Marine Mammals; Subsistence Taking of Northern Fur Seals; St. George Island, Alaska

 
CONTENT

Federal Register, Volume 79 Issue 213 (Tuesday, November 4, 2014)

Federal Register Volume 79, Number 213 (Tuesday, November 4, 2014)

Rules and Regulations

Pages 65327-65339

From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office www.gpo.gov

FR Doc No: 2014-26177

Page 65327

DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

15 CFR Part 902

50 CFR Part 216

Docket No. 130404331-4881-02

RIN 0648-BD12

Marine Mammals; Subsistence Taking of Northern Fur Seals; St. George Island, Alaska

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

ACTION: Final rule.

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SUMMARY: This final rule modifies the subsistence harvest regulations for the Eastern Pacific stock of northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) based on a petition from the Pribilof Island Aleut Community of St. George Island, Traditional Council (Council). The final rule authorizes Pribilovians of St. George Island to harvest up to 150 male young of the year fur seals annually during a new autumn harvest season from all breeding and hauling grounds, consistent with traditional practices, to meet the community's nutritional and cultural needs. Harvests of sub-adult male fur seals will continue to be authorized during the summer season as under existing regulations, and will be allowed at additional locations. The total number of fur seals harvested annually will remain within the range of 300-500 male animals that has been in place since 1997. Harvests will be coordinated between NMFS and the Council under an existing co-management agreement.

DATES: Effective October 30, 2014.

ADDRESSES: Electronic copies of the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), scoping report, St. George Tribal Resolution, proposed rule, and other related documents are available at: http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov.

Written comments regarding the burden-hour estimates or other aspects of the collection-of-information requirements contained in this final rule may be submitted by mail to NMFS, Alaska Region, P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668, Attn: Ellen Sebastian, Records Officer; in person at NMFS, Alaska Region, 709 West 9th Street, Room 420A, Juneau, AK; or by email to OIRA_Submission@omb.eop.gov or fax to (202) 395-5806.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Michael Williams, NMFS Alaska Region, 907-271-5117, Michael.Williams@noaa.gov; or Shannon Bettridge, NMFS Office of Protected Resources, 301-427-8402, Shannon.Bettridge@noaa.gov.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

NMFS published a proposed rule on July 24, 2014 (79 FR 43007) to modify the subsistence harvest regulations for northern fur seals on the Pribilof Islands based on the petition from the Council (75 FR 21233; April 23, 2010). The proposed rule included several modifications to the existing regulations for the sub-adult harvest, in addition to proposing new regulations to authorize a separate young of the year harvest. This final rule implements the regulations for the young of the year harvest, and implements only a portion of the proposed modifications that would affect the sub-adult harvest. Specifically, this action removes restrictions on the locations available for the sub-adult harvest, adds a measure to suspend harvests if two females are killed, adds a measure to terminate harvests if three females are killed, and makes non-substantive organizational changes to other regulatory provisions governing the sub-adult harvest. This regulatory action affects Pribilovians on St. George Island and reorganizes existing regulatory text to separate provisions applicable only to St. George Island from those applicable only to St. Paul Island.

St. George Island is a remote island located in the Bering Sea whose residents rely upon marine mammals as a major food source and cornerstone of their culture, and the harvest of sub-adult male northern fur seals has occurred there for well over 200 years. Food security for the residents of St. George is an ever present concern as a result of regular delays in barge and air traffic. The residents of St. George conduct an annual controlled subsistence harvest from the Northern fur seal stock under the authority of the Fur Seal Act (FSA) (16 U.S.C. 1155, 1161) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) (16 U.S.C. 1371(b)). Pursuant to section 119 of the MMPA, NMFS entered into a co-management agreement with the Pribilof Islands Aleut Community of St. George Island in 2001 (16 U.S.C. 1388). NMFS is guided by this co-

management agreement as it works with St. George to cooperatively implement subsistence harvest activities and monitoring programs. Regulations governing subsistence harvest of fur seals appear at 50 CFR part 216, subpart F.

