[Federal Register Volume 78, Number 26 (Thursday, February 7, 2013)]
[Proposed Rules]
[Pages 9024-9026]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2013-02786]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Part 223

RIN 0648-BC10


Sea Turtle Conservation; Shrimp Trawling Requirements

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

ACTION: Proposed rule; withdrawal.

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SUMMARY: We (NMFS) have determined that a final rule to withdraw the 
alternative tow time restriction and require all skimmer trawls, 
pusher-head trawls, and wing nets (butterfly trawls) rigged for fishing 
to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) in their nets is not warranted at 
this time. Thus, we are discontinuing our Environmental Review process 
under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and do not intend to 
prepare a Final Environmental Impact Statement for this Action. We 
therefore withdraw our proposed rule to require TEDs in these vessels 
published May 10, 2012, in the Federal Register.

DATES: The proposed rule published on May 10, 2012 (77 FR 27411), is 
withdrawn as of February 7, 2013.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Michael Barnette, 727-551-5794.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

    On May 10, 2012, we published a proposed rule (77 FR 27411) that 
would require all skimmer trawls, pusher-head trawls, and wing nets 
(butterfly trawls) to use TEDs in their nets. Subsequently, a notice of 
availability on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) to Reduce 
Incidental Bycatch and Mortality of Sea Turtles in the Southeastern 
U.S. Shrimp Fisheries was

[[Page 9025]]

