Oceana today blasted NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service for its severe cuts to the Northeast Fishery Observer Program, cuts which, as reported last week, will eliminate virtually all monitoring of the threatened and endangered sea turtles caught and killed by the Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery. This decision will significantly hamper the agency’s efforts to lessen the harmful impacts of this fishery on loggerhead sea turtle populations in the Mid-Atlantic.
According to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, there will be no observer coverage in the Mid-Atlantic sea scallop fishery, even during the summer months when this fishery is known to capture, injure and kill hundreds of threatened loggerhead sea turtles and other endangered sea turtles. NMFS plans to have only a few observed trips concentrated on a special fishing area in the waters off New England, south of Nantucket.
“At a time when scientists are seeing significant declines in loggerhead nesting along the East Coast, this is the wrong direction for the agency to be moving. It will now be impossible to know how extensively scallop dredging will affect the survival of threatened loggerhead sea turtle populations on the East Coast,” said David Allison, director of Oceana’s campaign to Stop Destructive Trawling.
Both NOAA and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy agree that observers provide the most reliable method to collect basic information about fisheries. The federal observer program places scientifically trained personnel on commercial fishing boats to record what is caught and what is kept. Observers also track what marine wildlife is thrown back into the ocean, dead or dying, which is referred to as “bycatch.”
“If we want to save threatened and endangered sea turtles as required by law, it is imperative that we have sufficient observers on the scallop dredges, which are known to harm and kill hundreds of these sea turtles each year,” said Chris Zeman, Oceana’s Northeast Fisheries Program senior counsel. “According to agency scientists, more than 90 percent of all scallop fishermen do not accurately report their bycatch in their logbooks. Fishermen have no incentive to report to the government that they are killing sea turtles. That is why it is critical to have government observers on board.”
During the summer months, East Coast populations of loggerhead sea turtles migrate from southern waters to summer feeding areas off New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic. These areas overlap key scallop fishing grounds. As a result, nearly all reported interactions have occurred in the Mid-Atlantic during the summer months. Independent scientific experts have recommended that, as a general rule, observers monitor at least 20 percent of commercial fishing trips to obtain accurate and precise estimates of bycatch. In the case where the fishery is known to take threatened sea turtles, the coverage should be closer to 50 percent.
The Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery is composed of more than 300 large offshore commercial fishing boats that use two fifteen foot dredges to remove scallops from the sea floor. In 2003, NOAA Fisheries estimated that the scallop dredges caught over 700 loggerhead sea turtles, killing over 400 in two-ton scallop dredges.