[Federal Register Volume 79, Number 148 (Friday, August 1, 2014)]
[Proposed Rules]
[Pages 44733-44735]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2014-18225]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Part 216

[Docket No. 140429386-4386-01]
RIN 0648-XD275


Petition To Designate Sakhalin Bay-Amur River Beluga Whales Stock 
as Depleted Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act; Finding

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

ACTION: Notice of 60-day petition finding; call for information.

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SUMMARY: NMFS received a petition to ``designate the Sakhalin Bay-Amur 
River stock of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) as a depleted 
stock under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).'' NMFS finds that 
the petition presents substantial information indicating that the 
petitioned action may be warranted and will initiate a status review 
promptly. NMFS solicits information from the public that may contribute 
to the status review.

DATES: Information and comments must be received by close of business 
on September 2, 2014.

ADDRESSES: The petition and a list of references contained in this 
notice are available in electronic form via the Internet at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/. A copy of the petition and/or its supporting 
documents may be requested from Chief, Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle 
Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine 
Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.
    You may submit comments, identified by [NOAA-NMFS-2014-0056], by 
any of the following methods:
    Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via 
the Federal eRulemaking Portal http://www.regulations.gov.
    Mail: Send comments or 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: Beluga petition.
    Instructions: All comments received are a part of the public record 
and will generally be posted to http://www.regulations.gov without 
change. All Personal Identifying Information (for example, name, 
address, etc.) voluntarily submitted by the commenter

[[Page 44734]]

may be publicly accessible. Do not submit Confidential Business 
Information or otherwise sensitive or protected information.
    NMFS will accept anonymous comments (enter N/A in the required 
fields, if you wish to remain anonymous). You may submit attachments to 
electronic comments in Microsoft Word, Excel, WordPerfect, or Adobe PDF 
file formats only.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Dr. Shannon Bettridge, Office of 
Protected Resources, Silver Spring, MD; shannon.bettridge@noaa.gov; 
(301) 427-8402.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 

Background

    On April 23, 2014, NMFS received a petition from the Animal Welfare 
Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Cetacean Society 
International and Earth Island Institute to ``designate the Sakhalin 
Bay-Amur River stock of beluga whales as depleted under the MMPA.'' The 
petition asserts this group of whales constitutes a stock and that this 
stock is below its optimum sustainable population (OSP) and qualifies 
for a depleted designation. It also argues that the stock continues to 
decline and faces a number of threats.
    Section 3(1)(A) of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) (16 
U.S.C. 1362(1)(A)) defines the term ``depletion'' or ``depleted'' to 
include any case in which ``the Secretary, after consultation with the 
Marine Mammal Commission and the Committee of Scientific Advisors on 
Marine Mammals . . . determines that a species or a population stock is 
below its optimum sustainable population.'' Section 3(9) of the MMPA 
(16 U.S.C. 1362(9)) defines ``optimum sustainable population [(OSP)] . 
. . with respect to any population stock, [as] the number of animals 
which will result in the maximum productivity of the population or the 
species, keeping in mind the carrying capacity [(K)] of the habitat and 
the health of the ecosystem of which they form a constituent element.'' 
NMFS' regulations at 50 CFR 216.3 clarify the definition of OSP as a 
population size that falls within a range from the population level of 
a given species or stock that is the largest supportable within the 
ecosystem (i.e., K) to its maximum net productivity level (MNPL). MNPL 
is the population abundance that results in the greatest net annual 
increment in population numbers resulting from additions to the 
population from reproduction, less losses due to natural mortality.
    Historically, MNPL has been expressed as a range of values (between 
50 and 70 percent of K) determined on a theoretical basis by estimating 
what stock size, in relation to the original stock size, will produce 
the maximum net increase in population (42 FR 12010, March 1, 1977). 
NMFS has determined that stocks with populations under the mid-point of 
this range (i.e., 60 percent of K) are depleted (42 FR 64548, December 
27, 1977; 45 FR 72178, October 31, 1980). For stocks of marine mammals, 
K is often unknown. Therefore, NMFS has used the best available 
estimate of historical abundance as a proxy for K (68 FR 3483, January 
24, 2014).
    The MMPA allows interested parties to petition NMFS to initiate a 
status review to determine whether a species or stock of marine mammals 
should be designated as depleted. Section 115(a)(3) of the MMPA (16 
U.S.C. 1383b(a)(3)) requires NMFS to publish a notice in the Federal 
Register that such a petition has been received and is available for 
public review. Within 60 days of receiving a petition, NMFS must 
publish a finding in the Federal Register as to whether the petition 
presents substantial information indicating that the petitioned action 
may be warranted.

