Federal officials are considering new restrictions on how commercial fishermen use pound nets in the lower Bay during late spring and early summer in order to protect threatened and endangered sea turtles.
Each spring, hundreds of sea turtles migrate north along the Atlantic Coast and into the Chesapeake Bay where they forage throughout the summer.
But the National Marine Fisheries Service said that it has documented high numbers of stranded sea turtles, and sea turtles in pound nets, around the Bay during May and June.
Its proposal, though, has drawn strong opposition from fishermen, who say it would put them out of business. “Two and a half months without fishing!” exclaimed Kenneth Heath, an Eastern Shore pound netter, said at a February public hearing. “I might as well go to the McDonald’s right now and apply for a job.”
State fishery officials and some scientists also say there is little evidence that pound nets are a major cause of sea turtle deaths in Virginia waters.
Hundreds of sea turtles have been found dead in Virginia waters in recent years, including a record 500 in 2003. Federal officials said they had documented 28 cases of turtles become entangled in pound nest in 2002 and 2003.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the service is required to protect threatened and endangered species, prompting the the service to propose the new regulations targeting pound nets.
Pound nets include three parts: a long mesh fence, or leader, which leads fish through a funnel into an enclosed pocket, called the pound. When the net in the pound is lifted, the catch is scooped and sorted from the enclosure.
Sea turtles, which are air-breathing reptiles, can become entangled in or trapped against the leaders where they can be seriously injured or drown.
To protect the turtles, the service’s proposal would prohibit the use of leaders altogether in some areas, and restrict the type of mesh used in the leader in other places.
The restrictions would apply from May 6 through July 15.