A proposed rule issued today by the National Marine Fisheries Service purports to resolve the problem of the injury and death of threatened and endangered sea turtles by huge steel dredges used in fishing for scallops. With a proposal that favors the wealthy scallop industry, NMFS has failed its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act.
The Agency rejected the effective and enforceable solution of limited closures of the fishery for the times and areas where and when the turtles are swimming through the middle North Atlantic. Their proposal would simply require sea scallop dredge fishermen in the Mid-Atlantic to install heavy chain mats over the mouth of dredges. The turtles would collide with the mats, forcing them from the mouth of the dredges. The government calls it a solution to the ESA problems but in fact, it is the exact opposite.
Oceana, in repeated conversations with government representatives, has pointed out that there is no evidence that these "turtle chains" provide any real and demonstrable benefits to the threatened and endangered sea turtles other than keeping them out of the chain link bags and off the decks of the boats. Their proposal is rife with unjustified assumptions as well as data that should have caused the managers to seek a real solution to the problem.
Oceana has repeatedly called on the Fisheries Service and the Fishery Management Councils to create a real solution and outlined these steps:
1. Adopt a plan that keeps scallop dredges out of the limited area and during the limited time that sea turtles are swimming through the Mid-Atlantic fishing grounds.
2. Allow scallop vessels to catch the scallops in other areas during the restricted time and area and, if industry and the agency want to experiment with "turtle chains," place cameras on the dredges and observers on the vessels where the chains are used.
All sea turtles that swim in U.S. ocean waters are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This proposed rule simply sweeps the problem under the rug, saying it's solved because no one can see the dirt any more. The government has, in fact, rolled over for the industry. The agency has once again treated the Endangered Species Act and the animals it protects simply as unavoidable discards in the fishing industry.
The Fisheries Service notes that the 314 vessels that would be affected by this proposed rule earned $221.4 million in 2003, and that scallop dredges have been overfishing scallops for the past two years. We believe that good management and time and area closures are the answer for the sustainability of the ocean, the scallops, the fishermen and, most importantly here, the sea turtles.