Petition

    The Animal Welfare Institute's petition alleges that the causes of 
the stock's decline include: Large-scale commercial hunting from 1915-
1963; unsustainable removal quotas; hunting permits; incidental 
mortality from fishing operations; accidental drowning during live-
capture operations; vessel strikes; and other anthropogenic threats. 
Copies of the petition are available from NMFS (see ADDRESSES).
    Pursuant to Section 115(a)(3)(A) of the MMPA, NMFS published a 
notice in the Federal Register that the petition had been received and 
was available for public review (79 FR 28879, May 20, 2014). In 
response to its announcement that the petition had been received, NMFS 
received 17 comments, all expressing support for the petitioned action. 
Several non-governmental organizations submitted letters of support, 
providing information similar or identical to the information provided 
in the petition. These comments and supporting information can be found 
at www.regulations.gov (Docket ID: NOAA-NMFS-2014-0056).
    Section 115(a)(3)(B) of the MMPA requires NMFS to publish a notice 
in the Federal Register as to whether the petition presents substantial 
information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted. 
After reviewing information presented in the petition, readily 
available in our files, and submitted through the public comment 
process, NMFS finds there is substantial information indicating that 
the petitioned action may be warranted.
    As required by the MMPA, NMFS will promptly begin a status review 
of the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River beluga whales. NMFS must publish a 
proposed rule as to the status of the stock no later than 210 days 
after receipt of the petition.

Analysis of the Petition on Sakhalin Bay-Amur River Beluga Whales

    The Sakhalin Bay-Amur River beluga whales utilize areas in the 
western Sea of Okhotsk that include Russian territorial waters and the 
Russian Exclusive Economic Zone. The petition presents information on 
NMFS' authority to designate stocks outside of U.S. jurisdictional 
waters as depleted. The petition also asserts that the Sakhalin Bay-
Amur River population of beluga whales comprises a stock. In addition, 
the petition presents information suggesting that the Sakhalin Bay-Amur 
River stock of beluga whales is depleted.
    NMFS evaluated the petitioner's request based upon the information 
in the petition, including its references, information readily 
available in our files, and any additional information submitted 
through public comments (as solicited by the Notice of Petition 
Availability).

Sakhalin Bay-Amur River Beluga Whales as a Separate Stock

    The petitioners suggest that genetic and satellite tag tracking 
data indicate the existence of at least two beluga whale populations in 
the Sea of Okhotsk: One in the northeastern region and the other in the 
western region (Shpak and Glazov, 2013). The petition presents 
information suggesting that the beluga whales in the western region of 
the Sea of Okhotsk comprise, and should be managed as, more than one 
stock. The petitioners state that for the beluga whales in the western 
region of the Sea of Okhotsk, evidence of distinct matrilineal lines, 
separate summer birthing and feeding distributions, and high site 
fidelity, all indicate that the region supports more than one stock of 
beluga whales, including a distinct Sakhalin Bay-Amur River stock. The 
petitioners point out that the International Union for the Conservation 
of Nature has recognized the existence of a distinct Sakhalin Bay-Amur 
River stock (Reeves et al., 2011). Additionally, the petition provides 
information demonstrating that the International Whaling Commission's

[[Page 44735]]

Scientific Committee (IWC SC) recognized the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River 
beluga whales as a separate stock in 1999 (IWC Report of the Sub-
Committee on Small Cetaceans, 2000). A study included with the petition 
and in our files by Berzin et al. (1990) also concludes the Sakhalin 
Bay-Amur River beluga whales constitute a stock.