The United States (U.S.) government began regulating the harvest of northern fur seals by the people of St. George Island in 1867 after the purchase of Alaska. From 1870 through 1890 the U.S. managed the commercial harvest of fur seals under a 20-year lease arrangement with private companies that were responsible for harvesting fur seals and selling the pelts on the world market. During this period, at least 501,324 fur seals (mean annual harvest = 23,872) were harvested for their pelts from St. George Island during the summer. The lease arrangement also stipulated that the Pribilovians were provided a subsistence food harvest in the autumn, and this subsistence harvest was directed at male young of the year. The subsistence food harvest of young of the year was 28,064 (mean annual harvest = 1,477) for this 20-

year period, and the Pribilovians were allowed to keep the pelts from the food harvest for trade and barter. A second 20-year lease arrangement, between the North American Commercial Company and the U.S., required the Pribilovians to collect fresh meat from the commercial harvest during the summer, and did not allow them to obtain their preferred fresh fur seal meat in the autumn from young of the year prior to the fur seals' winter migration from the islands. Consequently, the summer commercial land harvest of sub-adult males became the primary means for

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Pribilovians to obtain fresh meat for subsistence. The prohibition on harvesting young of the year has been retained to the present day.

In 1910, after the expiration of the second 20-year lease, the U.S. no longer delegated the management of the commercial harvests on the Pribilof Islands to the lessees. The U.S. managed and implemented the commercial harvest of fur seals on the Pribilof Islands until 1984. The subsistence harvest of northern fur seals is the focus of this regulatory action, but NMFS's understanding of harvest effects on the fur seal population is based on over 100 years of commercial harvest management, population assessment, and behavioral research. The SEIS (NMFS, 2014) analyzes the available evidence of the effects of the subsistence harvest of male fur seals and concludes that the harvest of up to 350 sub-adult and 150 young of the year male fur seals would have an insignificant effect on the St. George population of about 72,828 fur seals. NMFS has not detected a relationship between the number of sub-adult male fur seals killed or harassed during harvests and the abundance and trend of the population.

NMFS commercially harvested an average of 8,152 sub-adult males annually from 1963-1972 on St. George Island. In 1972, the U.S. began the first large-scale investigation into the effects of commercial fur seal harvesting (Gentry, 1998). Since 1972, the St. George fur seal population decreased to its present size, showing no positive response to the reduction in the harvest of sub-adult male fur seals. From 1973 through 1975, the U.S. prohibited the St. George commercial harvest of sub-adult fur seals for their pelts in order to conduct research on the population dynamics and effects of harvesting. NMFS provided some excess fur seal meat to St. George residents from the St. Paul commercial harvest due to the harvest prohibition on St. George. Between 1976 and 1979, NMFS authorized subsistence harvests on St. George at Northwest and Staraya Artil hauling grounds. From 1980 to 1984, NMFS allowed subsistence harvests only at the Northeast hauling ground. In 1986 NMFS published fur seal subsistence harvest regulations (51 FR 24828; July 9, 1986) authorizing harvests on St. George Island at Northeast and Zapadni hauling grounds. These restrictions on St. George Island subsistence harvest locations were intended to preserve experimental and control sites for scientific investigations during the commercial harvest period (Gentry, 1998), which are no longer being pursued.

In 1984, the U.S. did not ratify the protocol to extend the Convention on the Conservation of Fur Seals, which had allowed commercial harvests of fur seals. This action resulted in the termination of the commercial harvest of fur seals on the Pribilof Islands, and inadvertently changed the way either community could obtain fresh fur seal meat. NMFS published an emergency interim rule (50 FR 27914; July 8, 1985) under the FSA and the MMPA to govern the subsistence harvest of northern fur seals on the Pribilof Islands for the 1985 season. NMFS acknowledged in the proposed rule (51 FR 17900; May 15, 1986) that the additional restrictions on St. George may not allow Pribilovians on St. George to satisfy their subsistence needs. On July 9, 1986, NMFS published a final rule that restricted the subsistence harvest of northern fur seals by sex, age, and season for herd management purposes to limit the take to a sustainable level while providing for the legitimate subsistence needs of the Pribilovians (51 FR 24828). NMFS subsequently designated the Pribilof northern fur seal population as depleted under the MMPA in 1988 (53 FR 17888; May 18, 1988). In the preamble to the proposed rule for the depleted designation, NMFS stated that it did not contemplate further rulemaking to restrict Alaska Native subsistence harvest of fur seals as a consequence of a depleted designation (51 FR 47156; December 30, 1986).

