[Federal Register Volume 78, Number 215 (Wednesday, November 6, 2013)]
[Proposed Rules]
[Pages 66675-66680]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2013-26493]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Parts 223 and 224

[Docket No. 130910793-3793-01]
RIN 0648-XC867


Endangered and Threatened Wildlife; 90-Day Finding on a Petition 
To List Multiple Species of Hagfish and Sea Snakes as Threatened or 
Endangered Under the Endangered Species Act

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

ACTION: Notice of 90-day petition finding; request for information.

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SUMMARY: We (NMFS) announce a 90-day finding on a petition to list 
three species of hagfish and three species of sea snakes as threatened 
or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). We find that the 
petition presents substantial information indicating that the 
petitioned action may be warranted for the sea snake, A. fuscus. We 
will conduct a status review of this species to determine if the 
petitioned action is warranted. To ensure that the status review is 
comprehensive, we are soliciting scientific and commercial information 
pertaining to this sea snake from any interested party. We find that 
the petition does not present substantial scientific or commercial 
information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted for 
the remaining five species: Eptatretus octatrema, Myxine paucidens, 
Paramyxine taiwanae, Aipysurus apraefrontalis, and A. foliosquama.

DATES: Information and comments on the subject action must be received 
by January 6, 2014.

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments, information, or data on this 
document, identified by the code NOAA-NMFS-2013-0150, by any of the 
following methods:
     Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic comments via 
the Federal eRulemaking Portal. Go to www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2013-0150, click the ``Comment Now!'' icon, 
complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments.
     Mail: Submit written comments to Office of Protected 
Resources, NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.
     Fax: 301-713-4060, Attn: Lisa Manning.
    Instructions: Comments sent by any other method, to any other 
address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period, 
may not be considered by NMFS. All comments received are a part of the 
public record and will generally be posted for public viewing on 
www.regulations.gov without change. All personal identifying 
information (e.g., name, address, etc.), confidential business 
information, or otherwise sensitive information submitted voluntarily 
by the sender will be publicly accessible. We will accept anonymous 
comments (enter ``N/A'' in the required fields if you wish to remain 
anonymous), although submitting comments anonymously will prevent us 
from contacting you if we have difficulty retrieving your submission. 
Attachments to electronic comments will be accepted in Microsoft Word, 
Excel, or Adobe PDF file formats only.
    Copies of the petition and related materials are available upon 
request from the Director, Office of Protected Resources, 1315 East-
West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910, or online at: www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/petition81.htm.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Lisa Manning, Office of Protected 
Resources, 301-427-8466.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 

Background

    On July 15, 2013, we received a petition from the WildEarth 
Guardians to list 81 marine species as threatened or endangered under 
the ESA and to designate critical habitat under the ESA. Copies of this 
petition are available from us (see ADDRESSES). This notice addresses 
the three hagfishes (Eptatretus octatrema, Myxine paucidens, and 
Paramyxine taiwanae) and the three sea snakes (Aipysurus 
apraefrontalis, A. foliosquama, and A. fuscus) petitioned for listing.
    Section 4(b)(3)(A) of the ESA of 1973, as amended (U.S.C. 1531 et 
seq.), requires, to the maximum extent practicable, that within 90 days 
of receipt of a petition to list a species as threatened or endangered, 
the Secretary of Commerce make a finding on whether that petition 
presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating 
that the petitioned action may be warranted, and to promptly publish 
the finding in the Federal Register (16 U.S.C. 1533(b)(3)(A)). When we 
find that substantial scientific or commercial information in a 
petition indicates the petitioned action may be warranted (a ``positive 
90-day finding''), we are required to promptly commence a review of the 
status of the species concerned, which includes conducting a 
comprehensive review of the best available scientific and commercial 
information. Within 12 months of receiving the petition, we must 
conclude the review with a finding as to whether, in fact, the 
petitioned action is warranted. Because the finding at the 12-month 
stage is based on a significantly more thorough review of the available 
information, a ``may be warranted'' finding at the 90-day stage does 
not prejudge the outcome of the status review.
    Under the ESA, a listing determination may address a ``species,'' 
which is defined to also include subspecies and, for any vertebrate 
species, any distinct population segment (DPS) that interbreeds when 
mature (16 U.S.C. 1532(16)). A joint NOAA-U.S. Fish and Wildlife 
Service (USFWS) policy clarifies the agencies' interpretation of the 
phrase ``distinct population segment'' for the purposes of listing, 
delisting, and reclassifying a species under the ESA (``DPS Policy''; 
61 FR 4722; February 7, 1996). A species, subspecies, or DPS is 
``endangered'' if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a 
significant portion of its range, and ``threatened'' if it is likely to 
become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a 
significant portion of its range (ESA

