The board of the Jekyll Island Authority was updated Tuesday on the status of an ongoing discussion about the risks and benefits of proposed seasonal dredging at the Brunswick Harbor.
Ben Carswell, the authority’s director of conservation, informed the board that he has worked with leaders of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and JIA Executive Director Jones Hooks to draft a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which plans to begin dredging in Georgia’s waters year-round despite a long-held practice of only dredging in winter months to protect the nesting process of sea turtles.
Critics of the proposed policy change, which comes in response to the federal South Atlantic Regional biological opinion issued in 2020, are concerned that allowing dredging when sea turtles are nesting will severely impact decades of conservation work aimed at assisting the recovery of the endangered loggerhead sea turtle.
“The United States Army Corps of Engineers is advancing a plan that would allow dredging in federal channels to occur outside of historic winter windows,” Carswell said.
The corps has argued that year-round dredging will better serve other endangered species rather than focusing only on protecting sea turtles.
A federal court issued an injunction in May that halted dredging planned to take place this summer in Brunswick Harbor. The corps in June announced updates to its plans and an opportunity for public input, which closes today.
The corps' update did not substantially modify its plans for hopper dredging to take place outside of the long-held winter window, Carswell said.
“It is evident that there is not scientific consensus between the federal and state scientific experts in regard to the loggerhead sea turtle population in our area,” he said.
There also is not consensus, he said, on how the proposed policy change will affect the sea turtle population.
The drafted letter focused on the need for better scientific consensus on this issue.
Loggerhead sea turtles are the most common sea turtle nesting on Georgia’s beaches, said Michelle Kaylor, director of the Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll. The center has played an important role for many years in supporting research focused on the importance of the species from a conservation and ecological standpoint, she said.
“One of our flagship projects is our sea turtle monitoring program, which has gained vital information about the importance of loggerhead sea turtles,” Kaylor said.
A turtle given the name Big Bertha has landed on Georgia’s beaches since at least 1980 and holds the record for longest nesting history in the world.
“She has produced over 3,000 sea turtle hatchlings back into the population — just Big Bertha alone,” Kaylor said.
Year-round dredging poses a risk to nesting females like Big Bertha and her contributions to the rebound of the species.
“With all of these threats that these animals face, from predation on land and sea, human impact threats such as commercial fisheries, loss of habitat, a lot of boat strikes and plastic pollution, these important mothers’ lives are at stake by the decision to dredge during nesting season,” Kaylor said.
In other business, the JIA Board:
• Approved a grant request for the acceptance of $358,433 from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs for the 2021-2022 Americorps grant for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. JIA will match 50% of the 2021 grant funding for 28 AmeriCorps members through operating expenses.
• Approved amendments to the JIA policy manual, including a policy to provide eligible employees up to 120 hours of paid parental leave in a 12-month period.
• Requested the executive director to serve on certain committees to comply with an ethics order issued by Gov. Brian Kemp in April.
• Approved the assignment of the current rental agreement for the Jekyll Island Club Resort and the Wharf Restaurant from Northview Hotel Group to Golden Isles Owners, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Pebblebrook Hotel Trust. The board also approved a first amendment to the Wharf Restaurant lease to update lease discrepancies with how the property is currently being used.
• Approved an award for Terracon to complete phase one and two of archaeological investigations of the island’s golf courses.
After the meeting, board members visited Summer Waves water park to receive an update on operations and projects, the water treatment facility and the construction site of the new Moorings townhouses and condos.