U.S. Allows Atlantic Scallop Dredging, Limits Groundfishery

GLOUCESTER, Massachusetts, May 1, 2001 (ENS) - Ignoring advice from fishery scientists and environmental organizations, the National Marine Fisheries Service gave final approval Friday to a measure allowing scallop fishing vessels to drag heavy, metal dredges through environmentally sensitive marine habitats off New England and the Mid-Atlantic. The measure becomes effective today.

At the same time, the agency is seeking public comments on how best to spend up to $10 million in federal funds to retire federal fishing permits to harvest groundfish such as cod, yellowtail flounder and haddock in the Northeast. These species, which are under a rebuilding plan, are among those likely to be affected by resumed scallop dredging in their habitat.

The scallop dredging measure, known as Framework Adjustment 14, modifies the Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery Management Plan to allow for 120 days of fishing each year for full time scallop vessels for the 2001 and 2002 fishing years. Framework 14 also allows scallop dredging in areas of the Mid-Atlantic that had been closed to protect young scallops.


Crushed lobster left in the path of a scallop drag (Photo by A. Shepard courtesy OAR/National Undersea Research Program; University of North Carolina at Wilmington)
The measure was initially approved by the New England Fishery Management Council on January 26 despite concerns raised by fishery scientists, environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the quality of the environmental impact analysis prepared for this adjustment to the Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery Management Plan.

The council, which is dominated by fishing industry representatives, opted against implementing measures scientists and environmentalists say are necessary to protect immature scallops and juvenile cod habitat from scallop dredging.

"By approving Framework 14, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has shirked its responsibility to ensure that fragile marine habitats receive protection from the devastating effects of scallop dredging," said Chris Zeman, fisheries program counsel and New England field representative for the American Oceans Campaign, a nonprofit group.

"NMFS and the New England Council have turned a blind eye to their legal responsibility to adequately analyze and minimize the environmental impacts of commercial scallop dredging," added Zeman.

During the public comment period, American Oceans and the Conservation Law Foundation submitted extensive comments on Framework 14 and its environmental analyses to fishery managers, outlining its deficiencies and showing the need to prohibit scallop dredging in hard bottom habitats to protect juvenile cod habitat.

The NMFS and the New England Council also received hundreds of letters from concerned citizens in New England and nationwide requesting an environmental analysis and immediate action to protect sensitive marine habitats from scallop dredging.

"It is apparent from NMFS's decision to approve Framework 14 that American Oceans Campaign's concerns, and those of the public, again fell on deaf ears," said Zeman.

While the original purpose of Framework 14 was to ensure the protection of young scallops and promote the growth and abundance of the resource, the New England Council elected not to close known scallop nursery areas to dredging. Framework 14, as approved, also provides little protection to habitat critical to the rebuilding socks of valuable groundfish, including Georges Bank cod.


Gravel-cobble bottom off Maine coast is favored scallop ground. (Photo courtesy U.S. National Undersearch Research Program)
"We cheered the New England Council when it announced its intention to conduct a full environmental analysis for Framework 14," said Conservation Law Foundation marine scientist Anthony Chatwin, Ph.D. "The analysis they prepared, however, is a far cry from what is required by federal environmental laws. The fact that the council chose the alternative that will result in the highest amount of bycatch and provide the least benefits to habitat is the clear result of not having the proper environmental analyses in hand at the time of the decision."

"We are disappointed that NMFS did not modify Framework 14 to include reasonable conservation measures before giving it their seal of approval," said Chatwin.

In written comments to the New England Council, the EPA concluded that the environmental analyses prepared for Framework 14 contained insufficient information to properly evaluate the measure's environmental consequences and failed to evaluate all reasonable alternatives to minimize environmental impacts.

The New England Council took action without revising the environmental analyses, and only modified the analyses one month after taking final action.

"Federal law requires that decision makers be given adequate environmental analyses before taking final action," explained Zeman. "Completing the analysis after the decision does nothing to promote better environmental decision making. By approving Framework 14, NMFS has sent the message that it is okay to fish first and fully assess the consequences later, even when the long term productivity of our fisheries is at stake."

The New England Scallop fishery comprises over 250 full time vessels, each using two 15 foot steel framed scallop dredges to catch scallops. These dredges each weigh over a ton and are dragged on the sea floor.


Scallop dredgers at Seaford, Virginia (Photo by William Folsom courtesy National Marine Fisheries Service)
In addition to catching scallops, the dredges also destroy plants, crabs, starfish, groundfish, skates and other bottom dwelling species that make up the seafloor community. In 1999, scallop vessels used their 120 fishing days to cover an area more than 12,000 square nautical miles - an area equal to the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined.

Much of the area affected by the scallop fishery has been designated as essential fish habitat for one or more commercially managed species.

In fact, during May, the National Marine Fisheries Service will be examining options for buying out some groundfish fishers to help protect groundfish populations.

"The proposed program would provide an opportunity for fishermen to voluntarily retire their limited access groundfish permits, receive compensation for doing so, and at the same time contribute to the rebuilding of this historically important fishery," said Bill Hogarth, acting director of NMFS. "I encourage the public to comment on the proposal to ensure that the final program best meets the needs of the fishery."

A major feature of the fishery rebuilding plan limits the number of days fishermen are allowed to harvest groundfish. This averages 88 days for most fishermen. Since fishing days were first restricted in 1994, many fishermen have decided to fish for other species, but still hold a groundfish permit.

Officials believe the permit retirement program will be most attractive to those who already use few, if any, of their allocated fishing days.

The proposal will be discussed at public meetings in northeastern fishing communities during May. The actual number of permits retired would depend on how many bids come in and their value. Written comments will be accepted by NMFS through May 25th.

Since 1994, almost $100 million in federal funds have been used to mitigate the economic effects of depleted groundfish stocks in the Northeast. Of that, almost $25 million was used to compensate fishermen who reduced some excess fishing capacity.

Unlike the previous fishery buy out programs in the Northeast, this one would not remove vessels from the fleet. Rather, it would remove only limited access groundfish permits. Participants may continue to fish for other species for which they have permits.

Written comments on the proposal should be mailed to: National Marine Fisheries Service, 1 Blackburn Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930, ATTN: Jack Terrill.