Council Seeks to Reduce Scallop Fleet Impacts on Sea Turtles

by Laurie Schreiber

Scallop and Lobster

The population of turtles is pretty thick and pretty heavy throughout the whole Mid-Altantic.” -Ron Smollowitz. In another area of the food chain a scallop shows its appreciation of the lobster. Brenda Tredwell Photo

In the finalization of Framework Adjustment 22 to the Scallop Fishery Management Plan, the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) recommended a restriction on the number of access area trips that can be fished in the Mid-Atlantic as a measure to reduce impacts on sea turtles.

Each vessel is limited to one trip in Mid-Atlantic access areas between June 15 and October 31. One caveat was added to this measure to reduce impacts on vessels that fish in this area. If a vessel trades two of their trips on Georges Bank for two additional trips in the Mid-Atlantic, the vessel with additional Mid-Atlantic trips would be permitted to fish up to two trips during that same time period.

According to information from the council, the alternative is expected to shift a considerable amount of effort, about 7 percent or more than 700 days, from the season when turtles are more likely to be present in the Mid-Atlantic (June 15 to Oct. 31). By limiting limit effort in this manner, the measure is expected to have beneficial effects on sea turtles, but not more than minor impacts on the scallop fishery.

The topic brought on considerable discussion at the council’s November16-18 meeting, particularly in relation to a proposal to combine measures that would impose season and area closures and trip limits. Council member David Goethel said he was concerned about the prospect of inflicting more bureaucracy on fishermen. Another member said a combination of measures would have a disproportional impact in the Mid-Atlantic.

Ron Smolowitz of the Fisheries Survival Fund said the impact of the scallop fleet on turtles has already been greatly reduced by changes in fishing gear, including the use of turtle excluder chains and a new dredge that cannot run over turtles.

“We pretty much eliminated all sources of injury and mortality,” Smolowitz said. “The population of turtles is pretty thick and pretty heavy throughout the whole Mid-Altantic.”
Gib Brogan, representing the environmental group Oceana, disagreed. Brogan said further limitations are needed to reduce the fleet’s interactions with sea turtles in the open areas.

Drew Minkiewicz, another member of the Fisheries Survival Fund, agreed with Smolowitz on the issues. “You’ve got to put these numbers in context,” Minkiewicz said. “We’re talking about five observed takes in five years. These are rare events and mortality is even rarer.”

Minkiewicz said he was concerned about disproportional impacts of combined measures on the scallop fleet, particularly the southern part of the fleet. “It’s piling too much regulation on this fishery to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist. The turtle population is going to rise and fall independently of the scallop fishery. Our impact is negligible.”

The council also considered whether the 2011 and 2012 yellowtail flounder bycatch allocations to the scallop fishery should be adjusted based on updated estimates of expected catch by the scallop fleet. Ultimately, the council decided not to adjust the allocations downward, but agreed to re-evaluate future allocations in Framework 46 to the Groundfish Plan.

During that discussion, NEFMC staffer Tom Nies indicated the situation is somewhat muddied by lack of information on how the new groundfish sector management system might be affecting the yellowtail resource.

Smolowitz called for a “paradigm shift” in the discussion.

“I don’t want to set us up for disaster,” Smolowitz said. “What are the common goals here?”
Smolowitz said the scallop fleet is concerned about triggering accountability measures that would shut down fishing. Bycatch in the scallop fishery should not be counted as a loss to the groundfish fleet, he said. Still, he said, the scallop fleet is willing to reduce bycatch, and continues to develop new selectivity gear to accomplish that goal.

“We don’t want to take so much that it takes away from potential groundfish landings,” Smolowitz said. “But historically, that wasn’t groundfish yellowtail. That was yellowtail the scallop fleet was catching. So that’s not a loss to groundfish fleet that’s being taken away from them. But still we can give groundfish fleet more of that bycatch. That should be our goal.”

Various tools exist, he said, that can be used to reduce yellowtail bycatch. These include greater latitude to fish in different areas at different time; further gear modifications; and better access to real-time electronic data collection information on the boats. “But in the meantime, we shouldn’t set up the scallop fleet to trigger AMs.”

A groundfish fisherman said the goal of not triggering accountability measures was no different for his fleet. “This is about ecosystem management, where we’ve got to have a tradeoff,” he said. “Both parties have to sit down and come up with a tradeoff…It’s a decision that’s not simple or easy for the council, but the social and economic consequences have to be weighed.”

In other work, the NEMFC made the following decisions:

• While the number of scallop fishing days will be less than the 2010 allocations (38 days-at-sea), projected catch for 2011 and 2012 is similar to current levels of about 55 million pounds. Vessels are expected to catch more pounds per day-at-sea in open areas due to high biomass levels, and total revenues are expected to be similar to what they have been in recent years, about $400 million dollars annually.

• Effort in open areas was set at the maximum level allowed under the hybrid overfishing definition revised and approved in Amendment 15 in September. When effort is set at the overfishing threshold of F = 0.38 in open areas, the days-at-sea allocation per vessel comes out to be 32 days in 2011 and 34 days in 2012.

• More catch will be allocated to the general category fishery than in 2010 based on modifications approved in Amendment 15 that recognize there is little management uncertainty in the IFQ managed fishery. The general category fishery will be allocated about 3.2 and 3.4 million pounds in 2011 and 2012 respectively, or about 500,000 pounds more than the general category fishery was allocated in 2010.

• The NEFMC approved a “split fleet trip alternative” fishing strategy, intended to promote as much access into scallop rotational areas as possible. In the past, trips have been scheduled to fish in open “access areas” when projected biomass is estimated to support a full 18,000 pound trip for all full-time vessels. In some cases, however, projected biomass in an area was actually higher than a full trip allocation, but not sufficient to support another full trip allocation.

The alternative would allocate an additional access area trip to half the fleet in one area, and the other half of the fleet a trip in a different area. Trips would be allocated on a random basis, and vessels would be permitted to trade trips. This strategy is expected to optimize yield and reduce impacts on the environment. Further, as a result of reduced fishing time, impacts on essential fish habitat, protected resources, and bycatch are expected to be positive.

• Framework 22 also includes a hard total allowable catch (TAC) for the Northern Gulf of Maine Limited Access General Category fishery as well as a target TAC for LAGC vessels with an incidental permit (40 pounds per trip). The NEFMC recommended that the hard TAC for the NGOM remain at 70,000 pounds and the incidental catch target TAC also remain at 50,000 pounds.


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