Thursday, January 5, 2012

Proposed scalloping regulations aim to protect sea turtles

The scallop industry has until Jan. 18 to weigh in on new regulations proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service to help fishermen avoid encounters with sea turtles, which sometimes become entangled in their gear.

The measure would require scallop vessels with a dredge width of 10½ feet or larger to use a "turtle deflector dredge" in the waters along the mid-Atlantic coast, west of 71 degrees west longitude, from May through October. The fisheries service is seeking public comment on the proposal through Jan. 18.

Research has shown that loggerhead sea turtles are frequently found in the area and have been inadvertently caught by boats fishing there from June on. May was included in the proposal as a precautionary measure, based on satellite sightings of turtles in scalloping areas during that month.

In encounters with the scallop fleet, turtles usually don't fare well, said Ron Smolowitz of the nonprofit Coonamessett Farm Foundation in East Falmouth, which has led the research into the new gear with funding from the scallop industry and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Tests of the new dredge gear have shown the modifications to the traditional design will not compromise the structural integrity of the dredge nor reduce scallop yield, according to NMFS.

Dan Eilertsen of New Bedford owns six scallop boats and worked with Smolowitz on developing the gear. Eilertsen has already deployed the TDD gear on his boats and expressed general satisfaction with its performance.

"It fishes well but it takes a little more fuel," he said. "They're a little harder to pull around but they fish well. They're at least as good as the others and they may be better, if anything."

To give the industry time to develop TDDs for the scallop fishery, the proposed measure would go into effect one year after the ratification date if, as expected, the measure is approved. If Framework 23, as the rule is known in the industry, is adopted on March 1 the TDD regulations would become effective on March, 1, 2013, and the new dredges would become mandatory in these areas starting May 1 of next year.

The fisheries service is also proposing a revision to the schedule for the yellowtail flounder seasonal closure on Georges Bank and in Southern New England waters. If implemented, closures would be imposed during months with the highest catch rates rather than for consecutive months at the start of the fishing year as is now the case.

For questions or more information on these changes, contact Emily Gilbert, a fishery policy analyst at NMFS, at 978- 281-9244.

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