In 2001, NMFS and the Council entered into a co-management agreement pursuant to section 119 of the MMPA. The purpose of that agreement is to conserve northern fur seals and Steller sea lions through cooperative effort and consultation regarding subsistence harvests. The Council has sampled, managed, monitored, and reported the sub-adult male subsistence fur seal harvest independently since the late 1990s, consistent with current regulations.

Population Status

NMFS manages the northern fur seal population as two stocks in the U.S.: the Eastern Pacific and the San Miguel stocks. Neither stock is listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Eastern Pacific stock includes northern fur seals breeding on Sea Lion Rock and St. Paul, St. George, and Bogoslof islands. NMFS designated the Pribilof Islands northern fur seal population as depleted under the MMPA on May 18, 1988 (53 FR 17888) after it had declined to less than 50 percent of levels observed in the late 1950s (about 2.1 million fur seals). Loughlin et al. (1994) estimated approximately 1.3 million northern fur seals existed worldwide, and the Pribilof Islands represented about 982,000 (74 percent of the total) in 1992. The 2012 abundance of fur seals on the Pribilof Islands was about 44 percent lower (546,720 fur seals) than the 1992 estimate (Towell et al., 2013). NMFS estimates an annual decline in pup production for the Pribilof Islands of about 4 percent since 1998, and the annual decline for St. Paul (4.84 percent) is higher than for St. George, where the most recent trend (2004-2012) is stable and not significantly different from zero (Towell et al., 2013). The causes of the current fur seal decline on the Pribilof Islands are unknown.

Northern fur seals seasonally occupy specific breeding and non-

breeding sites on St. George. The age and breeding status is the main determinant of where male fur seals are found during the breeding and non-breeding season. During the breeding season sub-adult males are excluded from the breeding sites (i.e., rookeries) by adult males and occupy resting sites known as hauling grounds (Figure 1 to part 216). Each of the six breeding sites has at least one distinct non-breeding hauling ground nearby (Figure 1). During the non-breeding season beginning about September 1, sub-adult males can be found on both rookeries and hauling grounds together with the remainder of the population.

Petition for Rulemaking

In September 2006, the Council submitted a tribal resolution to NMFS indicating the Federal government had previously allowed the community to harvest male fur seal young of the year in autumn for subsistence purposes. The Council requested that NMFS change the subsistence harvest regulations to allow residents of St. George the opportunity to return to their historic subsistence harvest patterns, including the harvesting of up to 350 sub-adult males in the summer and the harvesting of up to 150 male young of the year in the autumn each year. On April 23, 2010, NMFS published a notice of receipt of a petition (the tribal resolution) from the Council to revise the subsistence regulations for St. George Island to allow taking male northern fur seal young of the year during an autumn season (75 FR 21233). NMFS received no comments on the notice. Subsequently, NMFS worked with the Council to clarify the petition to define the second harvest season from September 16 to November 30, to discuss young of the year harvest methods and areas, and to outline the process to proceed with rulemaking. In

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2011, NMFS held scoping meetings on St. George Island and in Anchorage, AK, and provided a 60-day public comment period to consider possible alternatives. NMFS received scoping input during the St. George Island community meeting, and no one commented during the Anchorage scoping meeting. NMFS received only two letters during the comment period and both supported the Council's petition in the cultural and historic context of traditional and customary uses of marine mammals by Aleuts (NMFS, 2012). NMFS supplemented the 2005 environmental impact statement, and considered four alternatives in the SEIS to evaluate the impacts of the proposed action on the human environment (79 FR 31110; May 30, 2014). NMFS received two comment letters on a draft of the SEIS and provided responses to those comments in the final SEIS (79 FR 49774; August 22, 2014).

