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NOAA Fisheries Announces the Opportunity to Provide Comments Related to White Shark Research Being Conducted in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico

Posted March 1, 2017

Background

On November 16, 2016 (81 FR 80646), NMFS published a Notice of Intent (NOI) announcing the intent to issue EFPs, scientific research permits (SRP), display permits, LOAs, and chartering permits for the collection and tagging of a limited number of tunas, swordfish, billfishes, and sharks from Federal waters in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico for the purposes of scientific data collection and public display.  During the comment period for the November 2016 NOI, NMFS received numerous comments regarding previous years’ white shark research in Federal waters, focusing primarily on concerns about the need for coordination among researchers regarding the potential effects of one project on another.  The volume of these comments indicated to us that any EFPs or SRP applications involving white sharks in 2017 should be considered “controversial” and would warrant an additional opportunity for public comment, which we would consider before issuing the permits.

In 2016, NMFS issued an SRP to OCEARCH to tag and collect tissue samples from a variety of sharks in Federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.  In mid-September, OCEARCH moved to Federal waters off the coast of Massachusetts and began their tagging and collection activities.  NMFS was not aware of any potential conflict between OCEARCH’s shark research in Federal waters and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts white shark research in state waters until after the 2016 SRP had been issued and the research was underway.  Once it became clear that OCEARCH was intending to conduct research in Federal waters just outside of Massachusetts state waters, the state and other organizations expressed concern regarding the potential impact of OCEARCH’s tagging activities on the state’s mark-recapture study.

Summary of comments

In response to the NOI, NMFS received comments regarding white shark research in Federal waters and impacts to existing research conducted in state or Federal waters.  A number of the comments requested that NMFS consult with the public before issuing permits for white shark research for the purpose of expressing concerns related to the specifics of those EFP applications (e.g., any potential interference with ongoing white shark research).  Additionally, many of the comments specifically mentioned interactions between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts mark-recapture study on white sharks in their state waters and the research activities being conducted by the research group OCEARCH in adjacent Federal waters.  NMFS also received a comment in support of issuing an EFP to a purse seine fishery participant and two comments in support of the continued issuance of display permits for Atlantic HMS.

Current applications for white shark research

In 2016, NMFS issued an SRP to OCEARCH because the group was deploying archival tags on Atlantic sharks, and the regulations in place at the time specifically required written authorization for such activities.  Due to the final rule modifying archival tag permitting and reporting requirements (August 19, 2016, 81 FR 55376), OCEARCH no longer needs an SRP for its tagging activities, as archival tagging activities no longer require written authorization from NMFS.  NMFS recently received an application for OCEARCH to conduct tagging and non-lethal biological sampling activities within Federal waters in 2017.  Because the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act states that scientific research activity conducted on a scientific research vessel is not defined as “fishing” under the Act, NMFS does not otherwise require a permit for the research activities and would consider issuing a LOA to OCEARCH and its associated scientists after reviewing their research plan.  An LOA only acknowledges the activity as scientific research, but NMFS has in the past requested that applicants comply with certain terms and conditions, usually in association with Endangered Species Act requirements.  Since research is not considered fishing, there would be no regulatory exemptions or limitations on fishing gear or fishing areas (within Federal waters) as long as the activities being conducted are consistent with the research plan provided to NMFS.

In addition to the application from OCEARCH, NMFS has received one application from Dr. Gregory Skomal, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, to conduct research on white sharks from both research vessels and recreational vessels.  Dr. Skomal and associated researchers would examine the fine- and broad-scale movements of several shark species by tagging them with an acoustic transmitter, M-tag, and/or a satellite tag.  Non-lethal biological samples (e.g., blood samples, fin clips) would also be collected from the tagged sharks.  The research would be conducted in Federal waters from Florida to Maine.  NMFS expects that this research would require an EFP if issued because part of this research would be conducted from private vessels, not bona-fide research vessels.  NMFS invites comments on this specific application and the impacts it may pose to other research being conducted on white sharks in the Atlantic, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.  We expect that this research would require an EFP if issued since this research would be conducted from private vessels.

We are inviting comments on this specific application and the impacts it may pose to other research being conducted on white sharks in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.  We note that before issuing any EFP or SRP, we do consider whether environmental impacts or socioeconomic impacts will occur beyond the existing analyses and whether additional consultation or analyses are needed over the impacts.   Absent such impacts, we do not conduct detailed analyses about the impact of one research project on another.  Coordination among researchers regarding research goals, methodologies, and research areas and practices is primarily the responsibility of the researchers themselves.

Submitting comments

Written comments related to this notice must be received on or before April 3, 2017.  Please send comments to Craig Cockrell, Highly Migratory Species Management Division (F/SF1), NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.  Comments may also be sent via e-mail to nmfs.hms.efp2017@noaa.gov.  

This notice is a courtesy to individuals interested in HMS fisheries activities to keep you informed about the fishery.  Official notice of Federal fishery actions is made through filing such notice with the Office of the Federal Register.  For further information, contact Craig Cockrell at (301) 427-8503.

 

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