published on May 18, 2012 (77 FR 29636). The comment periods for the 
proposed rule and DEIS ended on July 9 and July 2, 2012, respectively.
    We prepared the DEIS and proposed rule in response to elevated sea 
turtle strandings in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, particularly 
throughout the Mississippi Sound area, in 2010 and 2011. Necropsy 
results indicated a significant number of stranded turtles from both 
the 2010 and 2011 events likely perished due to forced submergence, 
which is commonly associated with fishery interactions. The most likely 
cause of the strandings was thought to be the shrimp fisheries, and, in 
particular, the inshore skimmer trawl fisheries; for the purposes of 
this notice, skimmer trawls, pusher-head trawls, and wing nets 
(butterfly trawls) will be collectively referred to as skimmer trawls 
or as the skimmer trawl fisheries. Skimmer trawlers are currently 
authorized to use alternative tow times in lieu of TEDs, pursuant to 50 
CFR 223.206(d)(2)(ii)(A)(3). The alternative tow time restrictions 
limit tow times to a maximum of 55 minutes from April 1 through October 
31, and 75 minutes from November 1 through March 31. The DEIS and 
proposed rule noted compliance issues with the alternative tow time 
restrictions by skimmer trawl vessels, which could result in mortality 
of sea turtles. Based on new information discussed below, our previous 
conclusions regarding the impact of non-compliance with tow time 
restrictions in the skimmer trawl fleet were likely overly conservative 
and the DEIS mortality estimates likely do not reflect actual fishery 
impacts on sea turtles.
    At the time the DEIS was prepared, we had extremely limited 
information on the effects of the skimmer trawl fisheries on sea turtle 
populations. During this past summer, we shifted observer effort from 
the offshore otter shrimp trawl fishery to the inshore skimmer trawl 
fisheries in the Northern Gulf of Mexico to obtain more information on 
the potential impacts to sea turtle populations. Between May and July 
2012, observers reported the capture of 24 sea turtles on skimmer trawl 
vessels, all of which were Kemp's ridley sea turtles. Tow times ranged 
from 24 to 128 minutes, with approximately 20 percent being over 70 
minutes, with an average tow time of 57 minutes. While only 35 percent 
of tows were within the required 55-minute tow time limit, all sea 
turtles were released alive. One turtle was initially comatose but 
became active while on deck before release. Additionally, all observed 
sea turtles were small, juvenile specimens, and approximately 58 
percent of these turtles had a body depth that could allow them to pass 
between the required maximum 4-inch bar spacing of a TED.
    Using catch per unit effort (CPUE) from the recent summer observer 
coverage, we completed new estimates of sea turtle captures within the 
Gulf of Mexico skimmer trawl fisheries. Additionally, we applied a 
summer mortality rate based on the 2012 observer data to calculate 
estimated mortalities of sea turtles within the skimmer trawl fisheries 
currently operating without TEDs. While all observed sea turtle 
captures were released alive, one turtle was originally boated in a 
comatose state. Based on National Research Council (1990) 
recommendations, this turtle was scored as a mortality to be 
conservative and account for real-world fishery conditions where 
turtles may not be properly resuscitated before being released.
    To evaluate the effects of requiring TEDs in the Gulf of Mexico 
skimmer trawl fisheries, we modified our approach from the DEIS based 
on advice from the Southeast Fisheries Science Center's (SEFSC) 
regarding the utilization and limitations of the summer observer 
coverage data. The new approach accounted for the significant number of 
small turtles that might pass between the deflector bars of a TED and 
back into the bag of the trawl net, and also examined less optimistic 
compliance scenarios should TEDs be required in the skimmer trawl 
fisheries. Since the majority of skimmer trawls operate in Louisiana 
state waters where federal TED requirements are not enforced by 
Louisiana state law enforcement (due to state legislation and 
significant resistance to the original sea turtle conservation efforts 
in the shrimp fishery), we would not expect high compliance immediately 
following potential rule implementation. While compliance has likely 
fluctuated over the years, it took the offshore otter trawl fishery 
over 20 years of implementation and 2 years of intensive outreach and 
enforcement efforts to achieve an estimated 84 percent TED 
effectiveness rate. Therefore, we estimated sea turtle captures and 
mortalities under a potential TED requirement for the skimmer trawl 
fisheries based on staggered rates of TED effectiveness. Specifically, 
we assumed TED effectiveness would be 65 percent for years 1-2 
following implementation, 75 percent for years 3-4, and, ultimately, 84 
percent for year 5 and into the future. To account for the issue of 
small turtles potentially passing through the deflector bars, we 
estimated a range, assuming that roughly one-third to one-half of the 
small turtles would not be excluded by the TED but would pass through 
the bars and be exposed to a higher mortality rate in the bag of the 
trawl.
    Also, the mortality rate for small turtles that pass through the 
bars and into the bag of the net, and for other turtles that do not 
escape the TED due to compliance issues that impact TEDs' 
effectiveness, was based on long tow times (i.e., 102 minutes) as 
modeled by Sasso and Epperly (2006). The assumption is that with an 
installed TED, vessels would not be limited by a 55 or 75 minute tow 
time (depending on season), and would likely tow for longer periods. 
However, actual tow times may be dictated by environmental conditions 
(e.g., debris issues) or navigational requirements (e.g., tight or 
irregular water bodies, such as bayous along the Louisiana coast). In 
areas where vessels need to clear their nets of debris or raise their 
gear to navigate, tow times may be on average shorter than compared to 
skimmer vessels operating in larger, open water bodies (e.g., 
Mississippi Sound). Therefore, based on past experience recording tow 
times prior to the observer coverage, we determined a mortality rate 
corresponding to a tow time of 102 minutes accounted for the potential 
changes in fishing behavior as a result of the proposed rule.
    The revised capture and mortality estimates indicated the Gulf of 
Mexico skimmer trawl fisheries result in 1,893 sea turtle mortalities 
per year as they currently operate (versus 2,066-6,386 sea turtle 
mortalities estimated for the Gulf of Mexico in the DEIS). Sea turtle 
mortalities resulting from the Gulf of Mexico skimmer trawl fisheries 
under a with-TED scenario were estimated to be 1,977-2,219 for years 1-
2; 1,576-1,855 for years 3-4; and 1,217-1,530 for years 5 and on.
    In contrast to the estimates included in the DEIS, the revised 
capture and mortality estimates indicate that the potential benefits of 
a TED requirement in the Gulf of Mexico skimmer trawl fisheries are 
significantly less than previously estimated in the DEIS. Therefore, 
given the potentially significant economic ramifications a TED 
requirement would have on fishermen participating in the inshore 
skimmer trawl fisheries combined with highly uncertain ecological 
benefits to sea turtle populations compared to the status quo based on 
the new observer data, we concluded a final rule to require all skimmer 
trawls, pusher-head trawls, and wing nets (butterfly trawls) in the 
Gulf of Mexico to use TEDs in their nets is not warranted at this time, 
and are withdrawing our proposed rule.

