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Litigation threatening scallopers? way of life
Group says dredges harming sea turtles, seeks injunction


By BERNARD VAUGHAN Staff Writer, (609) 978-2012
Press of Atlantic City


BARNEGAT LIGHT - Ongoing environmental litigation against the scallop fishery has Barnegat Light scallopers concerned about the future of their way of life.

"It's scary being in this industry," said Jim Gutowski, an assistant manager at Viking Village Commercial Fishing Dock. "For me, I'm awake at night thinking 'Is this whole package over for me?' What am I gonna do at 45 years old if they shut down the industry?"

The "they" Gutowski refers to is Oceana, an international environmental group that aims to protect the world's oceans by promoting policy changes to reduce pollution and prevent the eradication of marine life.

Oceana filed suit against the U.S. Department of Commerce in May, disputing a study by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, of interactions between scallop boat dredges and sea turtles.

Oceana contends the study was poorly researched and analyzed. The group asked for an injunction July 8 - which would temporarily halt the scallop fishery from Long Island, N.Y., to Cape Hatteras, N.C. - until the NMFS can re-analyze the interactions. That injunction was denied Aug. 18, but new numbers released by NMFS on Sept. 1 indicated that 630 turtles - not 111, as was originally hypothesized - had been captured in scallop dredge gear in the Mid-Atlantic region between June 1 and Nov. 30, 2003.

"The federal government cannot authorize activity that could harm the turtles, unless they determine that that activity isn't going to jeopardize their existence," said Eric Bilsky, a senior attorney for Oceana.

He added: "We are seriously considering applying for emergency relief from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals," which could entail keeping scallopers out of areas where they catch sea turtles during their warm-weather migrations -from about June to November.

Scallopers have installed metal chains on their dredges that block sea turtles from entering, which they say has curtailed the interactions. They cite a 2003 cooperative study between Sea Grant Virginia and the Fisheries Survival Fund stating that seven turtles were caught out of 2,500 observed tows, all on dredges without turtle chains.

"These fishermen are willing to work among these turtles, and I think we can do that and minimize the interaction," said Ernie Panacek, a manager at Viking Village for 16 years. "So far the research has shown the chains are effective, and we're willing to do more research."

Oceana, however, isn't sold on turtle chains.

"We think chains result in unobserved interaction because they operate on the bottom of the dredge," said Charlotte Hudson, a marine wildlife scientist at Oceana. "Chains keep turtles out, but we don't know what happens when turtles hit the dredge."

In other words, Oceana is concerned that chains are injuring or killing turtles - unbeknownst to above-water observers - and this has some scallopers at a loss.

"How far are we going to take this?" Gutowski asked. "We're a billion-dollar industry supporting livelihoods and families. What about our kids?"

Next week, Ron Smolowitz - a gear technologist from Massachusetts who helped develop turtle chains - and Dr. William Du Paul of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science will run scallop boats off Barnegat Light with cameras attached to the dredges in an attempt to survey the effect the chains have on turtles they block.

"We're encouraged that fishermen are taking steps to address the issue," Hudson said. "We would be interested in viewing the interaction that occurs with the chains."

But some industry veterans like Gutowski feel like there's nothing they can do to make Oceana happy.

"I'd like to know, when is it going to be enough for this ration of people that has singled out an industry and put them in their crosshairs?" he asked. "I understand we need an environmental balance, but I want to be a part of that balance."

Should the scallop fishery be shut down, it would be a devastating blow for the industry, especially considering the dramatic resurgence scallop numbers experienced in recent years due to the reduction in the number of days a boat may stay at sea and a reduction of areas available for scallop fishing.

"It's stressful; we don't know what's going to happen," said Bill Wasilewski, a 45-year-old father of three who employs six hands on his scallop boat, the William and Mary, named after his first two children. ("The third wasn't born in time," he joked). "It's always on the back of your mind, the fishery shutting down. It would be a disaster."

"It's making me anxious," Panacek said as workers hammered away on an addition to the marina. Panacek and his wife also own Off the Hook, a take-out store next to the marina, and he just spent thousands renovating the marina's dock.

"It's making all the fishermen anxious," he said
 

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I noticed about Mid-August an enormous turtle near the area of the Elephant Trunk, a few miles inshore. I'd be curious to know if anyone else saw the dead turtle. It had collected some floating debris but other than that didn't appear to be showing any damage. Might lend some validity to the idea that the turtle chains aren't solving the problem, only hiding it.
 

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Funny that you mentioned the trunk This august I saw 1000 pound tiger sharks eating turtles.
Yeah I knew you wouldn't believe me so I took a few pictures.
 

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We can only hope - but I don't wish the commercials any harm...they're just trying to make a living. I only hope they can find a more efficient and environmentally safe way of catching their fish. I feel they are moving in that direction, I just hope it continues.
 

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I guess they will stop sport boats from running at night as well as tankers and frieghters. I hit one the other night and probably it died, it is a shame but what can you do if you don't see it just under the water??? Its not like I want to go after these creatures and cause damage to my boat and I'll be the scallop dudes would rather run us sporties over than drag up a turtle. Big M. that was a big tigger too I'll bet he eats a few a week. I saw some baby leatherbacks the other week out there near the East Lump around a board.
 
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