NOAA announces sea turtle conservation rule mandating chain mats for scallop dredging
73 Fed. Reg. 18984 (April 8, 2008)(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; National Marine Fisheries Service; Endangered and Threatened Wildlife; Sea Turtle Conservation; Final rule)
SUMMARY: NMFS issues this final rule to clarify the existing sea turtle conservation requirements for sea scallop dredge vessels entering waters south of 41[deg]9.0' N. latitude from May 1 through November 30 each year and to add a transiting provision to the requirements. Any vessel with a sea scallop dredge and required to have a Federal Atlantic sea scallop fishery permit, regardless of dredge size or vessel permit category, that enters waters south of 41[deg]9.0' N. latitude, from the shoreline to the outer boundary of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) must have a chain mat on each dredge, unless the terms of the transiting provision are met. The chain-mat modified dredge is necessary to help reduce mortality and injury to endangered and threatened sea turtles in scallop dredge gear and to conserve sea turtles listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This current action addresses a procedural error in the original rulemaking to require chain mats on scallop dredge gear, clarifies the existing requirements, and adds a transiting provision to the regulations. Any incidental take of threatened sea turtles in sea scallop dredge gear in compliance with this gear modification requirement and all other applicable requirements will be exempted from the ESA's take prohibition.
Photo of sea scallop fishery chain mat, by NOAA, accompanying 2006 article on "New Scallop Gear" to protect sea turtles.
COMMENTARY: This rule represents the latest step in an ongoing effort to address sea turtle conservation, and to reduce mortality, because sea turtles can get caught in the dredges. See NOAA 2005 press release and summary of related court decision. The chain mats reduce the capture, and thus the mortality, but blunt force trauma may still be a possibility. Although the rules have been supported by fishermen as an alternative to closing the scallop fishery, see articles in Commercial Fishery News and Blue Ocean Institute's seafood scorecard, some environmental groups have criticized this rule, including comments in this Federal Register notice:
“the proposed action could have profound adverse effects on efforts to protect loggerhead sea turtles and thus on loggerhead turtle populations. Without video monitoring, no one will know how many loggerhead turtles were taken, injured, and killed underwater, an accurate estimate of sea turtle takes would be impossible, and neither individuals nor the agency would be able to assess whether these takes may exceed the incidental take statement.”
These critics have even demanded the use of underwater video to monitor the species. Such efforts, NOAA has explained, would be futile:
“It is evident from these studies that using video to document the specific nature of sea turtle-sea scallop dredge interactions, in general, and sea turtle-chain mat interactions specifically, is logistically difficult given the low interaction rate. To date, no sea turtles have been documented on video used in the commercial fishery. Additional difficulties identified through these studies include low visibility due to water clarity and available light, improper focus, inappropriate camera angle, and the range of viewing field. Requiring all scallop dredges using the modification to carry observers and monitor underwater interactions with video cameras may provide some additional information on interactions between sea turtles and scallop dredges. However, given the low rate of interaction and the technical challenges of underwater video, it is not clear that this approach would provide sufficient information to understand the nature of these interactions. In addition, this level of coverage is infeasible at this time."
FULL DISCLOSURE: The author worked on cases involving regulation of the sea turtle during his tenure at the U.S. Department of Justice.