[[Page 66676]]

sections 3(6) and 3(20), respectively; 16 U.S.C. 1532(6) and (20)). 
Pursuant to the ESA and our implementing regulations, the determination 
of whether a species is threatened or endangered shall be based on any 
one or a combination of the following five section 4(a)(1) factors: the 
present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of 
habitat or range; overutilization for commercial, recreational, 
scientific, or educational purposes; disease or predation; inadequacy 
of existing regulatory mechanisms; and any other natural or manmade 
factors affecting the species' existence (16 U.S.C. 1533(a)(1), 50 CFR 
424.11(c)).
    ESA-implementing regulations issued jointly by NMFS and the USFWS 
(50 CFR 424.14(b)) define ``substantial information'' in the context of 
reviewing a petition to list, delist, or reclassify a species as the 
amount of information that would lead a reasonable person to believe 
that the measure proposed in the petition may be warranted. When 
evaluating whether substantial information is contained in a petition, 
we must consider whether the petition: (1) Clearly indicates the 
administrative measure recommended and gives the scientific and any 
common name of the species involved; (2) contains detailed narrative 
justification for the recommended measure, describing, based on 
available information, past and present numbers and distribution of the 
species involved and any threats faced by the species; (3) provides 
information regarding the status of the species over all or a 
significant portion of its range; and (4) is accompanied by the 
appropriate supporting documentation in the form of bibliographic 
references, reprints of pertinent publications, copies of reports or 
letters from authorities, and maps (50 CFR 424.14(b)(2)).
    At the 90-day stage, we evaluate the petitioner's request based 
upon the information in the petition including its references, and the 
information readily available in our files. We do not conduct 
additional research, and we do not solicit information from parties 
outside the agency to help us in evaluating the petition. We will 
accept the petitioner's sources and characterizations of the 
information presented, if they appear to be based on accepted 
scientific principles, unless we have specific information in our files 
that indicates the petition's information is incorrect, unreliable, 
obsolete, or otherwise irrelevant to the requested action. Information 
that is susceptible to more than one interpretation or that is 
contradicted by other available information will not be dismissed at 
the 90-day finding stage, so long as it is reliable and a reasonable 
person would conclude that it supports the petitioner's assertions. 
Conclusive information indicating the species may meet the ESA's 
requirements for listing is not required to make a positive 90-day 
finding. We will not conclude that a lack of specific information alone 
negates a positive 90-day finding, if a reasonable person would 
conclude that the unknown information itself suggests an extinction 
risk of concern for the species at issue.
    To make a 90-day finding on a petition to list a species, we 
evaluate whether the petition presents substantial scientific or 
commercial information indicating the subject species may be either 
threatened or endangered, as defined by the ESA. First, we evaluate 
whether the information presented in the petition, along with the 
information readily available in our files, indicates that the 
petitioned entity constitutes a ``species'' eligible for listing under 
the ESA. Next, we evaluate whether the information indicates that the 
species at issue faces extinction risk that is cause for concern; this 
may be indicated in information expressly discussing the species' 
status and trends, or in information describing impacts and threats to 
the species. We evaluate any information on specific demographic 
factors pertinent to evaluating extinction risk for the species at 
issue (e.g., population abundance and trends, productivity, spatial 
structure, age structure, sex ratio, diversity, current and historical 
range, habitat integrity or fragmentation), and the potential 
contribution of identified demographic risks to extinction risk for the 
species. We then evaluate the potential links between these demographic 
risks and the causative impacts and threats identified in section 
4(a)(1).
    Information presented on impacts or threats should be specific to 
the species and should reasonably suggest that one or more of these 
factors may be operative threats that act or have acted on the species 
to the point that it may warrant protection under the ESA. Broad 
statements about generalized threats to the species, or identification 
of factors that could negatively impact a species, do not constitute 
substantial information that listing may be warranted. We look for 
information indicating that not only is the particular species exposed 
to a factor, but that the species may be responding in a negative 
fashion; then we assess the potential significance of that negative 
response.
    Many petitions identify risk classifications made by non-
governmental organizations, such as the International Union for 
Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the American Fisheries Society, or 
NatureServe, as evidence of extinction risk for a species. Risk 
classifications by other organizations or made under other Federal or 
state statutes may be informative, but such classification alone may 
not provide the rationale for a positive 90-day finding under the ESA. 
For example, as explained by NatureServe, their assessments of a 
species' conservation status do ``not constitute a recommendation by 
NatureServe for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act'' because 
NatureServe assessments ``have different criteria, evidence 
requirements, purposes and taxonomic coverage than government lists of 
endangered and threatened species, and therefore these two types of 
lists should not be expected to coincide'' (http://www.natureserve.org/prodServices/statusAssessment.jsp). Thus, when a petition cites such 
classifications, we will evaluate the source of information that the 
classification is based upon in light of the standards of the ESA and 
our policies as described above.
    With respect to the six species discussed in this finding, the 
petitioner relies almost exclusively on the risk classifications of the 
IUCN as the source of information on the status of each petitioned 
species. All of the petitioned species are listed as ``endangered'' or 
``critically endangered'' on the IUCN Redlist, and the petitioner notes 
this as an explicit consideration in offering petitions on these 
species. Species classifications under the IUCN and the ESA are not 
equivalent, and the data standards, evaluation criteria, and treatment 
of uncertainty are also not necessarily the same.

