 
Viability Analysis conducted by the Biological Review Team assessed all 
data sources, including those available from the 1990s aerial surveys, 
and derived the 9% average decline in a statistically robust analysis.
    Comment 55: The Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management 
Council comments that NMFS continues to use an outdated minimum 
population estimate to calculate PBR for the Hawaii pelagic stock of 
false killer whales, despite compelling evidence from the recent 
Hawaiian Island Cetacean and Ecosystem. Assessment Survey (HICEAS) II 
survey in 2010 that the population is much greater than estimated using 
the old surveys. NMFS acknowledges that the 2010 survey had a six-fold 
increase in encounter rate than the 2002 survey, but makes no attempt 
to reflect the new survey results and simply ``retains'' the old 
minimum population estimate of 249 false killer whales. Preliminary 
analysis results of the 2010 survey, presented at the Pacific SRG 
meeting held November 7-9, 2011, estimated a higher minimum population 
estimate.
    Response: The draft 2011 SAR is based on data and analyses that 
were available at the time it was drafted. The results presented at the 
November, 2011, SRG meeting were intended to provide a preliminary look 
at the analysis framework employed to derive estimates for the 2012 
SARs. Final analyses of the HICEAS II survey data are not complete at 
this time. As a result, it is inappropriate to use interim results that 
NMFS and the SRG feel inadequately represent the uncertainty inherent 
in the data sets that underestimate uncertainty and overestimate the 
minimum abundance. The new estimates will be included in the 2012 draft 
SARs.

Comments on Alaska Regional Reports

    Comment 56: The draft SAR incorrectly allocates a single 
interaction to different central North Pacific humpback whale sub-
stocks.
    Response: Where there is considerable uncertainty to which stock a 
serious injury or mortality should be assigned, NMFS exercises a 
conservative approach of assessing the potential impact of the serious 
injury or mortality to both stocks. If information were available 
regarding the location of take, genetics of the taken animal, or other 
conclusive information linking the serious injury or mortality to a 
specific stock, NMFS would use to assign the take to a specific stock.

[[Page 29978]]

