New Federal Study: Dredging is harming more endangered fish

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A study from the National Marine Fisheries Service says a few more endangered sturgeon and sea turtles have been killed as a result of the dredging in the Savannah River. But it also says the dredging does not necessarily create a danger to the species and may actually indicate there are more of the sea creatures out there than believes.

“What this report shows us is that the number of endangered species out there is actually more robust than originally thought,” says Billy Birdwell, Army from the Corps of Engineers. “One of the things it shows is that conservation methods and trying to preserve the species is working.”

The Corps is in charge of SHEP (Savannah Harbor Expansion Project) which is taking the level of the river from 42 to 47 feet to allow for larger ships to get to the Port of Savannah.

The new federal report indicates that more of the endangered sea creatures can be killed or captured and removed as the deepening project continues.

In the case of the Atlantic sturgeon: the allowance was to what’s termed four lethal takes and 23 non-lethal takes. That has now increased five fold to 20 lethal takes and 195 non-lethal takes.

In the case of the green sea turtle: The limit was three lethal takes and three non-lethal takes. That has now increased to 16 lethal and five non-lethal.

Jacob Oblander, the outreach coordinator for the Savannah Riverkeeper says the word on population increases at least is good news. “What that means is we have a healthier population than we originally thought and what this new opinion is going to do is allow them to collect more data and collect more information about these animals and get a better understanding of how they’re living in our harbor,” he said.

Oblander says a lot may be learned for example from word there are more Atlantic sturgeon than believed. “The sturgeon is truly an ancient fish and they live for a long time and can get very large,” he said. “Sturgeon are kind of a key stone species in a lot of rivers or sort of an indicator of overall river health.”

Oblander says they are “still concerned and in an ideal world we wouldn’t have any takes.”

But he also says the report stresses methods to minimize damage to wildlife must continue and be strengthened. “And those new requirements like more mesh, more turtle excluding devices on dredge hedge themselves will do an amazing job to minimize those takes before they actually happen ..”

Birdwell says the Corps is doing all it can to minimize damage to endangered sea creatures. “We have nets out there that can capture the sturgeon, we pull them on board, we take them somewhere else, release them right away,” he said, ” We will continue to take the precautions that we need to take.

The report does make it clear however that the dredging can continue and that even with more lethal and non-lethal “takes” that species reportedly will not face undue harm.

“We don’t want to harm any species but we do actually want to keep the project moving because this is an important project for the community, for the state and for the nation,” said Birdwell.

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