Species Descriptions

Hagfishes

    Hagfish are marine, jawless, scaleless, worm-like fishes found 
mainly in temperate seas. They are typically found in association with 
soft bottom (mud and sand) habitats, but some species also occur in 
hard bottom or rocky habitats. Designed more for burrowing than 
swimming, they lack paired fins or appendages, have degenerate eyes, 
and probably spend much of their time within the bottom substrate 
(Moyle and Cech, 2000). One notable, external feature is their three 
pairs of barbels or tentacles around their mouth and nostril that serve 
a tactile function. Along their sides are 1-15 gill openings and a 
series of pores that serve as openings for mucus glands. These glands 
secrete

[[Page 66677]]

large amounts of mucus, or slime, that hagfish use to coat their body 
as a means of deterring predators. Hagfish can also ``slime'' their 
food items, thereby making them unpalatable to other scavengers. 
Hagfish feed on soft-bodied invertebrates within or at the surface of 
the bottom sediments, but are also quick to scavenge dead fish and 
whales. Females lay a small number (20-30) of large (2 cm-3 cm) 
leathery eggs that are attached to each other and the bottom (Moyle and 
Cech, 2000). Little else is known about their reproduction (Moyle and 
Cech, 2000). Small morphological differences between populations do 
suggest that they tend to breed locally (Pough et al., 1996). There are 
over 40 extant species in six genera around the world (Pough et al., 
1996).

Sea Snakes

    Sea snakes occur throughout the warm regions of the Pacific and 
Indian Oceans but are absent from the Atlantic. There are more than 60 
described species, but the taxonomy of sea snakes remains controversial 
(Davenport, 2011). The three petitioned sea snake species are all 
within the genus Aipysurus and, according to the petition, occur within 
narrow ranges off the northern coast of Australia. More than 30 species 
of sea snakes, roughly half of which are endemic, occur in northern 
Australia (Marsh et al., 1994). Within the wider Indo-Pacific region, 
there is considerable overlap in the ranges of sea snake species and a 
high degree of niche separation based on diet (Davenport, 2011; citing 
Voris and Voris, 1983).
    Visually, sea snakes are easily distinguished from terrestrial 
snakes by their laterally compressed, paddle-like tail. However, 
identification of sea snakes to species can be challenging due to 
variable coloration and pattern (Miller and Abdulquader, 2009). 
Multiple physical characteristics (e.g., number of mid-body scale rows) 
and the capture locations are required to make a positive species 
identification (Miller and Abdulquader, 2009).
    Aipysurid sea snakes are entirely aquatic, shallow-water species 
typically associated with coral reefs. Aipysurids are also viviparous 
(i.e., give birth to live young), unlike the amphibious sea kraits, 
which lay their eggs on land. Sea snakes, in general, tend to carry 
smaller clutches of eggs than terrestrial snakes of the same size, and 
this is especially true of the aipysurids (Marsh et al., 1994). There 
is no parental care of young, which must surface to breathe and forage 
for food just as adults do (Miller and Abdulquadar, 2009). The 
petitioned sea snakes prey on various fishes, such as wrasses, gobies 
and eels, subduing their prey with venom before consuming them. Based 
on sonic tracking, mapping, and mark-recapture studies, a relatively 
widely distributed congener, A. laevis, was shown to have a very small 
home range--on the order of 0.15 to 0.18 hectares (Marsh et al., 1994); 
presumably the three petitioned aipysurids have similarly small home 
ranges. The petition indicates that the lifespan of the three 
petitioned sea snakes is about 8 to 10 years, and age at first maturity 
ranges from about 2 to 5 years.

