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Title 50

Displaying title 50, up to date as of 9/21/2021. Title 50 was last amended 9/17/2021.

Title 50

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§ 217.184 Mitigation requirements.

When conducting the activities identified in § 217.180, the mitigation measures contained in any LOA issued under §§ 216.106 of this chapter and 217.186 must be implemented. These mitigation measures shall include but are not limited to:

(a) General conditions.

(1) A copy of any issued LOA must be in the possession of the LOA-holder, vessel operator, other relevant personnel, the lead protected species observer (PSO), and any other relevant designees operating under the authority of the LOA.

(2) The LOA-holder must instruct relevant vessel personnel with regard to the authority of the protected species monitoring team (PSO team), and must ensure that relevant vessel personnel and PSO team participate in a joint onboard briefing, led by the vessel operator and lead PSO, prior to beginning work to ensure that responsibilities, communication procedures, protected species monitoring protocols, operational procedures, and LOA requirements are clearly understood. This briefing must be repeated when relevant new personnel join the survey operations before work involving those personnel commences.

(3) The acoustic source must be deactivated when not acquiring data or preparing to acquire data, except as necessary for testing. Unnecessary use of the acoustic source must be avoided. For surveys using airgun arrays as the acoustic source, notified operational capacity (i.e., total array volume) (not including redundant backup airguns) must not be exceeded during the survey, except where unavoidable for source testing and calibration purposes. All occasions where activated source volume exceeds notified operational capacity must be communicated to the PSO(s) on duty and fully documented. The lead PSO must be granted access to relevant instrumentation documenting acoustic source power and/or operational volume.

(4) PSOs must be used as specified in this paragraph (a)(4).

(i) LOA-holders must use independent, dedicated, qualified PSOs, meaning that the PSOs must be employed by a third-party observer provider, must have no tasks other than to conduct observational effort, collect data, and communicate with and instruct relevant vessel crew with regard to the presence of protected species and mitigation requirements (including brief alerts regarding maritime hazards), and must be qualified pursuant to § 217.185(a) (except as specified at § 217.184(d)(2)(iii-iv)). Acoustic PSOs are required to complete specialized training for operating passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) systems and are encouraged to have familiarity with the vessel on which they will be working. PSOs may act as both acoustic and visual observers (but not simultaneously), so long as they demonstrate that their training and experience are sufficient to perform each task.

(ii) The LOA-holder must submit PSO resumes for NMFS review and approval prior to commencement of the survey (except as specified at § 217.184(d)(2)(iii)). Resumes should include dates of training and any prior NMFS approval, as well as dates and description of last experience, and must be accompanied by information documenting successful completion of an acceptable training course. NMFS is allowed one week to approve PSOs from the time that the necessary information is received by NMFS, after which PSOs meeting the minimum requirements will automatically be considered approved.

(iii) At least one visual PSO and two acoustic PSOs (when required) aboard each acoustic source vessel must have a minimum of 90 days at-sea experience working in those roles, respectively, with no more than eighteen months elapsed since the conclusion of the at-sea experience (except as specified at § 217.184(d)(2)(iii)). One visual PSO with such experience must be designated as the lead for the entire PSO team. The lead must coordinate duty schedules and roles for the PSO team and serve as the primary point of contact for the vessel operator. (Note that the responsibility of coordinating duty schedules and roles may instead be assigned to a shore-based, third-party monitoring coordinator.) To the maximum extent practicable, the lead PSO must devise the duty schedule such that experienced PSOs are on duty with those PSOs with appropriate training but who have not yet gained relevant experience.

(b) Deep penetration surveys.

(1) Deep penetration surveys are defined as surveys using airgun arrays with total volume greater than 1,500 in3.

(2) Visual monitoring must be conducted as specified in this paragraph (b)(2).

(i) During survey operations (i.e., any day on which use of the acoustic source is planned to occur, and whenever the acoustic source is in the water, whether activated or not), a minimum of two PSOs must be on duty and conducting visual observations at all times during daylight hours (i.e., from 30 minutes prior to sunrise through 30 minutes following sunset).

(ii) Visual monitoring must begin not less than 30 minutes prior to ramp-up and must continue until one hour after use of the acoustic source ceases or until 30 minutes past sunset.

(iii) Visual PSOs must coordinate to ensure 360° visual coverage around the vessel from the most appropriate observation posts, and must conduct visual observations using binoculars and the naked eye while free from distractions and in a consistent, systematic, and diligent manner.

(iv) Visual PSOs must immediately communicate all observations of marine mammals to the on-duty acoustic PSO, including any determination by the PSO regarding species identification, distance, and bearing and the degree of confidence in the determination.