Changes to the St. George Northern Fur Seal Harvest Regulations

This action revises the subsistence harvest regulations at 50 CFR part 216, subpart F, to allow the harvest of northern fur seals to meet the subsistence needs of Pribilovians on St. George Island. This action allows St. George residents to carry out subsistence harvests focused on male young of the year during a second season (September 16 through November 30), in addition to the longstanding practice for St. George residents to harvest sub-adult fur seals. The new regulatory measures also implement new conservation controls on the St. George subsistence harvest. These include: (1) suspension of the harvest if two female fur seals are killed and a review of harvest practices by NMFS before the harvest may resume; (2) termination of the harvest for the season if three female fur seals are killed; (3) prohibition of take of young of the year fur seals from any breeding or resting areas when the most recent pup production estimate has fallen below levels capable of sustaining a harvest; and (4) equal geographic distribution of the young of the year harvest, based on the most recent estimate of pups born at the various breeding areas. The final rule provides increased management flexibility in the seasonal and geographical aspects of the harvest, consistent with historical and cultural practices on St. George.

The final rule authorizes the subsistence harvests at a greater number of sites than under the current regulations governing the sub-

adult harvest, such that the harvest effort would not be concentrated in time or space, thus minimizing effects on fur seals. The final rule also clarifies the Tribal and Federal responsibilities to co-manage the subsistence harvest of fur seals.

The final rule revises the following provisions of the existing (51 FR 24828; July 9, 1986) subsistence harvest regulations:

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50 CFR part 216 Revision

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Sec. 216.72(c)............................ Removed and reserved.

Sec. 216.72(d)............................ Revised to create distinct provisions applicable to St. George

Island for sub-adult harvests and for young of the year harvests.

Sec. 216.72(d)(1)......................... Renumbered and retained provisions specifying the sub-adult seal

size limit, harvest season, and harvest suspension if the lower

end of the allowable range is reached.

Sec. 216.72(d)(2)......................... Renumbered and retained provisions specifying the allowable sub-

adult harvest locations and frequency of harvests.

Sec. 216.72(d)(3)......................... Renumbered and retained provision that only NMFS scientists can

direct sealers to take seals with tags and/or entangling debris.

Sec. 216.72(d)(4)......................... Renumbered and retained provision for harvest scheduling, sealer

experience requirements, and traditional harvest methods

requirements.

Sec. 216.72(d)(5)......................... Renumbered and retained prohibition on taking adult fur seals or

the intentional taking of sub-adult female fur seals.

Sec. 216.72(d)(6)......................... Added to define the young of the year harvest season from

September 16 through November 30. Added the young of the year

harvest limit of 150 males or up to the lower end of the harvest

range established in paragraph (b).

Sec. 216.72(d)(7)......................... Added to distribute the young of the year harvest equally

according to population size by allowing up to 50 male young of

the year from each of the three regional pairs of rookeries, and

to describe the method of harvest as stunning and immediate

exsanguination.

Sec. 216.72(d)(8)......................... Added to define the scheduling and methods restrictions for the

young of the year harvest.

Sec. 216.72(d)(9)......................... Added to prohibit any harvest of sub adult or adult male fur seals

or the intentional harvest of female fur seals.

Sec. 216.72(d)(10)........................ Added to prohibit taking young of the year from any breeding areas

when the most recent annual pup production estimate is below

levels capable of sustaining harvest.

Sec. 216.72(d)(11)........................ Added to require NMFS and the Council to review harvest practices

no later than 120 days after the last harvest each year.

Sec. 216.72(e)(1)--(e)(6)................. Reorganized to retain for St. Paul Island the current sub-adult

male fur seal subsistence harvest provisions.

Sec. 216.72(f)(1)(i)--(f)(1)(iii)......... Redesignated from paragraphs (e)(1)(i)--(e)(1)(iii).

Sec. 216.72(f)(1)(iv)..................... Added to suspend the harvest if two female fur seals of any age

are killed on St. George Island.

Sec. 216.72(f)(2) and (f)(3).............. Redesignated from paragraphs (e)(2) and (e)(3).

Sec. 216.72(f)(4)......................... Added to review and lift suspensions issued under new paragraph

(f)(1)(iv) for killing of two females if a remedy can be

identified and implemented to prevent additional killings.

Sec. 216.72(g)............................ Redesignated from paragraph (f).

Sec. 216.72(g)(1)......................... Added to establish termination of the St. George young of the year

harvest on November 30 and retain termination of the sub-adult

male harvest on August 8.

