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Feds raise protections for North Atlantic right whales, but sea turtles may suffer

By David Pendered

North Atlantic right whales have gained protections and sea turtles are more imperiled under a new federal calendar for harbor dredging that came to light May 14 in a federal lawsuit that seeks to protect sea turtles.

Hopper dredges vacuum debris from channels at ports to keep ships moving freely. The process can harm some sea life. Credit: Commerce Department

The entire calendar for dredging at some seaports along the East Coast has been modified in an effort to increase protections for North American right whales, according to a federal report with the new calendar. This species has been reduced to a population of some 360 animals.

The change allows harbors to be dredged in warmer months in North Carolina and continuing south through Georgia and Florida, to the islands of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Dredging is routine maintenance and typically involves vacuuming up debris that has filled a shipping channel and impedes ships as they use a port. The process has a history of harming certain sea life.

Whales will benefit from dredging in warmer months, because they’ll have departed for the cooler waters of New England and beyond. Sea turtles will be at greater risk, because in warmer months the females come ashore to lay eggs.

This shift in federal dredging policy was cited in a document referenced in the federal response filed last Friday to a lawsuit filed May 3 by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the coastal environmental group One Hundred Miles.

sea turtle nest

The first sea turtle nest of this season on Jekyll Island was found May 14 by the island’s Turtle Patrol. Credit: facebook.com/GeorgiaSeaTurtleCenter

OHM is trying to halt dredging at Brunswick that is to begin this month. This is the outset of sea turtle nesting season and OHM contends the dredging could disrupt the process and harm animals.

OHM’s lawsuit mentions the document that came to light in the federal response. But the lawsuit filed on behalf of OHM does not appear to mention the update that was completed July 30, 2020 and shifts the dredging calendar.

The update was cited in the federal response submitted May 14. It directs readers to page 645 of SARBO, for the South Atlantic Regional Biologic Opinion. The result published on the page was reached through negotiations involving senior leaders of the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The finding observes:

  • “The negotiations resulted in an agreement to shift a portion of hopper dredging to summer months when North Atlantic right whale are not present in the action area….”

The section then addresses risks to sea turtles:

A whale is stuck on the bulbous bow of a vessel. Collisions with ships are a primary threat to right whales because their migration route crosses East Coast shipping lanes, and aerial surveys are to be increased during dredging operations to help monitor their location and advise captains. Credit: NOAA via FWS

  • The SARBO Team considered and acknowledged that shifting some dredging projects to warmer months in the negotiated North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Plan may increase the risk of entrainment of sea turtles by hopper dredges due to the potential for higher densities of sea turtles in the project area. It was determined that the proposed action should include allowing dredging in warmer months only in limited circumstances and after a risk based assessment was completed, as outlined in the 2020 SARBO Section 2.9.2….”

The federal response to the OHM lawsuit explains the shift in federal policy in these terms:

  • “Previous iterations of the SARBO limited maintenance dredging to the winter months. … This was done, in part, to reduce sea turtle mortality, given that the turtles may be more abundant in warmer months and that females approach beaches during the summer to nest….
  • But the loggerhead sea turtle is only one of twenty-five threatened or endangered species in the relevant area. …. The 2020 SARBO is ‘an approach to balance the needs of all 25 ESA-listed species and designated critical habitats’ along the southeast coast, including ‘potential effects to North Atlantic right whale,’ which is among the species ‘identified as being at greatest risk from [maintenance dredging], without sufficient protective measures.’”



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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