Analysis of the Petition

    The petition clearly indicates the administrative measure 
recommended and gives the scientific and common names of the species 
involved. Based on the information presented in the petition, along 
with the information readily available in our files, we find that each 
of the 6 petitioned species constitutes a valid ``species'' eligible 
for listing under the ESA as each is considered a valid taxonomic 
species. The petition also contains a narrative justification for the 
recommended measures and provides limited information on the species' 
geographic distribution, habitat, and threats. For the hagfishes, no 
information is provided regarding the three species' past or present 
numbers, or population status and trends for all or a significant 
portion of the species' ranges. For the sea snakes, some past and 
present relative abundance data and provisional abundance data are 
provided. Supporting documentation was provided, mainly in the form of 
IUCN species assessments. We had no information in our files for any of 
the petitioned hagfish, but did have some limited information on the 
sea snake genus. A synopsis of our analysis of the information provided 
in the petition and readily available in our files is provided below. 
Following the format of the petition, we first discuss the introductory 
information presented for each group of species and then discuss the 
species-specific information.

Threats to the Hagfishes

    The three hagfish species petitioned for listing (Eptatretus 
octatrema, Myxine paucidens, and Paramyxine taiwanae) are currently 
listed as either ``endangered'' or ``critically endangered'' on the 
IUCN Red List. The petition asserts that these species are being 
threatened with extinction by four of the five ESA section 4(a)(1) 
factors--habitat destruction, overutilization, inadequacy of regulatory 
mechanisms, and natural factors--which we discuss in turn below.
    In terms of habitat destruction, the petition focuses on human 
population growth and associated consequences (e.g., pollution, 
tourism, development) as the main drivers of the destruction of hagfish 
habitat. The petition states that ``Increased economic growth in 
coastal cities is a major cause of ocean habitat destruction'' and that 
``. . . human population growth represents a serious threat to the 
petitioned species.'' Some of the associated consequences of human 
population growth are discussed further; however, specific information 
to link these general threats to hagfish habitats or impacts to hagfish 
habitat is lacking. For example, the petition discusses the increase in 
the number and size of ``dead zones'' (i.e., areas of very low levels 
of dissolved oxygen) worldwide, but no information is provided to 
indicate whether and to what extent any dead zones overlap with or 
affect the habitats of the petitioned species.
    The petition also discusses the particular threat of trawling and 
asserts that it threatens the habitat of all three hagfish species. We 
agree with the statements in the petition that trawling results in 
disturbance of benthic substrates, can lead to changes in community 
composition, and can increase some species' vulnerability to predation. 
However, these are general statements, and no additional information is 
provided in the petition or references to indicate the mechanism by 
which hagfish may be impacted by trawling activities. Hagfish 
apparently occur mainly within the sediments and are opportunistic 
feeders that may even benefit from commercial fisheries' discards and 
the resulting increase in food availability (Moyle and Cech, 2000). It 
is unclear given the information available on the diet, habitat, and 
behavior of hagfishes, whether hagfish experience negative impacts, 
positive impacts, or both, as a result of trawling and other commercial 
fishing activities.
    In terms of overutilization, the petition asserts that both bycatch 
of hagfish and commercial harvest present threats to the three 
petitioned hagfishes. No data or information, however, are presented on 
whether or to what extent bycatch of any of the three hagfish species 
is occurring or has occurred. The fate of by-caught hagfish is also not 
discussed. The petition presents commercial harvest of hagfish as a 
future threat that will arise as other fish stocks decline and new 
species are targeted to meet the rising demand for fish by a growing 
human population.

