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Environmentalists Receive Good News on Rare Sea Turtles Threatened by Dredging

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Environmentalists had been on high alert for a threat to endangered loggerhead sea turtles that lay eggs on Georgia beaches in the warmer nesting season for the first time in decades.

But good news arrived Friday for the sea turtles and their human advocates as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District announced that the hopper dredging of the Brunswick Harbor won’t occur until December at the earliest.

Before the schedule revision, the Corps planned to start on Aug. 1 the month-long removal of about 1 million cubic yards of debris and other material to make it easier for cargo ships to maneuver through the channel. 

“In an effort to continue open and transparent communication, we notified interested parties that the Corps had an opportunity to dredge Brunswick Harbor starting Aug. 1,” a Corps spokeswoman said in an email. “After further consideration, we have decided to forego the opportunity.  Our next scheduled hopper dredging event for the Brunswick Harbor entrance channel is to begin no earlier than Dec. 15.”

“USACE understands the importance of minimizing the loss of this endangered species and has been coordinating with the National Marine Fisheries Service and other sea turtle experts so that USACE can continue to reduce the probability of take on future projects,”

The summer opportunity is now open after the Corps completed a revised environmental assessment that found that the hopper dredging technique it uses does not pose a significant threat to the surrounding ecosystem. Georgia is home to five species of sea turtles, including loggerheads, who were on the way to being wiped out in early 2000s.

But the Georgia Department of Natural Resources accused the Corps of flawed analysis that doesn’t reflect the severity of the threat to sea turtles. State environmental analysts predict an 87% loss of loggerhead population over a three-year period based on the maximum number of loggerheads allowed to be killed by dredging around the south Atlantic coast.

Catherine Ridley, sea turtle project coordinator for the One Hundred Miles coastal environmental group, said the Corps conducted its required study last winter before turtle nesting season. But as the temperature warmed the sea in the spring, turtles became victims of the vacuum like suction used to capture weeds and other sediment.

The threat is looming large as this year’s loggerheads nesting season on the Georgia coast could surpass the state’s 2019 record of 4,000 eggs, Ridley said.

“It’s really the worst possible time to be doing this on just a few weeks’ notice,” she said. “We’re really wanting to get the word out to let people know what’s at stake here.

“We’re calling on everyone who loves Georgia’s sea turtles to speak out,” Ridley said. “That includes all of the thousands of people who have submitted comments in the past. And particularly, Georgia’s state agencies and our elected representatives, we need to hear from them.” 

Over the course of several days in March, a dredger in the Brunswick channel killed four extremely rare Kemp’s ridley turtles. During a subsequent trip to the harbor around Charleston, South Carolina, the Corps shutdown the dredging as the number of Kemp’s turtles that had been killed neared the annual legal limit of 18 along the south Atlantic coast.

The Army Corps is proceeding with year-round dredging and harbor maintenance plans in the Brunswick, Savannah and King’s Bay channels, to advance plans to deepen and widen Georgia’s harbors to accommodate larger cargo ships. 

This story was written by Stanley Dunlap, State Government Reporter at the Georgia Recorder, where this story first appeared.