Representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pushed back Friday against conservation groups’ claims that a plan to dredge this summer in coastal Georgia waters will significantly threaten nesting sea turtles.
Experts with the corps’ South Atlantic Division participated in a phone call with reporters to discuss environmental concerns regarding plans to begin dredging outside of the traditional winter timeframe.
The corps plans to begin dredging in Brunswick this summer, and sea turtle nesting season begins in May. A winter dredging policy has been in place in Georgia for more than 25 years to protect sea turtles during their nesting period.
Corps’ representatives say the plan to dredge in the summer is part of a more holistic approach that will protect more species, like the North Atlantic right whales. Critics of the schedule say little to no scientific data backs up the claim that it is a responsible approach to take.
The corps wants a better way to accomplish dredging and material replacement responsibilities while maximizing protections for all species, said Nicole Bonine, an environmental compliance sustainability and energy program manager for the corps’ South Atlantic Division.
“The goal is to try to figure out how to do everything better for all the species,” Bonine said. “We’re really hoping that if we can get all of these techniques in place and continue to build on information gathered year over year we can ultimately reduce the number of turtle takes (deaths or injuries) every year.”
Conservation groups sounded the alarm about this planned change in dredging protocols and have argued against the idea that dredging during other parts of the year will offer better protections for more species.
“The corps is making an emotional argument, not one that’s grounded in science — and they’re hoping we won’t recognize the difference,” 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 aren’t giving us a lot of credit, but I’m confident the public isn’t going to fall for it. Georgians care about all of our wildlife, and we can see through this for what it is: spin by a federal agency that isn’t willing to listen to our scientists.”
Thirteen years of negotiations went into the planning process that led to this change, Bonine said, and those conversations included the corps, National Marine Fisheries Service, experts in dredging and species protections and other specialists.
“We worked with state resources, NGOs, researchers and came up with this 650-page document that everybody’s now looking at,” she said.
That document is the SARBO, or the South Atlantic Regional Biological Opinion.
Published in March 2020, the SARBO updated the 1997 version and took a more holistic approach than the prior document, which focused more on turtle protections, said Debby Scerno, an environmental planner with the corps' South Atlantic Division.
“From an environmental standpoint, you can’t understate that,” Bonine added. “This is about looking at not just one project, which often happens, but looking at everything over an entire ecosystem — in this case four states and two territories — and trying to figure out cumulatively what effects that has to species, to habitats, and how to continue to reduce that risk.”
Ridley said the SARBO update was developed without adequate input from state agencies and species experts in the Southeast.
“Georgians deserve the right to fully engage in this process, but the corps has not held any opportunities for public comment on the removal of dredging windows,” she said.
Bonine said the corps also has to consider the risks to other species, like the North Atlantic right whale, which every year comes to south Georgia and north Florida waters during its calving season.
“The North Atlantic right whale in the last four years alone, 10 percent of that population has been lost,” Bonine said. “Vessel strikes and entanglements are the biggest risks. They’re really hard to see even if you’re looking for them. They’re the same color as the water, they don’t have a dorsal fin.”
Critics of the dredging plan say there is little evidence that shows that winter dredging has been harmful to right whales.
“There has been maintenance dredging during winter calving season in coastal Georgia for more than 30 years without any history of dredging operations harming right whales. Zero,” Ridley said. “You can’t decide to overturn a policy that’s been overwhelmingly successful over three decades based on a problem that doesn’t exist.”
The corps plans to spend more than $1 million next year to do additional aerial surveys to track whales and avoid causing them harm, Bonine said.
The corps has also faced issues harming sturgeon while dredging during the winter time period and must consider ways to avoid impacts to coral in Florida and other species, she said.
“We’re looking at all other species and habitats outside of those considered in SARBO and trying to be protective of those and working with state agencies to figure out the best time to do work in those areas,” she said.
Different kinds of dredging technology can minimize the likelihood of contact with species like sea turtles, Bonine said, or can reduce the consequences for certain species.
The best way to minimize potential impacts on whales is to move away from the winter-only dredging policy, she said.
“The corps is using right whales as a red herring to muddy the waters,” she said. “It is absolutely ridiculous to overturn decades of overwhelming success in protecting sea turtles, right whales and other species based on no scientific evidence whatsoever. Georgians and the beloved wildlife we have worked so hard to protect for decades deserve better.”
The SARBO allows the corps to legally “take,” or injure or kill, 214 turtles over a three-year period in a region that includes North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
“It’s a take for the whole region,” Scerno said. “We have a lot of work to do across the whole region, so we would not have a reason to take all of that in Georgia because then we wouldn’t be able to do work in the rest of the region … There’s a lot of work that needs to be done across the region.”
The corps plans to begin its dredging project in Georgia in May or possibly before.
“I know there’s a lot of passion around this issue,” Bonine said. “We’re very passionate about it as well, and we just hope that you think about what we’ve said and you understand we’re really not trying to do some evil thing here. This is really about trying to be more proactive environmentally, ecosystem level, and trying to find better ways to do it. And we want to continue to partner with all of those who are involved and interested and aware in any way we can.”
The Coastal Resources Division of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources 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 today.
“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.
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.