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Soundings Archive

NMFS Issues MMPA Take Rules for Navy Training Operations Within the Gulf of Mexico Range Complex
On February , 2011, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service published Federal Register notice that it has issued to the U.S. Navy final rules governing the unintentional taking of marine mammals incidental to activities conducted by the Navy's Atlantic Fleet within the Gulf of Mexico Range Complex for the period of April 2010 through April 2015. The Navy's activities are considered military readiness activities pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. These regulations allow for the issuance of "Letters of Authorization" for the incidental take of marine mammals during the described activities and specified timeframes, prescribe the permissible methods of taking and other means of effecting the least practicable adverse impact on marine mammal species and their habitat, as well as requirements pertaining to the monitoring and reporting of such taking.

The Navy training operations covered by these rules include bombing and small arms training with hand grenades. After proposing the navy rules in July, NMFS reassessed them in light of the BP explosion and oil spill in the GOM. NMFS summarized its assessment in part as follows:

    "On April 20, 2010, explosion and fire on the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit Deepwater Horizon MC252 approximately 50 miles southeast of the Mississippi Delta led to the BP oil spill, which is the largest oil spill in U.S. history and potentially the second largest in world history. The oil wellhead leaked for 85 days and was capped on July 15, 2010. Impacts of this spill are far reaching, and include environmental, economic, and societal consequences. Wildlife and ecosystems are threatened primarily due to factors such as petroleum toxicity and oxygen depletion in the water. Marine species that live in the Gulf and in the marshlands surrounding the Gulf are at risk, including marine mammals. As of August 31, 2010, 88 dolphins and 1 whale have been found stranded, including 4 dolphins that were visibly oiled. However, the proposed Navy's GOMEX training exercises are not expected to further impact the physical marine ecosystem due to the nature of the activities."
In response to the proposed rule, the Marine Mammal Commission submitted several comments to NMFS, including the following:
    "The Commission recommends that NMFS require the Navy to develop and implement a plan to evaluate the effectiveness of monitoring and mitigation measures before beginning, or in conjunction with, the proposed military readiness training operations."
In its Federal Register notice of the final rule, NMFS responded to this MMC comment as follows:
    "Response: NMFS has been working with the Navy throughout the rulemaking process to develop a series of mitigation, monitoring, and reporting protocols. These mitigation, monitoring and reporting measures include, but are not limited to: (1) the use of trained shipboard lookouts who will conduct marine mammal monitoring to avoid collisions with marine mammals; (2) the use of exclusion zones that avoid exposing marine mammals to levels of sound likely to result in injury or death of marine mammals; (3) several cautionary measures to minimize the likelihood of ship strikes of marine mammals; (4) the use of MMOs/lookouts to conduct aerial and vessel-based surveys; and (5) annual monitoring reports and comprehensive reports to provide insights of impacts to marine mammals.

    NMFS has evaluated the effectiveness of the measures and has concluded they will result in the least practicable adverse impact on the affected marine mammal species or stocks and their habitat. For example, operations will be suspended if trained lookouts and/or MMOs detect marine mammals within the exercise's specified exclusion zone in order to prevent marine mammal injury or mortality. In addition, prior to conducting training activities involving underwater explosive detonation, the Navy will be required to monitor the safety zones to ensure the areas are clear of marine mammals. Such monitoring will also be required during the exercise when operationally feasible. These monitoring and mitigation measures are expected to reduce the number of marine mammals exposed to underwater explosions. Over the course of the 5-year rule, NMFS will evaluate the Navy's training activities annually to validate the effectiveness of the measures. NMFS will, through the established adaptive management process, work with the Navy to determine whether additional mitigation and monitoring measures are necessary. In addition, with the implementation of the ICMP Plan, and the planned Monitoring Workshop in 2011, NMFS will work with the Navy to further improve its monitoring and mitigation plans for its future activities."
  • Click here to read NMFS' Federal Register notice
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