Sec. 216.72(g)(2)......................... Added to retain the termination of the harvest when subsistence

needs have been satisfied or the upper end of the range has been

reached.

Sec. 216.72(g)(3)......................... Added to terminate the harvest on St. George when three female fur

seals of any age have been killed during harvest on St. George.

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Sec. 216.74............................... Revised to create separate subsections for St. George and St.

Paul, and to describe in the St. George subsection the co-

management relationship between NMFS and the Council under

section 119 of the MMPA and efforts by NMFS to partner with the

tribal government to consider best harvest practices and

facilitate scientific research.

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The current subsistence fur seal harvest range is 300-500 male fur seals annually on St. George Island (79 FR 45728; August 6, 2014). Of the total potential harvest limit of 500 male fur seals, this action authorizes the subsistence harvest of 150 young of the year males from September 16 through November 30 each year. Thus, if the Pribilovians on St. George intend to satisfy their subsistence needs in a given year by harvesting the full 150 young of the year during the autumn harvest season, they should harvest no more than 350 sub-adult male fur seals from June 24 through August 8. If the lower end of the subsistence harvest range for St. George is reached (currently set at 300; 79 FR 45728), and the Pribilovians have not satisfied their subsistence needs, the rule enables the Council on behalf of the Pribilovians to request that NMFS allow harvest up to the upper limit of the harvest range. At the point when the lower end of the harvest range is reached, the harvest is suspended for no more than 48 hours for NMFS and the Council to discuss and determine within the co-management structure the revised estimate of the number of seals required to satisfy the St. George residents' subsistence need and how many seals from each age class they intend to harvest.

Taking Male Young of the Year

The historical Aleut harvest of young of the year fur seals was discussed in the preamble to the proposed rule (79 FR 43007; July 24, 2014). The estimated annual total subsistence harvest level for St. George Island would remain consistent with the subsistence harvest range estimates of 300 to 500 male fur seals that NMFS evaluated in 2005 under the preferred alternative in the environmental impact statement for setting annual subsistence harvest levels (NMFS 2005) and again in the 2014 SEIS (NMFS 2014). The harvest level would also remain consistent with NMFS's most recent estimate of the annual subsistence needs of Pribilovians on St. George (79 FR 45728; August 6, 2014).

NMFS does not expect that the harvest of young of the year males will have adverse effects on the fur seal population. As described in the preamble to the proposed rule (79 FR 43007; July 24, 2014), direct evidence from Russian harvests of young of the year fur seals and population modeling conducted by NMFS both indicate that a male young of the year harvest with the control measures contained in this final rule will be sustainable. In summary, NMFS (2014) analyzed numerous lines of harvest evidence including the harvest of northern fur seal pups from their Russian breeding islands (Kuzin 2010, Ream and Burkanov pers. comm.), survival models (Towell 2007, Fowler et al., 2009), and simplified direct additive losses (which assume all harvested males four years and younger would have survived to become reproductively active harem males) and concluded that no population level effects of the subsistence harvest of sub-adult and young of the year males are anticipated. Evidence provided in the SEIS and in the preamble to the proposed rule (79 FR 43007; July 24, 2014) indicates that efforts to protect female fur seals, whether or not they are sexually mature, are the most likely to have direct conservation value for the fur seal population. NMFS has included measures in the final rule, as summarized below, to keep the accidental mortality of females as close to zero as practical.

Establishment of a Second Harvest Season

The final rule establishes the second season, exclusively for male young of the year fur seals, from September 16 until November 30. Those dates ensure the young of the year harvest occurs after the breeding season, which ends in August, and thus provide protection for late-

breeding young fur seals. The timing of the second season also allows for young of the year to begin using sites separate from those used by lactating adult female and sub-adult fur seals. Young of the year wander and spend time away from the rookeries and hauling grounds (Figure 1), thereby providing the opportunity for the harvest to reduce incidental harassment of older seals still using the rookeries and hauling grounds during the second harvest season. The end date of the second subsistence harvest season coincides with the time when the majority of the fur seal population migrates away from the Pribilof Islands, which typically occurs by early December.