[[Page 9026]]

    Observer coverage has also been initiated in 2012 for the North 
Carolina skimmer trawl fishery, but new data are currently unavailable. 
Caution would be prudent when considering the DEIS estimates and 
conclusions for the North Carolina fishery, given the insight obtained 
on the skimmer trawl fisheries in the Northern Gulf of Mexico (e.g., 
average tow times and mortality rates). For instance, estimating sea 
turtle mortalities based on the proxy of a 102-minute average tow time 
is most likely overly conservative for the North Carolina fleet given 
the 57-minute average tow time documented in the summer observer 
coverage work for the Gulf of Mexico skimmer trawl fisheries. Further, 
our previous CPUE rates and information on species composition and size 
classes for North Carolina is extrapolated from only three captures. 
The observer information from this past summer's work in the Gulf of 
Mexico significantly changed our understanding of these important 
variables. Therefore, we believe pursuing a final rule strictly for the 
North Carolina skimmer trawl fishery is also unwarranted at this time.
    We believe additional observer effort is necessary to evaluate the 
potential effects of the skimmer trawl fisheries on sea turtle 
populations. In particular, we would like to have information on 
interactions during winter months, which have not been sampled, and for 
which we have not been able to update the analysis used in the DEIS. 
Additionally, extended observer sampling in the Northern Gulf of Mexico 
during summer months is needed to determine if this year's observed 
interactions, particularly the prevalence of very small Kemp's ridley 
sea turtles, were an anomaly based on oceanographic conditions or the 
impact of strong recruitment from increased nesting success of Kemp's 
ridley sea turtles, which could be expected to continue into the 
future. The prevalence of these very small turtles has potentially 
significant implications for future management directions, and needs to 
be better understood.
    We also expect to explore technological solutions to address the 
small turtle issue, such as conducting TED feasibility and catch loss 
studies on TEDs with bar spacing less than 4 inches. Additional 
observer data and an analysis of the size of turtles interacting with 
the inshore skimmer trawl fisheries would be pursued to determine TED 
bar spacing that would maximize benefits to sea turtle conservation. 
Our objective is to have sufficient information to evaluate a potential 
proposed rule that would be effective in reducing sea turtle bycatch in 
the inshore skimmer trawl fisheries in the near future.
    Additionally, we believe there is a need to explore if there are 
better criteria to determine mortality in trawl fisheries. In 
consultation with relevant experts, the agency will examine this issue 
and produce a report with our findings and any new criteria that may be 
developed.
    Concurrently, we expect to improve outreach efforts with industry 
to address compliance issues with tow time requirements observed in the 
inshore skimmer trawl fisheries. Numerous requests to strengthen 
outreach, specifically in regards to education on tow time 
requirements, were received from the public and industry during the 
comment periods for the proposed rule and DEIS. These outreach efforts 
would likely improve compliance and, therefore, decrease sea turtle 
mortality in the inshore skimmer trawl fisheries in the near term.

References

National Research Council. 1990. Decline of the Sea Turtles: Causes and 
Prevention. National Academy Press, Washington, DC. 259 pp.
Sasso, C.R. and S.P. Epperly. 2006. Seasonal sea turtle mortality risk 
from forced submergence in bottom trawls. Fisheries Research 81:86-88.

    Dated: February 4, 2013.
Alan D. Risenhoover,
Director, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, performing the functions and 
duties of the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, 
National Marine Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 2013-02786 Filed 2-6-13; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3501-22-P