    Comment 57: The Commission recommends that NMFS consider the 
impending changes in the Arctic and develop a long-term assessment 
strategy that will provide a reliable basis for characterizing 
population abundance, stock status, and trends, as well as implementing 
protective measures that will minimize the effects of Arctic climate 
disruption on the viability of marine mammal stocks.
    Response: NMFS understands that the viability of Arctic marine 
mammals in the context of a rapidly changing environment is a concern. 
NMFS will assess Arctic marine mammal abundance, trends, stock 
identification, foraging ecology, and vital rates, and how these 
features change in response to environmental and anthropogenic 
perturbations, as resources become available.
    Comment 58: The Commission recommends that NMFS substantially 
increase its efforts to (1) collaborate with the Alaska Native 
community to monitor the abundance and distribution of ice seals and 
(2) use seals taken in the subsistence harvest to obtain data on 
demography, ecology, life history, behavior, health status, and other 
pertinent topics.
    Response: NMFS works closely with co-management partners and Alaska 
Native communities to collect stock assessment data on ice seals. NMFS 
would like to improve its collection of data on subsistence harvest, 
which has been hindered by resource limitations. NMFS is aware that 
there are no current abundance estimates for any of the four species of 
ice-associated seals: ribbon, bearded, spotted, and ringed seals. These 
species range across the Bering and Chukchi Seas, and conducting 
surveys of these areas requires substantial resources. Joint US-Russia 
surveys are planned for spring 2012 and 2013 and are expected to result 
in abundance estimates for ribbon and spotted seals. Surveys directed 
at collecting abundance of ringed and bearded seals will be conducted 
as resources become available.
    Comment 59: As the loss of ice in the Arctic progresses and 
industrial activities increase, increased ship traffic is expected 
through Unimak Pass and the Bering Strait. Shipping traffic transiting 
Unimak Pass on its way to and from the Bering Strait is likely to pass 
through the western portion of the critical habitat area designated in 
the southeast Bering Sea, putting right whales there at risk. The 
Commission recommends that NMFS do everything it can to ensure that all 
vessels operating in the area are aware of the need to protect the 
North Pacific right whale, and that every practicable step be taken to 
minimize the probability of entanglements and ship strikes.
    Response: Several protective measures and outreach activities are 
already in place to protect the North Pacific right whale, including 
providing information cards to vessels operating in Alaska waters. NMFS 
will continue to work with partners such as Sea Grant, commercial 
fishers, Native communities, academia, and other recreational and 
commercial vessel operators on outreach activities.
    Comment 60: The Commission recommends that NMFS continue its 
efforts to better describe the distribution and movement patterns of 
North Pacific right whales, especially with respect to their 
distribution during those periods when they are outside designated 
critical habitat.
    Response: NMFS recognizes the importance of monitoring the 
population status and movement patterns of the eastern stock of North 
Pacific right whales and will continue to seek resources to study this 
critically endangered population.
    Comment 61: The updating of ice seal SARs is welcome although we 
still have concerns regarding a lack of abundance data and recent or 
reliable estimates of Alaska Native harvest. Several SARs state that 
``[a]s of 2009, data on community subsistence harvests are no longer 
being collected * * *.'' This warrants an explanation.
    Response: NMFS recognizes the need for obtaining reliable estimates 
of subsistence harvests for all pinniped species in Alaska, including 
ice-dependent seal species. Due to funding limitations, the subsistence 
monitoring program conducted by Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 
which documents Steller sea lion and harbor seal subsistence hunts by 
village, is no longer supported by NMFS funds. Multi-year ice seal 
subsistence harvest studies have been started in specific communities 
by the Ice Seal Committee (six villages to date). This subsistence 
monitoring program will expand to other communities, with assistance 
from the Ice Seal Committee. Although some ice seal harvest data have 
been collected from specific villages, while other harvest data has 
been collected through tissue sampling programs and individual hunters, 
NMFS agrees that a full statewide subsistence monitoring program is 
necessary for ice seals, especially for any ESA-listed stocks.
    Comment 62: Many fisheries with either a history of interactions or 
a high likelihood of interactions remain unobserved or inadequately 
observed. The region should prioritize funding for fishery observers 
for the many fisheries (largely gillnet fisheries) that may be 
interacting with species of concern (e.g., belugas, Pacific white sided 
dolphins, harbor porpoise, ice seals). The region should seek resources 
and advice on building a better system of deploying observers.
    Response: NMFS is working with fishing industry and Alaska state 
partners on implementing adaptive sampling in the federal observer 
program that covers fisheries managed by the State of Alaska. The 
adaptive sampling methods are designed to increase data collection 
efficiency. NMFS has recently directed funds to observer effort in 
nearshore drift gillnet fisheries in southeast Alaska.
    Comment 63: Habitat sections of many stock assessments discuss the 
potential for increased human activities as Arctic ice diminishes. The 
pressure for offshore exploration and extraction for oil and gas 
reserves continues as well. These activities that involve high 
intensity geophysical exploration and high levels of noise related to 
extraction (as well as increased vessel traffic) are not well addressed 
in the SARs.
    Response: NMFS does address habitat concerns pertaining to oil and 
gas activities, particularly for those stocks where there is a 
potential concern. SARs for specific stocks have extensive information 
on potential habitat concerns depending on what information is 
available for a particular stock. NMFS will continue to update the 
habitat section for those stocks as new information becomes available.
    Comment 64: Although Table 1 and text in the Steller sea lion 
Western stock SAR indicate a slow increase in numbers in the Gulf of 
Alaska, this is not evident for the Aleutians. The revised SAR 
discusses calculation of a PBR by adding language stating that ``some 
stocks of marine mammals in the U.S. with an obvious declining trend 
have been called `undetermined,' '' but the region does not propose 
this approach for this stock. We understand that the stock is not 
declining throughout its range, but the justification for not 
calculating a PBR because a downward trend is not anthropogenic in 
origin is erroneous. Hawaiian monk seals are declining for reasons that 
are not primarily anthropogenic, but the Pacific region has taken a 
more precautionary approach. We suggest the same here.
    Response: NMFS states that an ``undetermined'' PBR is not being 
proposed for the western Steller sea lion stock. A PBR of 253 animals 
has been calculated for this stock. Because direct human-related 
mortalities are at a low