The final rule does not alter the requirement to terminate the existing sub-adult male harvest by August 8 of each year. As discussed in the preamble to the proposed rule (79 FR 43007; July 24, 2014), ending the sub-adult harvest by August 8 minimizes the chance of accidentally taking young female fur seals.

Distributing the Harvest

The young of the year harvest will occur during the non-breeding season in locations that earlier in the year were both breeding and non-breeding areas. Young of the year harvests could occur in any areas occupied by young of the year. The final rule distributes the young of the year harvest into three regions (North, East, and South) of fur seal breeding to avoid concentrating harvest pressure on a subset of the population and to provide adequate opportunity for the community to satisfy its subsistence needs. Each region contains two breeding areas and at least two hauling grounds. The North region includes two separate and adjacent breeding areas (North and Staraya Artil rookeries) that make up 32.9 percent of the island population based on the most recent estimate of pups born. The East region includes East Reef and East Cliffs rookeries, which account for 33.3 percent, and the South region includes South and Zapadni rookeries which account for the remaining island pup production (33.7 percent). Under the final rule, up to 50 male pups could be harvested from each region (i.e., equal distribution based pup production), reducing the possibility for concentration of lethal or sub-lethal effects in particular areas.

Prohibition on Taking From Small Breeding Areas

Approximately 16,000 pups were born on St. George Island in 2012; however, the numbers born at each breeding area vary widely (Towell et al., 2013). Northern fur seals exhibit strong site fidelity (i.e., repeatedly return to a site over years) and philopatry (i.e., return to the place of birth) (Gentry, 1998). These two behavioral tendencies have allowed humans to harvest and study fur seals for many decades and are summarized in the preamble to the

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proposed rule (79 FR 43007; July 24, 2014) and described more fully in the SEIS (NMFS, 2014).

The final rule prohibits young of the year harvests at breeding locations determined to be at risk of reaching unsustainable population levels due to low pup production. As discussed in the preamble to the proposed rule (79 FR 43007; July 24, 2014), NMFS will use an annual minimum pup production threshold of 500 to indicate breeding areas and their associated hauling grounds at which young of the year harvest would not be allowed. NMFS's determination is based on modelling and empirical evidence. NMFS first evaluated models that consider the maintenance of genetic diversity in a population (effective population size, Ne) and the effects of demography and environmental variability on population persistence (minimum viable population size, MVP). Adapting model estimates from Olesiuk (2012), NMFS calculated minimum sustainable pup production levels for the breeding sites, and these ranged from 300 (Ne model) to 600 (MVP model) pups born (Johnson 2014). NMFS then evaluated historical pup production data from 1912-1922, when the population was recovering from its lowest levels in recorded history, to provide an empirical estimate of minimum viable pup production. NMFS identified only four rookeries that during the 1912-

1922 period had declined to (or below) the range of 300 to 600 pups born; of these, three rookeries increased and remained above that range, and one went extinct. NMFS records show the lowest number of pups born during the period at Zapadni Reef, Ardiguen, and East Reef rookeries was 186, 417, and 469, respectively. Each of these rookeries fell within the modeled minimum viable population range of 300-600 and all recovered to the present. Lagoon rookery fell to 388 pups born, increased to 500 during the period, and subsequently went extinct in the early 1940s. As new fur seal data or models become available, NMFS may refine this threshold.

To evaluate whether the smallest breeding areas are susceptible to extinction, NMFS will project estimated biennial pup production at each breeding area 10 years into the future (see Johnson, 2014). If the projections indicate a greater than 5 percent probability that pup production at a breeding site will fall below 500 within the ten-year time horizon, no young of the year harvest will be allowed at that site. The ten-year time horizon allows for natural variability of pup production into the future. Pup production for each rookery is estimated separately every two years, and therefore rookery-specific young of the year harvests can be managed separately during this period. For example, using 2012 data the quasi-extinction analysis of pup production and trend for Staraya Artil rookery indicates that the population at that rookery has over a 65 percent probability of falling below 500 during the next 10 years, and none of the other breeding areas have greater than a 5 percent probability of reaching 500 (Johnson, 2014). NMFS adopted a 5 percent probability of reaching the quasi-extinction threshold within ten years based on analysis from Gerber and DeMaster (1999) and considers this threshold to be conservative. Based on the quasi-extinction analysis using methods from Johnson (2014), this action effectively prohibits all young of the year harvests at Staraya Artil rookery until pup production from that rookery increases to a level at which there is a 5 percent or lower probability of pup production being below 500 during the next 10 years.

