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Dredging Plan Threatens Sea Turtles In Georgia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Southeast is one of just a few places in the world where loggerhead sea turtles nest, but the state of Georgia is concerned that they face a threat from the federal government. It's fighting a change in the dredging of shipping channels. Molly Samuel of member station WABE reports.

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MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Late one summer night, tour groups on a Georgia beach luck out. They come across a loggerhead sea turtle nest as it's hatching.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, whoa. Oh.

SAMUEL: This was a couple summers ago. The tiny turtles scramble up out of the nest and churn their flippers in a rush to the ocean.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: How many are there so far?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Laughter) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Well - one, two, three, four, five, six...

SAMUEL: When a nest hatches, it's called a boil. There are so many turtles, it ends up being impossible to keep count as they bubble up from the sand.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: This is so cool.

SAMUEL: Georgia takes pride in protecting and tracking the turtles that come here to lay their eggs, but now wildlife officials say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers threatens the same turtles the state has worked to save. The Corps plans to change its schedule for dredging shipping channels. The dredging keeps them deep enough for ships to get to and from the ports here. But the equipment can hurt and kill wildlife.

Biologist Mark Dodd with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources says the dredges are like giant underwater vacuum cleaners.

MARK DODD: The pumps just suck material off the bottom - sand and mud.

SAMUEL: And they can pick up sea turtles from the ocean floor too. Dodd says after getting sucked in, the animals hit a blade, like a propeller.

DODD: And they get chopped up and don't survive.

SAMUEL: So the past few decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has kept its dredging here to the winter months to minimize killing sea turtles. But last summer, the Corps got permission from the Trump administration to dredge in the Southeast any time of year. And it wants to start dredging off the Georgia coast in May, which is when the adult females start coming here to lay their eggs.

CATHERINE RIDLEY: Killing nesting females is especially devastating to conservation efforts.

SAMUEL: Catherine Ridley is with the Georgia advocacy group One Hundred Miles.

RIDLEY: We're sending these turtles through a wood chipper.

SAMUEL: But the Corps says conservation is actually the reason for the May dredging.

NICOLE BONINE: But really, we're not trying to do some evil thing here.

SAMUEL: Nicole Bonine with the agency says the change in schedule is to take into account other protected species across the region from North Carolina down to Puerto Rico - for instance, Atlantic sturgeon and North Atlantic right whales, which are on the Georgia coast in the winter, when the dredging has been happening.

BONINE: None of us want to see turtles harmed. This goal is to try to figure out how to do everything better for all the species.

SAMUEL: Advocates are skeptical. They say in 30 years of winter dredging, there's no proof that it's hurt right whales. But in 2009, an experiment with summer dredging was stopped after it killed six turtles in two weeks. Georgia officials are pushing back on this federal plan, but they may not have any power to stop it.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK MIDI SONG, "WESTERN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 15, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier headline incorrectly suggested that shipping channels may threaten the actual beaches where sea turtles nest.