[[Page 66678]]

However, this is a general statement that could apply to many marine 
fishes, and there is no additional information with which to 
substantiate the alleged likelihood of this potential, future threat to 
any of the petitioned hagfish species.
    The petition states that no conservation measures are in place for 
any of the petitioned hagfishes and that ESA listings are needed to 
prevent their extinction. Information regarding any related regulatory 
measures being implemented within the ranges of any of the three 
hagfishes is not provided. We do not necessarily consider a lack of 
species-specific protections a threat to the particular species. For 
example, management measures that regulate other species, activities 
(e.g., commercial fisheries), or areas may indirectly function to 
minimize threats to the petitioned species. As stated previously, we 
look for substantial information indicating that not only is the 
particular species exposed to a factor, but that the species may be 
responding in a negative fashion; then we assess the potential 
significance of that negative response.
    The petition specifically points to the lack of a listing under 
CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of 
Wild Fauna and Flora) as a threat to the petitioned hagfishes. We agree 
with the statement in the petition that the absence of a CITES listing 
for a given species is not evidence that the same species does not 
warrant the protections of the ESA. However, we find nothing to 
substantiate the statement in the petition that ``. . . the absence of 
CITES listing is problematic'' for the three hagfish species. CITES is 
a tool to manage and regulate international trade in situations where 
trade has been identified as a threat to the particular species' 
survival in the wild. No information on international trade of any of 
the petitioned hagfishes is presented in the petition or available to 
us, and we do not have any information regarding direct harvest of 
these hagfish species.
    Lastly, the petition asserts that the three hagfish species are 
threatened as a result of their rarity, in particular because it 
reduces their chances of finding mates. This statement is not 
substantiated with any additional information regarding hagfish mating 
behavior, reproduction, or natural densities. Very little is known 
about hagfish mating (Pough et al., 1996). Hagfish are relatively 
mobile, however, and may be able to travel to locate mates within a 
certain range. The petitioned hagfishes also possess both male and 
female gonads and may function as hermaphrodites (Mincarone, 2011a, 
2011b; Mincarone and Mok, 2011); however, whether and the extent to 
which the petitioned species reproduce through self-fertilization is 
not known.
    The condition of being rare is an important factor to consider when 
evaluating a species' risk of extinction; however, it does not by 
itself indicate the likelihood of extinction of that species, nor does 
the condition of being rare constitute substantial information that 
listing under the ESA may be warranted. For example, some species 
naturally occur in small numbers but are not considered threatened or 
endangered. To determine whether listing of a rare species may be 
warranted, there must also be substantial information indicating the 
rare species is both exposed to and responding in a negative fashion to 
a threat such that the species may be threatened with extinction.
    Overall, we find that the general threats discussed for the 
hagfishes are not clearly or causally linked to the petitioned species 
or their ranges or habitat (e.g., discussion of trawling impacts to sea 
floor habitat in Australia). While some of the information in this 
introductory section suggests concern for the status of many marine 
species generally, its broadness, generality, and/or speculative 
nature, and the failure of the petitioner to make reasonable 
connections between the threats and the status of the individual 
petitioned species means that we cannot find that this information 
reasonably suggests that one or more of these threat factors may be 
operative threats that act or have acted on any of the petitioned 
species to the point that they may warrant protection under the ESA. 
There is little information in this introductory section indicating 
that particular petitioned species may be responding in a negative 
fashion to any of the discussed threats. Therefore, we find that the 
information in this section does not constitute substantial information 
that listing may be warranted for any of the petitioned species.