[[Page 29979]]

level and are unlikely to either be responsible for the decline or to 
contribute substantially towards extinction risk, calling the PBR level 
``undetermined'' is unnecessarily conservative for this population of 
over 40,000 animals.
    Comment 65: The Steller sea lion Western stock SAR states that ``as 
of 2009, data on community subsistence harvests are no longer being 
collected.'' The PBR is calculated for the stock as 253 animals. The 
most recent data through 2008 indicate that the average harvest is 198. 
The addition of fishery-related mortality of 29 brings that estimate to 
227. As such, the total anthropogenic mortalities to this stock are 
approaching--and may even exceed--the PBR.
    Response: Previous responses (75 FR 12498, March 16, 2010, Comment 
19; 76 FR 34054, June 10, 2011, Comment 11) have addressed comments 
pertaining to the need for current and accurate estimates of 
subsistence takes for pinnipeds in Alaska, including the western stock 
of Steller sea lions. The State of Alaska discontinued its collection 
of subsistence harvest information, and NMFS has insufficient resources 
to obtain up-to-date estimates of subsistence hunting of pinnipeds and 
will retain old information, with appropriate dates and caveats if 
necessary.
    Comment 66: The section on ``other mortality'' in the Steller sea 
lion Eastern stock SAR does not mention the deaths of Steller sea lions 
in traps set in the Columbia River on the Oregon/Washington border. In 
2008, two Steller sea lions from this Distinct Population Segment died 
in traps set in the Columbia River as part of a state lethal taking 
program aimed at California sea lions (NMFS 2011). These deaths should 
be included in the count provided in the SAR.
    Response: NMFS appreciates the commenter bringing this oversight to 
our attention. NMFS has updated the final 2011 SARs and incorporated 
these events into mortality estimates for this stock.
    Comment 67: The SAR for Beluga whales: Beaufort sea stock 
acknowledges that abundance data are too old to calculate a PBR, which 
remains ``undetermined.'' Yet the ``status of the stock'' section of 
the SAR says that ``the estimated annual level of human-caused 
mortality (126) is not known to exceed the PBR (324).'' This should be 
removed. PBR is undetermined.
    Response: NMFS and the Alaska SRG agree, and the PBR level has been 
changed to ``undetermined'' for this stock.
    Comment 68: The SAR for Beluga whales: Eastern Bering sea stock 
acknowledges that a PBR cannot be calculated yet states under status of 
the stock that ``the level of incidental mortality in commercial 
fisheries is considered to be insignificant.'' Without a PBR this 
statement cannot be made.
    Response: NMFS appreciates the commenter bringing this error to 
their attention. This final 2011 SAR states that the estimated minimum 
annual mortality rate incidental to U.S. commercial fisheries is 0.0. 
The estimated overall human-caused mortality and serious injury is 193 
based on subsistence harvest. The SAR has been modified as the 
commenter suggested.
    Comment 69: The Beluga whale: Cook Inlet stock still faces risk 
with a calculated rate of decline that is approximately one percent per 
year. The section on Habitat acknowledges many development projects 
within their range. The section on ``Habitat Concerns'' should be 
expanded to include a general listing of the types of projects approved 
with more information on the impacts to the stock and its habitat and 
with appropriate concern regarding potential challenges to recovery.
    Response: NMFS has previously responded to this and similar 
comments (75 FR 12498, March 16, 2010, Comment 1), and specifically to 
the ``habitat concerns'' section of the Cook Inlet beluga SAR (76 FR 
34054, June 10, 2011, Comment 22).
    Comment 70: There is a note in the 2009 SAR for the Southeast 
Alaska harbor porpoise stock that an abundance estimate was expected in 
2010. The delay is lamentable and needs remedy. We continue to be 
concerned that observer coverage is lacking for so many gillnet 
fisheries in the range of the various harbor porpoise stocks in Alaska. 
The region needs to provide better observer coverage either aboard 
fishing vessels or from alternative platforms. Further, takes of 
porpoise in native subsistence nets in the Bering Sea in particular 
appear poorly documented. The region should update all stock abundance 
estimates on a priority basis and adopt a more robust observer program 
for state and federally managed gillnet fisheries.
    Response: NMFS is working on developing a new survey design in 
order to obtain an abundance estimate for waters within Southeast 
Alaska. Previous survey data are being analyzed to examine trends for 
the areas that have been consistently surveyed over consecutive years. 
In order to fully understand trend results from this study, the survey 
area needs to be expanded to include a more comprehensive survey of 
harbor porpoise habitat. NMFS is focusing resources for harbor porpoise 
surveys in Southeast Alaska, where populations overlap with commercial 
fisheries and may incur incidental mortalities and serious injuries. An 
observer program will be implemented beginning in summer 2012 in the 
Southeast Alaska commercial salmon drift gillnet fishery that overlaps 
with the distribution of harbor porpoise.
    In addition to the observer program being implemented beginning in 
2012, the Alaska Region is seeking additional funding to broaden the 
observer program for gillnet and purse seine fisheries, as well as 
exploring alternative mitigation measures to reduce bycatch in 
fisheries known to take harbor porpoises. There are no requirements 
that harbor porpoise mortalities in subsistence nets be reported to 
NMFS, so these mortalities will continue to be documented to the extent 
possible.
    Comment 71: The sperm whale SAR, and previous SARs for this 
endangered species, list the abundance, trend and PBR as ``unknown'' 
constantly. The NMFS should consider how best to remedy this situation.
    Response: NMFS agrees that an abundance estimate, trend, and PBR 
are needed for sperm whales in Alaska and will continue to seek 
resources for necessary surveys.
    Comment 72: Baird's beaked whale, Cuvier's beaked whale, and 
Stejneger's beaked whale stocks have unknown abundance estimates. While 
the potential impact from anthropogenic noise is acknowledged as a 
concern for this stock, we are concerned that the lack of understanding 
of its status will hamper the agency's ability to reliably assess or 
mitigate impacts from the increasing proposals for ocean energy 
development, much of which utilizes intense sound for geophysical 
exploration and construction for extraction.
    Response: NMFS agrees that it is necessary to increase the 
understanding of the abundance, distribution and movements, demographic 
parameters, natural history, and ecology of beaked whale species in 
Alaska. With limited resources available, NMFS and external 
collaborators are considering alternative methods to best monitor and 
mitigate the potential effects of noise on these species.
    Comment 73: No revisions have been made to the eastern North 
Pacific gray

