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Soundings Archive

NMFS Explains Its View of Best Available Data in New Killer Whale Rules
On April 14, 2011, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service published Federal Register notice of Protective Regulations for Killer Whales in the Northwest Region under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. These final rules prohibit vessels from approaching killer whales within 200 yards (182.9 m) and from parking in the path of whales when in inland waters of Washington State. Certain vessels are exempt from the prohibitions.

NMFS' response to comments in the Federal Register notice of these rules helps to explain NMFWS' view of "best available data." Because it is important in several contexts, we quote NMFS' discussion of this issue at some length:

    "Response [to Comment 10] : NMFS relied on the best available data to develop the proposed and final regulations. The majority of the information came from peer reviewed scientific publications. To a lesser extent, unpublished data, personal accounts and other anecdotal information also informed development of the regulations. We gave greater weight to sound peer reviewed studies published in scientific journals than to personal observation and interpretation. These scientific studies use established scientific methods, test hypotheses, employ statistical analysis, and have been peer reviewed and published in scientific journals. These steps in the scientific process reduce the potential for bias in results. We reviewed all of the best available information from multiple independent scientists which also limits the concerns about potential bias related to one individual researcher.

    Several independent scientists have reported behavioral changes in whale swimming patterns, changes in respiratory patterns, reduced time spent foraging/feeding, and increased surface active behaviors in the presence of vessels. These studies provide multiple lines of evidence regarding the nature and degree of vessel impacts on the behavior of killer whales. The data from these studies have been rigorously analyzed and the results are statistically significant. Some of the reported behavioral changes may not be obvious to casual observers.

    We acknowledge that there is some uncertainty involved in interpretation of the results in the peer reviewed published papers. While we evaluated the quality, applicability and uncertainty in the scientific information, we also relied on a conservative approach in weighing the severity and likelihood of impacts from vessels in light of the whales' status as an endangered species."

    "With field studies of wild animals there will always be some uncertainties because it is not possible to control for all of the variables. In addition, there are some hypotheses that cannot be tested with wild animals in the field. We routinely use models with inherent assumptions to help fill these data gaps and inform our decisions. For example, there is no direct data to measure a reduction in the efficiency of echolocation in the presence of vessel sound. Instead, we relied on a model created to estimate the vessel sound under varying conditions and calculate a reduction in echolocation efficiency. This model is based on data collected on the whales' hearing capabilities, sound recordings of vessels, sound propagation models, and some assumptions about the whales' ability to detect a salmon in the water column. We believe these assumptions are justified by the available information."
  • Click here to read NMFS' Federal Register notice
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