The final rule distributes the young of the year harvest limit equally across the three regions of two rookeries each. Thus, while Staraya Artil rookery and its single hauling ground remains closed to young of the year harvests at this time, harvesters could take up to 50 male young of the year from the other rookery (North Rookery) in the North Region. This geographic dispersion of effort and prohibition on the taking from areas with small population size will allow NMFS and the Council to ensure that individual breeding locations do not reach population sizes low enough that recovery is highly uncertain. NMFS and the Council will review and update the statistical analysis as new data are available, and during annual co-management meetings will determine the locations where young of the year harvests can occur based on the updated analysis.

Suspension or Termination of the Harvest

Historically, the northern fur seal population has declined during periods when there were no prohibitions on intentional or un-

intentional harvest of females. The northern fur seal population declined through 1979, well beyond expectations of the member nations to the Fur Seal Treaty of 1911 (York and Hartley, 1981), as a result of female harvests. Trites and Larkin (1989) estimated that an annual 2 to 5 percent reduction in adult female survival over the period of 1950 to 1987 was the most likely contributor to the lack of recovery by the Pribilof fur seal population. NMFS population modeling indicates female young of the year may have at least five to six times higher reproductive value than male young of the year (NMML unpublished data), primarily due to their reproductive ecology whereby one male inseminates many females.

The final rule maintains all prohibitions on taking during the sub-

adult male harvest season. The final rule creates new prohibitions on the harvest of sub-adults, adults, or the intentional harvest of young of the year female fur seals during the male young of the year harvest season. From 1985 to 2013, five sub-adult females were harvested accidentally on St. George Island out of a total harvest of 4,994 seals (0.1 percent accidental sub-adult female harvest rate).

Under the final rule, NMFS would suspend the harvest in the event of two female mortalities and terminate the harvest in the event of a third female mortality in a given calendar year. These measures create a powerful incentive for St. George harvesters to spend adequate time to identify sex correctly and avoid killing females. NMFS's intent in defining the upper limit of female mortalities at three per year is to encourage harvesters to develop and improve best practices as part of the young of the year harvest to ensure that the accidental female harvest rate under the new regulations remains close to zero. Female mortalities that would trigger the suspension or termination of the harvest include direct harvest mortalities as well as indirect mortalities due to trampling or other disturbance associated with the harvest.

If two females are killed and NMFS suspends the harvest, NMFS could reverse the suspension upon review of the circumstances of the female mortalities and identification by St. George and NMFS of a remedy to minimize the risk of additional accidental mortality of any female fur seals. If the harvest is resumed and another female is killed, then the harvest will be terminated for the year.

Cooperative Management of the Subsistence Harvest

In 2000 and 2001, NMFS signed co-management agreements with Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Tribal Government and the Aleut Community of St. George Island, Traditional Council. These agreements set in place a process for NMFS and the tribes to communicate, partner, and cooperate on issues related to the subsistence harvest of northern fur seals. This process has developed a collaborative relationship that has created both greater and more

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cost effective opportunities for NMFS to collect information about fur seal disease, health, and age composition by training local tribal members and building that capacity within the tribal governments. In addition, tribal government staff has disentangled fur seals, recorded tag numbers, and collected information about the locations of seals captured in the harvest round-ups and reported this information annually in their harvest reports with minimal involvement by NMFS. Through co-management NMFS has also worked with both tribal governments to conduct research. The final rule aligns the purposes of the co-

management agreement between NMFS and the Council with the subsistence harvest regulations with the subsistence harvest regulations for St. George, and retains the subsistence harvest regulations for St. Paul.

The collaborative relationship built under co-management will be strengthened by NMFS and the Council continuing to work jointly to develop best harvest practices, which balance conservation, sustainability, and cultural interests. NMFS and the Council will refine these harvest practices as young of the year harvest experience is gained, and will formalize those practices via the co-management council. NMFS will post the best harvest practices on the NMFS Alaska Region Web site.