[[Page 29980]]

whale stock definition and geographic range section, despite the 
availability of recent information that would seem to require updating. 
It is not clear that all anthropogenic mortalities to this stock have 
been accounted through 2009. While the section on habitat concerns 
recognizes the potential increase for oil and gas exploration and 
extraction, these proposal have been increasing rapidly.
    Response: NMFS, with concurrence from the Alaska SRG, determined 
that not enough information was available to warrant any changes to the 
status of the stock section for the 2011 eastern North Pacific SAR. 
Updated mortality and serious injury data is included in the SAR from 
several sources, including the NMFS stranding network. Only records 
that are confirmed human interactions and injuries determined to be 
serious are reported in the SARs. NMFS has included information on the 
potential risk factors, including oil and gas exploration and 
extraction, and will continue to update the habitat concerns section as 
necessary.
    Comment 74: We were disappointed to see the limited changes to the 
humpback whale SARs. Other than updated fishery-related mortality, 
there were virtually no changes. One change that should be made is 
mentioning the status review that the NMFS is undertaking for humpback 
whales worldwide, relative to their listing. Clearly fishery-related 
mortality and serious injury is underestimated. The SAR for Central 
North Pacific Humpbacks mentions vessel collisions in Alaska but pays 
little attention to collisions in the wintering area of Hawaii. There 
are reports of increasing collisions in Hawaii that do not appear to be 
simply an artifact of increased reporting or increasing humpback 
populations (Lammers et al., 2007).
    Response: Both Alaska humpback whale stocks are strategic stocks 
and reviewed annually. Both SARs underwent extensive changes in 2010, 
and very little new information has become available since that 
revision. NMFS conducts an extensive review of all humpback whale 
mortality and serious injury records from multiple sources for the two 
Alaska stocks each year. Serious injury determinations for these events 
are reported in the SARs, including reports of serious injury records 
from Hawaii. NMFS will report on any additional serious injuries for 
the two Alaska humpback whale stocks in the 2012 SARs.
    Comment 75: Ice seals: The recent stock assessment reports 
appropriately discuss the impact of sea ice loss and carbon dioxide 
pollution on ringed, bearded, and spotted seals. They could benefit 
from additional information concerning these threats. NMFS should also 
prioritize studies to determine actual population size, trends, and PBR 
for these stocks. All of these stocks should be considered strategic. 
The ribbon seal assessment should also include the sea ice and carbon 
dioxide language and should be listed as strategic.
    Response: MMPA section 117(3) contains directions for including 
risk factors in SARs, which includes summarizing effects on marine 
mammal habitat that may be causing a decline or impeding recovery for 
strategic stocks. NMFS does not consider it necessary to expand on 
these topics in the SAR at this time. NMFS agrees that it is necessary 
to increase the understanding of the distribution and movements, 
demographic parameters, natural history, and ecology of ringed, 
bearded, ribbon, and spotted seals in Alaska (see 75 FR 12498, March 
16, 2010, Comment 5). At this time, none of these stocks qualify to be 
designated as strategic under the MMPA definition of a strategic stock. 
Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia DPS of bearded seals have been 
proposed for listing as threatened under the ESA primarily due to the 
risk posed by significant habitat loss projected within the foreseeable 