Eptatretus octatrema

    This hagfish is known from two type specimens--one collected in 
1899 and the other in 1900 (Mincarone, 2011a). Both specimens were 
collected off Cape Saint Blaize, South Africa. Despite ``extensive 
surveys'' within the range of this species, no other specimens have 
been recorded (Mincarone, 2011a). No information is provided in the 
petition or available to us regarding the past or present numbers or 
status of this species. Given that no confirmed specimens have been 
documented in over 100 years despite what appears to be heavy sampling 
efforts, it is likely this species is no longer extant in the wild. The 
IUCN assessment notes that further research is needed ``to determine if 
this species still maintains a viable population'' (Mincarone, 2011a). 
The purpose of the ESA is to conserve species that are in danger of or 
threatened with extinction. Section 3(6) of the ESA defines an 
endangered species as ``any species which is in danger of extinction 
throughout all or a significant portion of its range'' (emphasis 
added). Species that are already extinct are not protected by the ESA. 
Given this information and the discussion above regarding general 
threats to hagfish, we conclude that the petition does not present 
substantial information indicating that E. octatrema may warrant 
listing as threatened or endangered under the ESA.

Myxine paucidens

    This species is known from only five museum specimens collected 
from Sagami Bay and just south of Tokyo Bay, Japan. No specimens have 
been collected since 1972 despite ``extensive scientific surveying in 
the area,'' and the species ``may possibly be already extinct'' 
(Mincarone, 2011b). The petition provides no information on past or 
present numbers or population trends, nor is any information available 
in our files. The most recent IUCN assessment states that ``there are 
no known direct threats to this species'' but that habitat quality is 
declining as a result of extensive trawling in the area where the 
specimens were found. No additional information is provided or 
available to evaluate the effect trawling has on this hagfish or its 
habitat. Given this information as well as the previous discussion 
about general threats to hagfish, we conclude that the petition does 
not present substantial information indicating that M. paucidens may 
warrant listing as threatened or endangered under the ESA.

Paramyxine taiwanae

    Population trends, abundance data and status information are not 
available for this species. This species is known from approximately 
150 specimens collected over an unknown or unspecified time period. The 
species apparently has a very small range of 3,750 sq km off 
northeastern Taiwan (see Mincarone and Mok, 2011). The most recent IUCN 
assessment states that heavy surveying has ``. . . confirmed that it 
[P. taiwanae] is not found in southwestern Taiwan nor along the east 
coast''; however, in a later section, the

[[Page 66679]]

assessment discusses a study of ``. . . specimens from the southwestern 
Taiwan examined by Kuo et al. (1994) . . .'' (Mincarone and Mok, 2011). 
Thus, the actual extent of occurrence of this species is unclear.
    This species occurs at depths of 120-427 m on the continental shelf 
and upper slope (Mincarone and Mok, 2011). The petition states this 
species is vulnerable to habitat loss as a result of deep sea trawling 
and trapping; however, no additional information, references or 
statements are provided indicating the habitat requirements of this 
hagfish or how its particular habitat is being damaged or curtailed by 
trawling and trapping within its range.
    The petition also states that this species is vulnerable to bycatch 
and that, due to its relatively large body size, faces an increased 
risk that ``it will be intentionally exploited in the future for food 
and the leather industry.'' The petition states that these ``pressures 
threaten the species' continued survival.'' However, no information on 
past or present bycatch rates or fisheries interactions is provided, 
nor is any available in our files. Also, as mentioned previously, no 
additional information is available with which to substantiate the 
potential future threat of direct harvest of this hagfish. The IUCN 
assessment recommends that more research is needed to understand this 
species' biology, population size, and the impact of trapping and 
trawling (Mincarone and Mok, 2011).
    Overall, the species-specific information provided in the petition 
for P. taiwanae is general and/or speculative in nature, and we cannot 
find that this information reasonably suggests that one or more of the 
threat factors may be operative threats that act or have acted on the 
petitioned species to the point that it may warrant protection under 
the ESA. We conclude that the petition and the single, available 
reference do not present substantial information indicating this 
species may warrant listing as threatened or endangered.