Sakhalin Bay-Amur River Beluga Whale Stock as Depleted

    The petition presents information from 2009 and 2010 stock surveys 
indicating that the best current abundance estimate of the Sakhalin 
Bay-Amur River beluga whales is 3,961 whales (Reeves et al., 2011). The 
petitioners assert that this estimate is well below 60 percent of the 
lowest available estimate of historical abundance (7,000-10,000; Berzin 
and Vladimirov, 1989), and that the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River population 
of beluga whales therefore qualifies as depleted. The petition also 
notes that, after reviewing the available information on the status of 
beluga whales globally, the IWC SC described the Sakhalin Bay Amur-
River stock of beluga whales as having a ``likely depleted status 
relative to historical abundance'' (IWC Report of the Sub-Committee on 
Small Cetaceans, 2000).
    NMFS has analyzed the petition and its references, and information 
readily available in our files. Based on the surveys conducted in 
September 2009 and August 2010, NMFS believes that the best available 
science indicates that the minimum current population estimate of 
beluga whales in the Sakhalin-Amur area is 2,891 whales, and the best 
population estimate (including a correction factor for whales not 
available to be viewed during the survey) is 3,961 whales (Reeves et 
al., 2011). NMFS recognizes that there is very little documented 
information about historical abundance levels of beluga whales in the 
Sakhalin-Amur area. The best available information on historical 
abundance indicates that there were 7,000 to 10,000 beluga whales in 
the Sakhalin-Amur area in 1989 (Berzin and Vladimirov, 1989). Because 
the correction factor used in the 1989 survey was higher than the 
correction factor used in the 2009-2010 surveys, direct comparison of 
these surveys is not appropriate. However, NMFS believes that these 
population estimates provide substantial information indicating that 
the population of the beluga whales in the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River area 
may have declined from historical levels and a depleted designation 
therefore may be warranted. NMFS will further examine the extent of 
population decline during the status review.
    In addition to abundance estimates, the petition contains 
information on factors contributing to the decline of the Sakhalin Bay 
Amur-River population of beluga whales, including: Large-scale 
commercial hunting from 1915-1963; unsustainable removal quotas; 
hunting permits; incidental mortality from fishing operations; 
accidental drowning during live-capture operations; vessel strikes; and 
other anthropogenic threats. While the threat of large-scale commercial 
hunting to the population has diminished, NMFS acknowledges that the 
petition provides information demonstrating that other threats to the 
population persist. Information readily available in our files confirms 
the petition's assertion that whales are removed from this population 
for public display; the effect of this activity on the population's 
abundance will be evaluated during the status review. In addition, 
although NMFS recognizes that there is little information available on 
the number of whales taken from this population incidentally, our files 
indicate that other sources of human-caused serious injury or mortality 
cannot be fully discounted or assumed to be zero (NMFS Final 
Environmental Assessment 2013). NMFS will further examine threats to 
the population's status during the status review.

Petition Finding

    Based on our analysis of the information provided in the petition 
and its references, the public comments received, and information 
readily available in our files, NMFS finds that the petition presents 
substantial information indicating that the petitioned action may be 
warranted and will initiate a status review.

Information Solicited

    To ensure that the status review is based on the best scientific 
information available, we are soliciting scientific information 
relevant to the status of the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River beluga whales 
from the public, including individuals and organizations concerned with 
the conservation of marine mammals, persons in industry which may be 
affected by the determination, and academic institutions. Specifically, 
we are soliciting information related to (1) the identification of 
Sakhalin Bay-Amur River beluga whales as a stock, (2) the historical or 
current abundance of this group, and (3) factors that may be affecting 
the group.

References Cited

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

    Dated: July 18, 2014.
Samuel D. Rauch III,
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 2014-18225 Filed 7-31-14; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-P