future (see 75 FR 77476, December 10, 2010; and 75 FR 7775 FR 77512, 
December 10, 2010). We have no current and reliable data to determine 
whether these stocks are declining. However, should these population 
units be listed as threatened, they will then qualify as strategic 
stocks.
    Comment 76: The draft Harbor Seals Lake Iliamna SAR should consider 
designating the population of harbor seals in Lake Iliamna as a 
separate stock. Because there is no evidence of genetic interchange or 
breeding between Lake Iliamna harbor seals and the harbor seals of 
Bristol Bay, and because this is a unique freshwater population of 
harbor seals, with no other similar populations known to exist within 
the U.S., the population of seals in Lake Iliamna should be designated 
as a separate stock.
    Response: NMFS and co-management partners in the Alaska Native 
community designated 12 stocks of harbor seals based on local 
knowledge, as well as historical and recent data. NMFS is in the 
process of evaluating the evidence for discreteness of the harbor seals 
in Lake Iliamna, including seasonal variation in numbers of seals in 
the lake, and their genetic makeup.
    Comment 77: The sentence ``Laidre et al. (2008) concluded that on a 
worldwide basis belugas were likely to be less sensitive to climate 
change than other Arctic cetaceans because of their wide distribution 
and flexible behavior'' should be deleted. Indeed, the Convention on 
Migratory Species considers beluga whales to be threatened by climate 
change. A 2009 research paper found some beluga populations to be at 
high risk from climate change and others to be vulnerable (MacLeod 
2009).
    Response: A growing body of literature suggests that there will be 
species-specific responses to changes in Arctic climate, and that not 
all species will be negatively affected to the same degree. NMFS 
appreciates the commenter referencing this publication; however, the 
conclusions in MacLeod (2009) are speculative. NMFS has retained the 
statement referencing Laidre et al. (2008) and included a citation for 
Heide-J[oslash]rgensen et al. (2010), which gives further evidence that 
belugas seem to be able to respond well to large-scale habitat changes 
and may be less sensitive to climate change than other Arctic marine 
mammal species.
    Comment 78: Cook Inlet beluga SAR still considers the small Yakutat 
population of belugas part of the Cook Inlet stock. As the proposed 
ESA-listing rule for the Cook Inlet stock notes, Yakutat belugas are 
genetically and geographically isolated from Cook Inlet belugas. Given 
their small population size, Yakutat belugas should be designated a 
separate stock and declared ``depleted.''
    Response: As noted in previous responses (74 FR 19530, April 29, 
2009, Comment 14; 75 FR 12498, March 16, 2010, Comment 8), NMFS 
regulations under the MMPA (50 CFR 216.15) include the beluga whales 
occupying Yakutat Bay as part of the Cook Inlet stock. Notice-and 
comment rulemaking procedures would be required to change this 
regulatory definition. Until such procedures are completed, these 
animals remain designated as depleted as part of the Cook Inlet stock.
    Comment 79: All stock assessment reports for marine mammals that 
range in the outer continental shelf leasing areas should be updated to 
include threats from oil spills and associated oil and gas drilling 
activities, including seismic exploration activities.
    Response: NMFS appreciates the commenter noting the specific 
habitat concerns that may be associated with the outer continental 
shelf leasing areas. NMFS updated the SARs as needed for those stocks 
in the outer continental shelf leasing area.


[[Page 29981]]


    Dated: May 15, 2012.
Helen M. Golde,
Acting Director, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 2012-12270 Filed 5-18-12; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-P