The best harvest practices will include a description of jointly agreed-upon measures to consider before each young of the year harvest. Further description of the intent of the best harvest practices is provided in the preamble to the proposed rule (79 FR 43007; July 24, 2014).

The Council has expressed its intention during co-management meetings to utilize the same harvest methodology for the young of the year harvest as it uses for the existing sub-adult harvest, whereby a crew is organized in advance and assesses those locations most likely to be harvested. From those likely harvest locations the crew would consider the prevailing weather conditions, presence of harvestable young of the year, accessibility and space for harvest, presence of non-harvestable seals, and the impact those non-harvestable seals would have on the implementation of the harvest. Whether those methods defined as traditional in the emergency final rule (51 FR 24828; July 9, 1986) will be applicable to the harvest of young of the year is unknown because a young of the year harvest has not occurred for over 120 years. The final rule will ensure humane harvesting of young of the year via stunning and immediate exsanguination, but flexibility in some of the specific harvest methods is required to achieve the outcomes of reduced stress, injury, and disturbance to harvested and un-harvested seals and to minimize taking of female seals. NMFS's intent is to encourage innovation and improvements to the subsistence harvest methods for fur seals.

Comments and Responses

NMFS received comments on the proposed rule to change the subsistence harvest regulations (79 FR 43007; July 24, 2014) from the Humane Society of the United States, the Marine Mammal Commission (Commission), and one individual. A summary of the comments received and NMFS's responses follows.

Comment 1: One commenter objected to the fur seal harvest overall, and stated that the harvest is about money, not food or culture, and that the culture on St. George has changed tremendously such that the harvest is not justified as a cultural need.

Response: NMFS disagrees. The existing subsistence harvest of northern fur seals on St. George is set at a maximum of 500 sub-adult males and represents less than 1 percent of the entire population of fur seals residing on St. George Island. The Fur Seal Act and MMPA both provide for the subsistence harvest of northern fur seals to meet the dietary and cultural needs of the Pribilof Island Alaska Native residents (Pribilovians). The subsistence harvest remains very important to the culture of the Pribilovians, even with changes that have taken place on the Pribilof Islands in modern times. The final rule includes new harvest control measures that will further ensure the sustainability of the subsistence harvest.

Comment 2: A commenter stated that the announcement of the availability of the draft SEIS should have been published in the Federal Register rather than simply being sent to a small universe of previously interested commenters.

Response: As NMFS noted in the response to comment section in the SEIS, and as is standard practice, NMFS worked with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to publish the Notice of Availability for the draft SEIS in the Federal Register on May 30, 2014 (79 FR 31110). Likewise NMFS worked with EPA to publish a Notice of Availability for the final SEIS in the Federal Register on August 22, 2014 (79 FR 49774).

Comment 3: The proposed regulations adopt the ``proposed action'' alternative in the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Based on the short space of time between the close of the comment period on the DSEIS and the start of the comment period on the proposed rule, it is not clear that NMFS considered or addressed concerns raised during the comment period on the DSEIS.

Response: NMFS responded to all of the comments on the DSEIS in the response to comments section of the SEIS (79 FR 49774; August 22, 2014) as required by NEPA. NMFS considered those comments received on the DSEIS and addressed public comments on the proposed rule in the preamble to this final rule.

Comment 4: A commenter stated that for reasons that are poorly understood, during 1998-2010, pup production declined 5.46% per year on St. Paul Island and 2.09% per year on St. George Island with the estimated pup production in 2010 below the 1916 level on both St. Paul and St. George Islands. There is every indication that the decline has not stopped. NMFS's management decisions related to this stock emphasize the importance of protecting females and increasing pup survival. The 2005 EIS, which the SEIS supplements, states that harvest extensions beyond the first week of August in 1986 and 1987 resulted in an increased number of female fur seals taken. Expanding the harvest to the fall as proposed increases the risk that females will be killed unintentionally.

Response: NMFS agrees that protecting female fur seals and their future reproductive potential is important. NMFS disagrees with the commenter's assertion that the decline in pup production has not stopped on St. George. NMFS examined data for the period since the 2005 EIS and the pup production trend for St. George Island between 2004 and 2012 was stable (i.e., not increasing or declining, SE = 0.79, P