(v) Any observations of marine mammals by crew members aboard any vessel associated with the survey must be relayed to the PSO team.

(vi) During good conditions (e.g., daylight hours; Beaufort sea state (BSS) 3 or less), visual PSOs must conduct observations when the acoustic source is not operating for comparison of sighting rates and behavior with and without use of the acoustic source and between acquisition periods, to the maximum extent practicable.

(vii) Visual PSOs may be on watch for a maximum of two consecutive hours followed by a break of at least one hour between watches and may conduct a maximum of 12 hours of observation per 24-hour period. NMFS may grant an exception for LOA applications that demonstrate such a “two hours on/one hour off” duty cycle is not practicable, in which case visual PSOs will be subject to a maximum of four consecutive hours on watch followed by a break of at least two hours between watches. Combined observational duties (visual and acoustic but not at the same time) must not exceed 12 hours per 24-hour period for any individual PSO.

(3) Acoustic monitoring must be conducted as specified in this paragraph (b)(3).

(i) All source vessels must use a towed PAM system at all times when operating in waters deeper than 100 m, which must be monitored by a minimum of one acoustic PSO beginning at least 30 minutes prior to ramp-up, at all times during use of the acoustic source, and until one hour after use of the acoustic source ceases. “PAM system” refers to calibrated hydrophone arrays with full system redundancy to detect, identify, and estimate distance and bearing to vocalizing cetaceans, coupled with appropriate software to aid monitoring and listening by a PAM operator skilled in bioacoustics analysis and computer system specifications capable of running appropriate software. The PAM system must have at least one calibrated hydrophone (per each deployed hydrophone type and/or set) sufficient for determining whether background noise levels on the towed PAM system are sufficiently low to meet performance expectations. Applicants must provide a PAM plan including description of the hardware and software proposed for use prior to proceeding with any survey where PAM is required.

(ii) Acoustic PSOs must immediately communicate all detections of marine mammals to visual PSOs (when visual PSOs are on duty), including any determination by the PSO regarding species identification, distance, and bearing, and the degree of confidence in the determination.

(iii) Acoustic PSOs may be on watch for a maximum of four consecutive hours followed by a break of at least two hours between watches, and may conduct a maximum of 12 hours of observation per 24-hour period. Combined observational duties (visual and acoustic but not at the same time) must not exceed 12 hours per 24-hour period for any individual PSO.

(iv) Survey activity may continue for 30 minutes when the PAM system malfunctions or is damaged, while the PAM operator diagnoses the issue. If the diagnosis indicates that the PAM system must be repaired to solve the problem, operations may continue for an additional two hours without acoustic monitoring during daylight hours only under the following conditions:

(A) Sea state is less than or equal to BSS 4;

(B) No marine mammals (excluding delphinids) detected solely by PAM in the applicable exclusion zone in the previous two hours;

(C) NMFS is notified via email as soon as practicable with the time and location in which operations began occurring without an active PAM system; and

(D) Operations with an active acoustic source, but without an operating PAM system, do not exceed a cumulative total of four hours in any 24-hour period.

(4) PSOs must establish and monitor applicable exclusion and buffer zones. These zones must be based upon the radial distance from the edges of the airgun array (rather than being based on the center of the array or around the vessel itself). During use of the acoustic source (i.e., anytime the acoustic source is active, including ramp-up), occurrence of marine mammals within the relevant buffer zone (but outside the exclusion zone) should be communicated to the operator to prepare for the potential shutdown of the acoustic source.

(i) Two exclusion zones are defined, depending on the species and context. A standard exclusion zone encompassing the area at and below the sea surface out to a radius of 500 meters from the edges of the airgun array (0-500 m) is defined. For special circumstances (defined at § 217.184(b)(9)(v)), the exclusion zone encompasses an extended distance of 1,500 meters (0-1,500 m).

(ii) During pre-start clearance monitoring (i.e., before ramp-up begins), the buffer zone acts as an extension of the exclusion zone in that observations of marine mammals within the buffer zone would also preclude airgun operations from beginning (i.e., ramp-up). For all marine mammals (except where superseded by the extended 1,500-m exclusion zone), the buffer zone encompasses the area at and below the sea surface from the edge of the 0-500 meter exclusion zone out to a radius of 1,000 meters from the edges of the airgun array (500-1,000 m). The buffer zone is not applicable when the exclusion zone is greater than 500 meters, i.e., the observational focal zone is not increased beyond 1,500 meters.

(5) A ramp-up procedure, involving a step-wise increase in the number of airguns firing and total active array volume until all operational airguns are activated and the full volume is achieved, is required at all times as part of the activation of the acoustic source. A 30-minute pre-start clearance observation period must occur prior to the start of ramp-up. The LOA-holder must adhere to the following pre-start clearance and ramp-up requirements:

(i) The operator must notify a designated PSO of the planned start of ramp-up as agreed upon with the lead PSO; the notification time should not be less than 60 minutes prior to the planned ramp-up.

