Despite a stunning 1,600 percent increase in the official estimated number of killed or injured sea turtles in the commercial Atlantic scallop fishery, the National Marine Fisheries Service (Fisheries Service) has concluded that this fishing industry's practices are "not likely to jeopardize the continued existence" of threatened loggerheads, an opinion that Oceana today condemned as violating the law and a dereliction of duty.
"This is an outrageous disregard for the Fisheries Service's obligation to enforce the law under the Endangered Species Act," said Dave Allison, director of Oceana's campaign to stop destructive trawling.
The Fisheries Service is the lead federal agency in charge of regulating commercial fishing and overseeing the effect that industrial practices have on sea life. Loggerhead sea turtles are classified as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
In February 2004, the Fisheries Service estimated that 111 loggerhead turtles would be caught in scallop dredges throughout 2004 and ruled that this number was acceptable. Oceana sued the Fisheries Service, claiming that even though this number was unacceptably high; the Government was hiding the real extent of the problem. As a result of that lawsuit, the Fisheries Service reviewed its data, and in September issued a new study --increasing its estimate to 749 turtles caught in the scallop fishery in 2004, a 600 percent hike that shocked the environmental community. Worse, the Fisheries Service increased its estimate of turtles killed or mortally injured from 29 to 479, a 1600 percent increase. In a Biological Opinion published Dec. 16, the Fishery Service concluded that these higher numbers were acceptable, too.
"The Fisheries Service is catering to the scallop fishing industry, saying: 'You tell us how many turtles you're catching and we'll tell you that it's okay.' The Biological Opinion is appalling beyond belief," Allison added. "This is not a question of scallop fishing versus sea turtle survival. We can fish for scallops and still protect sea turtles. This deference to the scallop industry is wrong and is just not necessary."
"Every year commercial fisheries catch thousands of sea turtles and throw these animals back into the ocean injured, dying or dead," said Charlotte Hudson, Oceana's marine wildlife biologist. "And the Fisheries Service still has the audacity to claim that the only sure way to protect turtles - closing fishing areas during the sea turtles' migration times - is unnecessary."
Threatened sea turtle populations are declining while commercial fisheries continue to kill turtles in startlingly high numbers. Scallopers use dredges that often span 15 feet and weigh more than two tons. These dredges can move through the water at speeds of four to five knots per hour.