SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it may dredge waters up and down the East Coast all year long and not just winter months as it has been doing for several decades.

The plan involves maintenance dredges on waterways and does not involve SHEP (Savannah Harbor Deepening Project), which is well underway.

In terms of changing the maintenance dredge schedules, the environmental group 100 Miles is voicing concerns about how work in warmer, summer waters may affect the survival of sea turtles.

The new actions and criteria are outlined in a 650-page report done in 2020. Nicole Bonine with the Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division says it was the result of “13 years of negotiations between National Marine Fisheries Service and BOEM (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management).

She says they considered environmental concerns and consulted specialists.

“That document changed the approach of just using seasonal windows to be protective of species and looks at all the options we have,” said Bonine.

She told reporters that the “Corps needed a better way to do all this dredging and material placement so we could maximize what the Corps has to do under its navigation mission but also maximize protection of endangered species.”

The Corps has been relegated to a winter dredge schedule for maintenance (Dec. 15 through March 31), which was established years ago to protect the marine life that may be more plentiful in warmer summer waters — especially loggerhead turtles.

“Those established windows have been in place for a long time and for good reason,” said Catherine Ridley with 100 Miles, which is located in Brunswick.

Ridley says the winter dredging was established to try to rebuild the endangered turtle population and says if dredging now starts taking place in spring and summer, it will be happening “right smack in the middle of our sea turtle nesting season.”

“That’s a huge problem because it coincides with the very same time period our nesting females are utilizing the same channels, and they will be sitting ducks. This is basically a permit to kill turtles,” she said.

She said when you “kill a nesting female, you are setting our population and recovery efforts back decades.”

Ridley says 100 Miles has tremendous concerns about the plan from the Corps — and has word that a dredging permit for the Brunswick area is already in the works.

“They’re saying ‘sea turtles be damned,'” said Ridley. “They’re coming this spring and summer and that they’re going to dredge whenever they want.”

The Corps offered a different perspective saying it is evaluating how best to protect not just turtles but also the endangered right whale and sturgeon.

“We find that when we work in those winter months outside of ports and harbors, that’s where sturgeons are all staging doing spawning runs and going up the river,” said Bonine. “We end
up having a lot of problems encountering sturgeon in those winter time periods so moving outside of that period is better for them.”

Bonine said prioritizing species also meant having to look at the North Atlantic right whale because in the last four years 10 percent of the population has been lost.

“None of us want to see turtles harmed,” said Bonine. “This goal is to try to figure out how to do everything better for all the species and we’re are really hoping that if we can get all these techniques in place that we can reduce the number of turtle takes (kills) every year.”

Ridley takes issues with the premise that a year round dredging schedule may be better for any endangered or protected marine life. “In part, they claim this is all to protect North Atlantic right whales, and that’s an infuriating argument. They’re essentially trying to pit one species against the other,” she said.

She said 100 Miles is committed to pushing for changes to protect right whales but that the Corps’ new all year plan “is not one of them.”

The plan from the Corps’ South Atlantic Division could essentially change the dredging maintenance schedule to times of the year “not traditionally seen along the southeast coast, from North Carolina to Puerto Rico.”

“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 effect that has to species and habitats and how to reduce that risk,” said Bonine.