The slow-swimming creatures that lumber through the cold waters south of Cape Cod come from an ancient lineage that can grow to 1,000 pounds and live for 70 years. Once thriving off the East Coast, loggerhead sea turtles have become a threatened species, as local fishermen kept finding the docile reptiles dead in their nets or slashed by the fast-moving steel dredges that scoop up scallops along the seabed.
Now, after a decade of pressure from environmental groups, regulators are moving to require the scallop industry to use new equipment designed to protect the turtles. But the changes are controversial, because some local fishermen say it could cost them tens of thousands of dollars and significantly reduce their catch.
Last month, the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees the local fishing industry, approved new regulations that by 2013 would force hundreds of scallopers who fish in the rich waters from Nantucket to North Carolina to use different dredges.
``This was seen as really necessary to minimize the impact on turtles,'' said Deirdre Boelke, the council's fishery analyst who serves as its scallop plan coordinator. ``It will allow the scallop fishery to continue to operate as it should, meaning that it's a lucrative, successful fishery.''
Some fishermen are unhappy, however, saying the specially designed dredges, each weighing about a ton, do little more than current trawling equipment to protect turtles, and they force fishermen to burn substantially more fuel and cost more to maintain.
``I was told to fight like hell to keep these regulations from taking effect,'' said James Fletcher, director of the United National Fisherman's Association, which represents about 1,000 fishermen throughout the country.
With each dredge costing about $4,000 - and more for delivery - some boat owners that require more than a dozen dredges will have to make steep investments if the regulations are approved next year by National Marine Fisheries Service. He said nearly all the scallopers that he represents who have tried the new dredges stopped using them, because they weren't catching scallops as efficiently or working as promised.
He added that previous equipment changes required five years ago have reduced the impact on turtles, noting that less than a dozen loggerheads have been hauled up in nets since then.
``The hardworking people who go out to sea shouldn't be forced to do this,'' he said. ``If they were such a good thing, you wouldn't need to mandate them. They would sell themselves.''
But proponents say the new dredges, which have fewer bars for turtles to get stuck on and use a special deflecting mechanism to keep them from being sucked into the nets, will reduce the number of loggerhead deaths by 50 percent a year and cut the number of other fish caught unintentionally.
The fishery management council estimates that 80 turtles die every year now as a result of their impact with existing dredges, which use a grid of chains to block the turtles from entering the nets. Before that innovation took effect, they said, hundreds of turtles were dying every year.
``Our feeling was the chains weren't doing enough, and in effect, they were covering up the problem,'' said Gib Brogan, who monitors fishing issues in New England for Oceana, an international marine conservation organization. ``The current dredge makes it so that a fishery observer on a boat can't see whether a turtle is being dragged along the bottom or being crushed.''
He said a dredge similar to the new one for scallop fishermen is used by shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico and has reduced turtle mortality by 90 percent.
``Oceana is relieved that after 10 years of requests, the council has finally taken significant action,'' he said.
Over the years, the council has taken several measures to reduce the impact on turtles from some 350 scallop vessels that trawl through the mid-Atlantic waters the loggerheads inhabit.
It has reduced the number of days scallopers can fish and limited their access to certain areas when turtles are likely to be there. But the nearly $500 million annual scallop business remains profitable for most fishermen, who on average haul in 120,000 pounds of the often brightly colored, fan-shaped mollusks every year.
Some scallopers said they see the new requirements, which are likely to be approved, as potentially advantageous. They hope the new equipment will eventually allow them to enter areas where they're now banned.
``If it's going to benefit me in the long run, I'm all for it,'' said Edward Welch, captain and owner of the Westport, a 98-foot scalloper out of New Bedford.
He has caught three turtles over the more than 30 years he has been scalloping. ``If this eliminates the small probability that we will catch turtles, that's an extra boost,'' he said.
Eric Hansen, owner and one-time captain of the Endeavor, a 109-foot scalloper from New Bedford, said he's concerned about the ultimate wording of the regulations.
If they're approved, they will take effect in March, but fishermen will have until March 2013 to comply.
``I worry that if the language in the regulations becomes so strict, and there's no option for any kind of tweaking, that could be a big problem,'' he said. ``When you have new equipment, you always find you need to make modifications.''
Harriet Didriksen, owner of the 90-foot Settler in New Bedford, has already bought two of the new dredges. She said she has found they're hard to use in certain locations and would prefer not to be required to use them.
But she hasn't seen a significant difference in the amount of scallops they collect and noted some fishermen have reported catching more with the new dredges.
``None of us want to put any turtles in jeopardy, which is why we're going to use them,'' she said. ``We're just hoping now they will allow us to fish in areas where we're restricted from fishing.''
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @davabel.