Threats to the Sea Snakes

    The three sea snake species petitioned for listing (Aipysurus 
apraefrontalis, A. foliosquama, and A. fuscus) are currently listed as 
either ``endangered'' or ``critically endangered'' on the IUCN Red 
List. The petition asserts that these species are being threatened with 
extinction by three of the five ESA section 4(a)(1) factors--habitat 
destruction, inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms, and natural factors--
which we discuss in turn below.
    The petition asserts that ``drastic declines and possible 
extinction'' of the petitioned sea snakes have occurred as a result of 
anthropogenic climate change and the consequent destruction of their 
habitat. The petition states that climate change can increase sea 
surface temperatures to levels that are fatal to the sea snakes and can 
cause ``massive damage'' to the coral reefs that these species require 
as habitat. The petition specifically refers to coral bleaching as the 
mechanism by which climate change destroys the habitat of the 
petitioned sea snakes. The petition claims that when severe bleaching 
events occur, the sea snakes' ``only available habitat is destroyed.'' 
However, it is unclear, given the available information, whether and to 
what extent the petitioned sea snakes are actually unable to continue 
to use the coral structure as habitat should a bleaching event occur.
    Increased sea surface temperatures and coral bleaching are 
plausible causes of sea snake habitat degradation, but the petitioner's 
conclusion that these factors are causing the decline of the sea snakes 
is overstated. References provided by the petitioner state that climate 
change may be a threat to some sea snake species (Lukoschek and Guinea, 
2010; Lukoschek et al., 2010a; Lukoschek et al., 2010b). In addition, 
the IUCN assessment for A. apraefrontalis states: ``There are no 
specific, clearly identified or quantified past, current or future 
threats to A. apreafrontalis or any other reef-associated sea snake 
species . . .'' (Lukoschek et al., 2010a).
    The petition asserts that the three sea snake species are also 
declining as a result of inadequate regulatory mechanisms. Information 
on the existing regulatory protections that directly or may indirectly 
benefit these species, however, is not provided beyond a discussion of 
the Ashmore Reef Nature Reserve. This nature reserve, located off the 
coast of northwestern Australia, was established in 1983 and contains a 
portion of all three species' known habitat. Given that the threats to 
the sea snakes are unknown, it is unclear what level of protection the 
reserve may be providing them. The petition also asserts that the 
absence of a CITES listing for the petitioned sea snakes is 
``problematic'' because they ``may be subject to international trade 
presently or in the future.'' Information in our files indicates that 
sea snakes are consumed and/or valued for their leather in some parts 
of the world, and sea snake products have been traded internationally 
since the 1930's (Marsh et al., 1994). However, no information is 
provided to substantiate the statement in the petition that any the 
three sea snake species may potentially or presently be subject to 
international trade. In fact, the references provided by the petitioner 
indicate that none of the petitioned sea snakes are targeted by 
fisheries and there is no evidence of illegal fishing (Lukoschek and 
Guinea, 2010; Lukoschek et al., 2010a; Lukoschek et al., 2010b).
    The petition discusses how all three of the petitioned sea snakes 
have very small geographic ranges and limited dispersal ability. A very 
small range increases the extinction risk of the species because the 
entire species could be affected by local events. Also, limited 
dispersal ability can decrease the potential for recolonization 
following the loss of a subpopulation or area of habitat. Thus, these 
natural factors can influence the species' risk of extinction. Despite 
this, we do not consider these natural factors alone to constitute 
substantial information that listing under the ESA may be warranted. 
There must be additional information to indicate that the species may 
be exposed to and respond in a negative fashion to a threat. However, 
in the case of A. fuscus, which we discuss further below, information 
is presented to suggest that the petitioned species may have been 
extirpated from some areas, and restricted dispersal among remaining 
subpopulations may be contributing to the extinction risk of this 
species.
    Overall, we find that the three major threats discussed for sea 
snakes are not well supported and/or substantiated and do not 
constitute substantial information that listing of any of the three 
species may be warranted.

A. apraefrontalis

    This sea snake has been recorded from only Ashmore and Hibernia 
Reefs off northwestern Australia, and so its area of occurrence is 
estimated to be only about 10 sq km (Lukoschek et al., 2010a). The IUCN 
assessment for this species, indicates that, despite extensive surveys, 
no individual of this species has been recorded on either Ashmore or 
Hibernia reef since 2000 (Lukoschek et al., 2010a; citing Guinea 2006, 
2007 and Lukoschek, pers. comm., 2009). The IUCN assessment refers to 
this species as ``locally extinct'' and notes it has not been seen at 
any other location (Lukoschek et al., 2010a). As stated previously, 
species that are not known to exist in the wild are not protected by 
the ESA. Given this information as well as the deficiencies of the 
threats information discussed above, we conclude that the petition and 
the

[[Page 66680]]

available references do not present substantial information indicating 
that A. apraefrontalis may warrant listing as threatened or endangered 
under the ESA.

