Turtle team

A sea turtle hatchling crawls across a St. Simons beach.

Those who work annually on Georgia’s coast to protect and promote loggerhead sea turtle nesting are sounding the alarm about a plan to dredge in the state’s coastal waters this summer.

Doing so will put nesting turtles and their hatchlings at risk of being killed, they contend.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to begin dredging in Brunswick and in other spots around the coast during summer months despite the long-standing dredging window of Dec. 15 to March 31 in Georgia.

Nesting female sea turtles typically begin arriving on the beaches in May to lay their eggs, which hatch later in the summer and early fall.

Dredging would be a direct risk to the survival of turtles and to decades-long conservation work on Georgia’s coast to save the species from extinction, said Catherine Ridley, vice president for education and communications for One Hundred Miles, a local environmental advocacy organization, and coordinator of the SSI Sea Turtle Project.

“They’re going to be in Brunswick as early as next month, or certainly some time this summer that they plan to be both in Brunswick and Savannah and dredge,” Ridley said. “And that’s a huge problem because in the summer months we know that’s exactly when our nesting females, our adult turtles, are utilizing the very same channels.”

The Coastal Resources Division of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources has opened a public comment period regarding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to widen the shipping channel, which includes annual operations and management dredging. The comment period ends March 29.

“The Corps proposes to use a cutterhead dredge to widen the Brunswick Harbor channel bend near Cedar Hammock Range and expand the turning basin, and widen the official channel at St. Simons Sound without the need for dredging, to reduce transportation cost inefficiencies,” according to the notice. “Dredging activities will continue for approximately 12 months and a total of approximately 551,000 cubic yards of material will be removed and placed in the Andrews Island Dredge Material Containment Area (DMCA). Operation and maintenance (O&M) dredging, using all dredge types including hopper dredges, will occur annually as needed based on shoaling rates. No seasonal restrictions or dredge windows are proposed for O&M dredging.”

The corps claims that the South Atlantic Biological Opinion (SARBO), a document released in 2020 that is part of a larger rollback of Endangered Species Act protections, allows dredging outside of the standard time window, Ridley said.

“They seem to be eyeing Georgia’s coast as their first stop this summer. It appears imminent. And if they get their way, we’d be the test case, and it would really set a very dangerous precedent for wildlife conservation all over the Southeast,” Ridley said. “Frankly I don’t know if they’re targeting Georgia because they don’t expect us to put up a fight. But if that’s the case they are mistaken. We are not about to let them come in here and reverse five decades of progress in conserving Georgia’s sea turtles. We have too much to lose.”

There’s a legacy of sea turtle conservation on Georgia’s coast, said Russ Regnery, project leader for Little Cumberland Island, one of the first places in the world to begin routinely monitoring and managing loggerhead sea turtle nesting in 1964.

Nesting is monitored each year by the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative, which includes a variety of groups, state and federal entities and others who track and protect nests on each of Georgia’s beaches and collect data on nesting trends. The cooperative has in recent years celebrated record nesting totals, which Ridley said are the result of work that was done decades prior.

“Any loss of a turtle is unwanted certainly, but killing nesting females is just catastrophic,” she said. “It’s important that people realize the legacy of sea turtle conservation on Georgia’s coast and how so many of us have worked, hundreds of volunteers and staff and researchers have worked, through blood, sweat and tears on all of our beaches going back nearly 60 years to get us to the point we are today.”

This collaborative effort led to the dredging windows that have been in place for many years, Regnery said.

“Back in the early ‘90s, they actually started monitoring the number of deaths of turtles from dredging, for example, around Savannah, and by 1994 the Georgia DNR actually instituted a policy that dredging would only happen in the winter months,” he said.

Many nesting female turtles will return to the same beaches from which they hatched, Regnery said, despite having traveled to that point from across the Atlantic Ocean.

Loggerhead turtles do not reach reproductive maturity until they’re about 30 years old, which means each nesting female turtle killed will not be replaced in the population for another 30 years.

“That’s not a quick process,” Ridley said. “… My first time working on a turtle beach was back in 2001, and that was a lifetime ago, and if any of the turtles that hatched from my beach that summer have somehow survived this far they still have another 10 years to go before they’ll be able to return to nest for the very first time. It’s a huge investment of time and resources and luck over three decades.”

The corps' plan to make dredging operations in Georgia possible year-round ignores the reasoning behind the initial implementation of the winter dredging regulation, Regnery said. He expects Georgians will speak up against the proposal.

“I think the Army corps has greatly underestimated the fervor with which Georgia’s citizens will protect our sea turtles,” he said.

One Hundred Miles sent out an action alert this week encouraging the public to comment and voice opposition to the corps' plan. The alert is available online at OneHundredMiles.org/Dredging.

“We have to get all of the groups that are working toward sea turtle conservation to stand up,” Ridley said. “… Our coast has invested in loggerhead sea turtles for nearly 60 years, and this is personal to me and it’s personal to a lot of people who love our turtles and want them to be around for our children and grandchildren.”

Comments can be submitted in writing to DNR’s Diana Taylor at One Conservation Way, Brunswick, Georgia 31520 or at CRD.Comments@dnr.ga.gov. Comments must be received by 4:30 p.m. March 29.

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