BOSTON - A decision by the New England Fisheries Management Council to lift seasonal restrictions on rich scallop fishing grounds off the mid-Atlantic coast will threaten endangered sea turtles, an environmental group says.
The council on Thursday voted to lift rules that bar scallop boats from an area off the coast of New Jersey known as the Elephant Trunk Access Area in September and October. The rules apply to 2008 and 2009.
The board also decided not to impose similar seasonal restrictions on another nearby scallop-rich area off the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Loggerhead turtles are common in the 2,500-square-mile Elephant Trunk during those months and they are at risk of getting caught in scallop fishing gear.
"Loggerhead populations are declining, and the most significant man-made factor affecting conservation and recovery of loggerhead sea turtles is injury or death in fisheries," said Elizabeth Griffin, a marine wildlife scientist with Oceana.
But a spokeswoman for the council, which oversees the scallop fishery in the mid-Atlantic, said there is little evidence that the restrictions have helped protect turtle populations in the past, and that new scallop dredging equipment prevents the capture of turtles.
"The council didn't see it as a rollback of conservation measures," Patricia Fiorelli said.
Determining exactly where the turtle population is located is almost impossible because it shifts from year to year depending on water temperature and other factors, she said.
Restricting scallopers from one area would just send them to another area where they could end up catching turtles.
"Since we have no idea where the turtles are going to be, there didn't seem to be much logic to the closures," she said.
The impact of the equipment modifications made to the scallop dredgers, which include a chain grid that prevents turtles from being caught in the bag at the rear of the dredge, are not entirely clear, said Gib Brogan of Oceana.
The closure was put in place before the equipment modifications went into effect last year, Fiorelli said.
"There was an extensive review process before they were approved," she said.
About 700 turtles per year are caught by scallop dredgers, Brogan said, and there is evidence that more turtles have been getting caught in the Elephant Trunk area in the past couple of years.
But those figures are unreliable, Fiorelli said.
"Turtle catch rates are so low that they are not statistically valid," she said.