(ii) Ramp-ups must be scheduled so as to minimize the time spent with source activated prior to reaching the designated run-in.

(iii) A designated PSO must be notified again immediately prior to initiating ramp-up procedures and the operator must receive confirmation from the PSO to proceed.

(iv) Ramp-up must not be initiated if any marine mammal is within the applicable exclusion or buffer zone. If a marine mammal is observed within the exclusion zone or the buffer zone during the 30-minute pre-start clearance period, ramp-up must not begin until the animal(s) has been observed exiting the zones or until an additional time period has elapsed with no further sightings (15 minutes for small delphinids and 30 minutes for all other species).

(v) Ramp-up must begin by activating a single airgun of the smallest volume in the array and shall continue in stages by doubling the number of active elements at the commencement of each stage, with each stage of approximately the same duration. Total duration must not be less than 20 minutes. The operator must provide information to the PSO documenting that appropriate procedures were followed.

(vi) Ramp-up must cease and the source shut down upon observation of marine mammals within the applicable exclusion zone. Once ramp-up has begun, observations of marine mammals within the buffer zone do not require shutdown.

(vii) Ramp-up may occur at times of poor visibility, including nighttime, if appropriate acoustic monitoring has occurred with no detections of a marine mammal other than delphinids in the 30 minutes prior to beginning ramp-up. Acoustic source activation may only occur at night where operational planning cannot reasonably avoid such circumstances.

(viii) If the acoustic source is shut down for brief periods (i.e., less than 30 minutes) for reasons other than implementation of prescribed mitigation (e.g., mechanical difficulty), it may be activated again without ramp-up if PSOs have maintained constant visual and/or acoustic observation and no visual or acoustic detections of any marine mammal have occurred within the applicable exclusion zone. For any longer shutdown, pre-start clearance observation and ramp-up are required. For any shutdown at night or in periods of poor visibility (e.g., BSS 4 or greater), ramp-up is required, but if the shutdown period was brief and constant observation maintained, pre-start clearance watch is not required.

(ix) Testing of the acoustic source involving all elements requires ramp-up. Testing limited to individual source elements or strings does not require ramp-up but does require the pre-start clearance observation period.

(6) Shutdowns must be implemented as specified in this paragraph (b)(6).

(i) Any PSO on duty has the authority to delay the start of survey operations or to call for shutdown of the acoustic source pursuant to the requirements of this subpart.

(ii) The operator must establish and maintain clear lines of communication directly between PSOs on duty and crew controlling the acoustic source to ensure that shutdown commands are conveyed swiftly while allowing PSOs to maintain watch.

(iii) When both visual and acoustic PSOs are on duty, all detections must be immediately communicated to the remainder of the on-duty PSO team for potential verification of visual observations by the acoustic PSO or of acoustic detections by visual PSOs.

(iv) When the airgun array is active (i.e., anytime one or more airguns is active, including during ramp-up) and (1) a marine mammal appears within or enters the applicable exclusion zone and/or (2) a marine mammal (excluding delphinids) is detected acoustically and localized within the applicable exclusion zone, the acoustic source must be shut down. When shutdown is called for by a PSO, the acoustic source must be immediately deactivated and any dispute resolved only following deactivation.

(v) The extended 1,500-m exclusion zone must be applied upon detection (visual or acoustic) of a baleen whale, sperm whale, beaked whale, or Kogia spp. within the zone.

(vi) Shutdown requirements are waived for dolphins of the following genera: Tursiops, Stenella, Steno, and Lagenodelphis. If a delphinid is visually detected within the exclusion zone, no shutdown is required unless the PSO confirms the individual to be of a genus other than those listed above, in which case a shutdown is required. Acoustic detection of delphinids does not require shutdown.

(vii) If there is uncertainty regarding identification or localization, PSOs may use best professional judgment in making the decision to call for a shutdown.

(viii) Upon implementation of shutdown, the source may be reactivated after the marine mammal(s) has been observed exiting the applicable exclusion zone or following a 30-minute clearance period with no further detection of the marine mammal(s).

(c) Shallow penetration surveys.

(1) Shallow penetration surveys are defined as surveys using airgun arrays with total volume equal to or less than 1,500 in3, single airguns, boomers, or equivalent sources.

(2) LOA-holders conducting shallow penetration surveys must follow the requirements defined for deep penetration surveys at § 217.184(b), with the following exceptions:

(i) Acoustic monitoring is not required for shallow penetration surveys.

