In the face of new proposed dredging deregulation that could mean 50 percent more sea turtle deaths, it seems strange that ‘relocation’ is no longer an option

May 4, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY TONYA BRAMLAGE AND MARCY SHORTUSE – It’s common to hear the phrase “There is no use in dredging things up,” but when it comes to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – the people charged with keeping U.S. waterways unobstructed for boats and ships – they feel just the opposite is true. Recently the federal government has considered rescinding a 30-year-old policy that has protected sea turtles from being mangled and killed by machines used to remove sediment from shipping channels in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida. 

Proposed deregulation will occur during warmer months of the year when sea turtles are most present in coastal waters and females are nesting on beaches. 

This is a very interesting turn of events and thought process from the USACE, compared to what their Florida spokesman, Jim Yocum, said in May of 2019 when discussing that summer’s beach renourishment for the island, which would also potentially have an adverse impact on our nesting sea turtles.

At that time USACE engineers in Jacksonville announced that some Gasparilla Island beaches in Lee County would be renourished, which initially sounded like a great idea as more sand was definitely needed. Beaches in the Historic District had lost a great deal of sand over the years, leaving a big dropdown from the sea wall.

When asked what that meant for local nesting turtles, Yocum, the public affairs specialist for USACE, said all nesting shorebirds and sea turtles that would be directly impacted by the beach renourishment project would be relocated.

“We work diligently to protect wildlife during our projects, and our construction plan is designed to have minimal impact on turtle nesting season,” Yocum had said at the time. “The project includes daily early-morning monitoring by state-permitted turtle observers to relocate nests to a safe location, and that will continue throughout construction. In addition to caring for sea turtles, we will monitor and respond to issues impacting other local wildlife, including shorebirds, during construction operations. Part of our job is to make sure they are all taken to safe locations. And they will be moved by experts in the field.”

In an email to Yocum the Beacon asked why dredge removed from a waterway and placed on a beach would be any different than a beach renourishment project, where sand was taken from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico thousands of yards offshore and pumped onto the beach. For that matter, we asked, how would the machinery used in dredging be any different in differentiating between silt deposits and sea turtles, and couldn’t the same professionals who were allegedly being used to relocate sea turtles and shorebirds be used to relocate wildlife for a dredging project?

As of press time we had received no answer to those questions, but we will keep you posted if we hear anything.

Plans to begin removing the seasonal limits that have been in place since 1991 will be implemented starting with Georgia. The National Marine Fisheries Service findings, which concluded in 2020, showed that sea turtles protected by the Endangered Species Act could endure the 150 deaths that are anticipated from annual year-round dredging. 

Citing economic and environmental reasons for the change, Army Corps officials state that they can eliminate seasonal dredging limits without putting sea turtles in peril. Records indicate that thousands of sea turtles nest each spring and summer sharing their coastal habitat with seaports in all four states. 

Since the 1990s dredging was confined between the months of December and March. Conservationists are sounding alarms, claiming that the federal government is downplaying the threat to the long-term recovery of the sea turtle population, as vast numbers would be dismembered and crushed after being sucked into dredging equipment. 

The Army Corps relies on dredging to remove accumulated sediment and debris that make shipping channels shallow and unsafe to navigate. Ports are economic drivers ,and year-round dredging will help alleviate project delays that are caused by states competing to hire a limited numbers of contractors within restrictive timeframes. 

A biological assessment published in 2020 by the National Marine Fisheries Service projects dredging in the warmer months would kill 460 sea turtles over a three-year period between the four states. The number of dredging deaths will increase by 50 percent since the last assessment by the agency in 1997. 

Dredging during the nesting season period means greater risk to adult female loggerheads. Females have delayed sexual maturity and do not start laying eggs until age 30. Losing a female loggerhead through dredging takes 30 years to replace in the ecosphere. 

Conservationists agree lifting the seasonal dredging limits is an unwarranted environmental blow to the record levels of nesting in the region.

More than 400 ports and 25,000 miles of navigation channels are dredged throughout the United States. Enlarging and deepening of navigational channels is necessary to accommodate commercial and recreational vessels. Maintenance dredging operations involve the repetitive removal of naturally recurring deposited bottom sediment such as silt, sand, and clays in an existing navigational channel. New construction of channels involve the removal of previously undisturbed materials.

Dredging is also performed to reduce the exposure of wildlife, fish, and people to the contaminants, and to prevent the spread of contaminants to other areas of the water body. This environmental dredging is required because sediments in and around city and industrial areas are often contaminated with various pollutants. These pollutants are introduced into waterways from sources such as sewer overflows, municipal/industrial discharges, and spills. Surface runoffs and atmospheric deposition may also contribute to environmental damage.Sediment can smother seagrasses, which are the key food source of sea turtles. 

Marine environments are complex things. Removing large parts of the seabed and dumping it elsewhere can have a major impact on the ecosystem, particularly in sensitive areas. Hopper dredges that suck up the sand from offshore have been directly responsible for the incidental capture and death of countless sea turtles in the US. Sand that is too fine or silty washes back out and covers near shore rocky bottom habitats that are used by turtles and many marine species. 

Despite the regulatory framework around dredging, environmentalists continue to claim oversight has been lax, causing permanent damage to marine creatures. Some activists want dredging to be banned completely, blaming it for releasing toxic chemicals, increasing water turbidity and littering harmful materials throughout the food chain. Dredging practices may be considered controversial but they most assuredly promote opportunities for informed conversations which brings matters to the surface for all.