A federal court ruled in favor of Oceana on Thursday that NOAA Fisheries has failed to develop a viable method for counting and accounting for the incidental catch, or bycatch, of sea turtles in the U.S. Atlantic scallop fishery. The ruling from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia requires the government to estimate and adequately monitor the number of threatened and endangered sea turtles harmed by the Atlantic sea scallop fishery in a manner that will allow the agency to know, in real time, when the fishery exceeds set limits on sea turtle bycatch or interactions.
Thursday’s ruling is the latest in a decades-long effort by Oceana to ensure that the scallop fishery minimizes its harmful impacts on sea turtles and supports their recovery. The Endangered Species Act requires fisheries like the scallop fishery to obtain authorization for interactions with sea turtles. These authorizations set a limit for the number of sea turtles that can be harmed by the fishery, and this limit needs to be monitored to ensure that the fishery is following the law and not exceeding the number of sea turtles that may be killed or injured.
Oceana successfully argued that the monitoring methods used by the government relied on unproven and invalid assumptions about the relationship between the number of hours that fishing boats are fishing and number of sea turtle interactions. Because this approach is not valid, it does not provide a means to monitor interactions or trigger a response and could allow excessive takes to occur, possibly jeopardizing existence of the sea turtle species in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and New England regions from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Further, the court expressed concern with the behavior of the agency in its oversight of the fishery and is requiring the agency to provide regular status reports until the required analysis is complete.
“Sea turtle bycatch in commercial fisheries represents a clear threat to the survival of these species, and it is critically important that the government set meaningful limits on these interactions and monitor the fishery to know if and when a limit is reached,” said Oceana campaign director Whitney Webber. “Once again, the courts have found that the federal government is not doing enough to oversee the U.S. scallop fishery and again has directed the government to do more. Oceana is optimistic that, with court oversight, the government will finally take this job seriously and find a path forward for the lucrative scallop fishery and sea turtles to co-exist in the U.S. Atlantic.”