(ii) Ramp-up for small airgun arrays must follow the procedure described above for large airgun arrays, but may occur over an abbreviated period of time. Ramp-up is not required for surveys using only a single airgun. For non-airgun sources, power should be increased as feasible to effect a ramp-up.

(iii) Two exclusion zones are defined, depending on the species and context. A standard exclusion zone encompassing the area at and below the sea surface out to a radius of 100 meters from the edges of the airgun array (if used) or from the acoustic source (0-100 m) is defined. For special circumstances (§ 217.184(b)(6)(v)), the exclusion zone encompasses an extended distance of 500 meters (0-500 m).

(iv) The buffer zone encompasses the area at and below the sea surface from the edge of the 0-100 meter exclusion zone out to a radius of 200 meters from the edges of the airgun array (if used) or from the acoustic source (100-200 meters). The buffer zone is not applicable when the exclusion zone is greater than 100 meters.

(d) High-resolution geophysical (HRG) surveys.

(1) HRG surveys are defined as surveys using an electromechanical source that operates at frequencies less than 180 kHz, other than those defined at § 217.184(c)(1) (e.g., side-scan sonar, multibeam echosounder, or chirp sub-bottom profiler).

(2) LOA-holders conducting HRG surveys must follow the requirements defined for shallow penetration surveys at § 217.184(c), with the following exceptions:

(i) No shutdowns are required for HRG surveys. Pre-start clearance watch is required as defined at § 217.184(c), i.e., for a period of 30 minutes and over a 200-m radius from the acoustic source.

(ii) During survey operations (e.g., any day on which use of the acoustic source is planned to occur, and whenever the acoustic source is in the water, whether activated or not), a minimum of one trained and experienced independent PSO must be on duty and conducting visual observations at all times during daylight hours (i.e., from 30 minutes prior to sunrise through 30 minutes following sunset) when operating in waters deeper than 100 m.

(iii) When operating in waters shallower than 100 m, LOA-holders must employ one trained visual PSO, who may be a crew member, only for purposes of conducting pre-start clearance monitoring. If PSOs are crew members, i.e., are not independent PSOs, the PSOs are not subject to NMFS' approval. In these circumstances, LOA requests must describe the training that will be provided to crew members filling the role of PSO.

(iv) PSOs are not required during survey operations in which the active acoustic source(s) are deployed on an autonomous underwater vehicle.

(e) Time-area closure. From January 1 through May 31, no use of airguns may occur shoreward of the 20-m isobath and between 90-84° W.

(f) Entanglement avoidance. To avoid the risk of entanglement, LOA-holders conducting surveys using ocean-bottom nodes or similar gear must:

(1) Use negatively buoyant coated wire-core tether cable;

(2) Retrieve all lines immediately following completion of the survey; and

(3) Attach acoustic pingers directly to the coated tether cable; acoustic releases should not be used.

(g) Vessel strike avoidance. LOA-holders must adhere to the following requirements:

(1) Vessel operators and crews must maintain a vigilant watch for all marine mammals and must slow down, stop their vessel, or alter course, as appropriate and regardless of vessel size, to avoid striking any marine mammal. A visual observer aboard the vessel must monitor a vessel strike avoidance zone around the vessel, which shall be defined according to the parameters stated in this subsection. Visual observers monitoring the vessel strike avoidance zone may be third-party observers (i.e., PSOs) or crew members, but crew members responsible for these duties must be provided sufficient training to distinguish marine mammals from other phenomena and broadly to identify a marine mammal as a baleen whale, sperm whale, or other marine mammal;

(2) Vessel speeds must be reduced to 10 kn or less when mother/calf pairs, pods, or large assemblages of marine mammals are observed near a vessel;

(3) All vessels must maintain a minimum separation distance of 500 m from baleen whales;

(4) All vessels must maintain a minimum separation distance of 100 m from sperm whales;

(5) All vessels must, to the maximum extent practicable, attempt to maintain a minimum separation distance of 50 m from all other marine mammals, with an exception made for those animals that approach the vessel; and

(6) When marine mammals are sighted while a vessel is underway, the vessel must take action as necessary to avoid violating the relevant separation distance, e.g., attempt to remain parallel to the animal's course, avoid excessive speed or abrupt changes in direction until the animal has left the area. If marine mammals are sighted within the relevant separation distance, the vessel must reduce speed and shift the engine to neutral, not engaging the engines until animals are clear of the area. This does not apply to any vessel towing gear or any vessel that is navigationally constrained.

(7) These requirements do not apply in any case where compliance would create an imminent and serious threat to a person or vessel or to the extent that a vessel is restricted in its ability to maneuver and, because of the restriction, cannot comply.