A. foliosquama

    Similar to A. apraefrontalis, this species has been found only on 
Ashmore and Hibernia Reefs off northwestern Australia in an area of 
about 10 sq km (Lukoschek and Guinea, 2010). Citing Guinea (2006; 2007) 
and Lukoschek (pers. comm. 2009), the IUCN assessment for this species 
states that no single individual of this species has been seen over the 
past 9 years, or approximately 2 generations, despite extensive surveys 
of both Ashmore and Hibernia Reefs (Lukoschek and Guinea, 2010). The 
IUCN assessment also refers to the ``local extinction'' of this species 
and notes that it also has not been sighted at any other location 
(Lukoschek and Guinea, 2010). Thus, the best available information 
suggests this species may no longer be extant in the wild. As stated 
previously, species that are not known to exist in the wild are not 
protected by the ESA. Considering this information as well as the 
deficiencies of the threats information discussed above, we conclude 
that the petition and the available references do not present 
substantial information indicating that A. apraefrontalis may warrant 
listing as threatened or endangered under the ESA.

A. fuscus

    This species occurs on Ashmore, Hibernia, Cartier, Scott and 
Serangipatan Reefs in the Timor Sea between northwestern Australia and 
Timor (Lukoschek et al., 2010b). Very little movement of A. fuscus is 
thought to occur among these reefs (Lukoschek et al., 2010b). This 
species has a relatively shallow depth range of up to 25-30 m deep and 
a total estimated area of occurrence of only 500 sq km (Lukoschek et 
al., 2010b). No threats have been clearly identified for this species, 
but based on surveys on some of the reefs, the species appears to have 
declined by at least 70% since 1998 (Lukoschek et al., 2010b). Surveys 
indicate that sightings rates of A. fuscus are variable over time, but 
an overall declining trend in sightings rates has been observed since 
1998 at Ashmore reef (Lukoschek et al., 2010b). It is unclear what the 
trends in sightings rates of A. fuscus are at the other reefs. The IUCN 
assessment mentions ``local extinctions,'' but it is also unclear where 
these ``local extinctions'' have occurred. However, the available 
information does suggest that some subpopulations or areas of the range 
have experienced significant declines or may have been lost. Given the 
likelihood that dispersal is fairly restricted for this species, the 
loss of certain reef subpopulations increases the extinction risk for 
this species. We find the significant decline in abundance and 
potential loss of subpopulations cause for concern and substantial 
information that listing of A. fuscus under the ESA may be warranted.

Petition Finding

    After reviewing the information contained in the petition, as well 
as information readily available in our files, we conclude the petition 
does not present substantial scientific or commercial information 
indicating the petitioned action may be warranted for Eptatretus 
octatrema, Myxine paucidens, Paramyxine taiwanae, A. apraefrontalis and 
A. foliosquama. In contrast, as described above, we find that there is 
substantial scientific information indicating the petitioned action may 
be warranted for A. fuscus, and we hereby announce the initiation of a 
status review for this species to determine whether the petition action 
is warranted.

Information Solicited

    To ensure that the status review is based on the best available 
scientific and commercial data, we are soliciting information relevant 
to whether the sea snake, A. fuscus, may warrant listing as threatened 
or endangered. Specifically, we are soliciting data and information, 
including unpublished data and information, in the following areas: (1) 
Historical and current distribution and abundance of this species 
throughout its range; (2) historical and current population trends; (3) 
life history and habitat requirements (4) genetics of subpopulations; 
(5) past, current and future threats to the species, including any 
current or planned activities that may adversely impact the species; 
(6) ongoing or planned efforts to protect and restore the species and 
its habitat; and (7) management, regulatory, and enforcement 
information. We request that all information be accompanied by: (a) 
Supporting documentation such as maps, bibliographic references, or 
reprints of pertinent publications; and (b) the submitter's name, 
address, and any association, institution, or business that the person 
represents.

References Cited

    A complete list of references is available upon request to the 
Office of Protected Resources (see ADDRESSES).

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

    Dated: October 30, 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. 2013-26493 Filed 11-5-13; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-P