For The Record

Judge asked to halt coastal dredging during sea turtle nesting season

By: - May 5, 2021 9:53 pm

Environmentalists have filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop a new dredging schedule they say poses a threat to loggerhead sea turtles in Georgia. In this file photo, a 2019 loggerhead nest sits on St. Simons Island. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

When nature-lovers welcomed Georgia’s first nesting sea turtles of the year on Little Cumberland Island Friday, the celebration was tempered with worries about the struggling species’ future. 

For One Hundred Miles’s Catherine Ridley, her growing concern these days for the loggerhead turtles, fisheries and other wildlife is the potential threat from a new spring and summer dredging schedule along coastal Georgia.

This week, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of One Hundred Miles asking a U.S. District Court judge to grant a preliminary injunction to block this month’s planned removal of sediment and debris from the Brunswick and Savannah shipping channels.

The lawsuit alleges that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is breaking federal laws by not performing an environmental review before switching from a winter-months dredging process that’s been used for several decades.

Loggerhead sea turtle on the Georgia coast. Catherine Ridley

The hopper dredges used by the Corps act like a vacuum cleaner along the seabed. At the same time, rotating blades can injure or kill sea animals like female loggerheads, which typically are in their mid-30s before they can reproduce, Ridley said.

“By unlawfully removing the dredging windows that have been in place and effectively protecting wildlife for more than 30 years, the Corps is jeopardizing our nesting sea turtles and nearly six decades of conservation progress towards their recovery,” she said. 

An Army Corps Savannah District spokesman declined to comment because of the pending litigation.  

The federal agency moved away from the winter dredging after releasing a 2020 biological opinion report from the National Marine Fisheries Services.

Corps officials have said the changes will better protect highly-endangered whales and their calves during the colder months.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is critical of what it calls an abrupt departure from winter dredging. The state agency estimates the shift could kill as many as 87% of the loggerheads nesting near the Brunswick shipping channel.

Department Wildlife Biologist Mark Dodd wrote in a letter that there’s no verified evidence that a whale has been injured or killed along the Georgia coast because of hopper dredging. 

“It’s illogical to conclude that winter hopper dredging activity should be shifted from the calving season when there have been no fatalities or injurious events in over 30 years,” Dodd said.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.