Atlantic scallop fishers object to ongoing sea turtle litigation

Published on
October 7, 2020

Atlantic scallop fishermen in the Northeast U.S. are objecting to the latest ruling in a long string of litigation regarding the fishery’s responsibility to protect endangered sea turtle species.

A recent court ruling determined that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NFMS) needs to revise the method it uses for its incidental take statements. The scallop fishery, however, asserts that it has already taken steps to protect sea turtles, and that the litigation is unnecessary.

“What really kicked it off was 12 years ago, there were a number of observed takes of turtles in the scallop fishery,” Drew Minkiewicz, an attorney representing the scallop fishery through the Fishery Survival Fund, told SeafoodSource. “In that time, the scallop fishery has taken a number of steps.”

The catalyst for the litigation – observed takes and mortalities of sea turtles – has been dealt with through modifications to scallop dredge nets, Minkiewicz said. A new turtle-excluding dredge, with devices that keep sea turtles from getting caught inside dredge bags and killed.

“If it does encounter a turtle on the sea floor, it won’t harm them, it’s made in a way where they don’t get caught up in it,” Minkiewicz said. “With those changes that we put in place, the chains and the dredge modification, year after year we don’t have any observed takes.”

The issue, he said, is that any encounters with turtles are now occurring underwater, meaning they can’t be observed and counted. The current incidental take statement uses estimates based on certain models developed by researchers.

“We’re using it as a surrogate because we have no way of monitoring something we can’t see,” Minkiewicz said. The only way, he said, to count the turtles accurately would be to remove the devices, and end up killing the turtles. “Obviously, we don’t want to kill turtles just to count them.”

Oceana, however, counters that any encounter with a turtle is still something that needs to be counted.

“While the scallop industry has made improvements to their gear that helps prevent sea turtles from being caught in their dredges, the Endangered Species Act counts every time a turtle interacts with that dredge as a ‘take’ that needs to be counted and accounted for against the limit that triggers additional action,” Oceana Senior Campaign Manager Gib Brogan told SeafoodSource.

Brogan, and Oceana, argue that the fishery can still do more short of catching turtles to quantify the amount of turtle interactions the fishery has.

“We have argued that there is more that NOAA Fisheries can do (short of catching turtles) to count these interactions including underwater video cameras on a portion of fishing boats or other means,” Brogan said. “NOAA Fisheries has been steadfast in their opposition to these approaches and in favor of using a limit on the number of fishing hours, which the courts have just ruled is invalid.”

For the fishery, however, the idea of cameras is a non-starter. The cost to equip dredges with cameras, and then to have people monitor the resulting footage, would be exorbitant for a “a rare event,” Minkiewicz said. Plus, the turtle population is on the rebound.

“if you look at turtle nesting sites, they’re on the rise, and the turtle population is doing better,” Minkiewicz said. “Oceana can’t accept the fact that the scallop fishery has been a responsible activist, and come up with responsible measures.”  

Photo courtesy of Schnapps2012/Shutterstock

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