NOAA seeks clarifications on FAA charts to protect animals from planes
January 13, 2011
NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is proposing changes to FAA aeronautical charts that would clarify existing overflight regulations in the Monterey Bay and three other West Coast marine sanctuaries.
Currently, overflight restriction zones for the sanctuaries are noted as “recommended” rather than “required” on FAA charts, although restrictions for low-flying planes and helicopters have been in place since the marine sanctuary was designated in 1992. “It’s not a recommendation, it’s a prohibition. Pilots need to understand this is not discretionary,” says NOAA’s Regulatory Coordinator Scott Kathey. The proposed changes would more accurately depict the regulatory nature of the flight restrictions.
Flights are restricted below 1000 feet in areas near the shoreline where marine mammals and birds are found in high densities. “By far, low-flying aircraft is the number one source of disturbance,” says Kathey.
From 2005 to 2007, the most recent period for which such information was reported, there were 293 recorded incidents on wildlife disturbance in the sanctuary.
Animals and disturbed when they perceive a predator and move rapidly into flight or into the sea. In general, the damage “is long term insidious kind of thing. You won’t see birds drop down dead,” says Kathey. As animals expend limited energy on fleeing aircraft, they become less competitive in the wild over time, he explains.
In the case of one bird species, the Common Murre, the damage has been acute. The birds, which NOAA is still working to recolonize after the population was severely affected by the 1986 Apex Houston oil spill, the birds lay only one egg per year and hold the egg on their feet on cliff edges. When frightened, the birds may lose their egg when they fly away. One year in the early 1990s near Point Reyes, an entire colony lost its eggs and was unable to reproduce after an aircraft disturbance.
NOAA enforces the aircraft restrictions mostly through warnings and occasional fines. The agency is aiming for voluntary compliance, says Kathey, which is why it’s so important that FAA charts accurately convey the nature of the restricted zones.
The public comment period on this change in chart notation has been extended, and comments will now be accepted through Feb. 7, 2011. Comments can be submitted electronically at www.regulations.gov or by mail addressed to Debra Malek, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, 1305 East-West Highway, 11th floor, Silver Spring, Md., 20910.