Unexpected numbers of turtles found during nourishment

By on September 10, 2017

An female loggerhead crawls back into the Atlantic after laying her eggs in the sand on the Outer Banks. (Jared Lloyd)

By Catherine Kozak
Coastal Review Online

Federal agencies are re-evaluating sea turtle activities off part of the Outer Banks after large numbers of the marine animal had to be moved out of the way during the first months of the ongoing beach nourishment project.

“We have relocated more turtles prior to and during the dredging process than previously anticipated,” Stephen Boutwell, spokesman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in an e-mail. “All relocated turtles were released in good condition.”

Since the late May start of the re-nourishment project in Duck until the end of July, 66 turtles had been safely scooped up by trawlers that clear the area in front of the working dredge to prevent incidental capture.


Most were loggerheads, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. There were also some Kemp’s ridley and leatherbacks — both listed as endangered.

In what is called a lethal take, one loggerhead was killed when it was caught in a dredge drag head, the part that includes the “teeth” for cutting into the bottom and water jet nozzles. When a turtle is relocated unharmed, it is counted as a nonlethal take. Under the ESA, the definition of a take ranges from harassment to capture and to killing, or from minor harmless encounters to intentional slaughter.

According to Matthew Godfrey, sea turtle biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the relocated turtles were a mix of juveniles and adults. Two were females that had been tagged on a beach in Trinidad, and an adult female that had been tagged in 2005 at Cape Lookout.

Contractors Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. and APTIM/Coastal Planning & Engineering, which finished widening 1.7 miles of Duck beaches in June, recently completed nourishing 2.5 miles in the Kill Devil Hills portion. Work is underway on 2.5 miles of beach in Kitty Hawk and 2,500 feet in Southern Shores, with an expected project completion in mid-October.

Contractors have had to work in the summer months, when turtles are nesting, because of dangerous offshore conditions in the winter.


The sand source is in offshore federal waters, which means the project required coordination between federal agencies BOEM, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the administrator of the Endangered Species Act. As part of that process, BOEM consulted with Fisheries about project-related effects on sea turtles that are protected under the ESA.

It became apparent early in the project that many more turtles were in the ocean than the number estimated by Fisheries, which was responsible for an analysis known as a biological opinion.

“This was due in part to an unexpected influx of cannonball jellyfish, which is known to be prey for leatherback sea turtles,” Allison Garrett, spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries, said in an email.


Within the first three days of the project, she said, BOEM realized there were large numbers of turtles in the area, and immediately restarted consultation with the fisheries service to get a new analysis.

The initial biological opinion, BOEM’s Boutwell explained, authorized injurious and non-injurious takes of sea turtles, incidental to project operations.

“Based on the limited available data in the area,” he said, (NOAA Fisheries) did not anticipate that sea turtles would be in such abundance.”

As of mid-July, Garrett wrote, “the number of sea turtles relocated outside of the dredging area during required relocation trawling have exceeded predictions in the original biological opinion and a new biological opinion is being written” to update the number of nonlethal takes in relocation trawling. The lethal takes, she added, have not exceeded predictions in the original opinion.

But Dennis Pohl, president of the nonprofit Network for Endangered Sea Turtles, or NEST, on the Outer Banks, said in a telephone interview that he is skeptical that the trawling operation is as benign as it sounds.

“I’m wondering — who made the decision that everything is honky-dory on this?” he asked. “I really don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a biologist. But I can’t believe there’s no repercussions from taking these turtles.”

Pohl said he understands that beach nourishment will remain a fact of life in communities with eroding beaches. He just wants to make sure that everything possible is done to ensure the well-being of sea turtles.

“Seeing these reports for incidental capture concerns me,” he said. “If it doesn’t affect them, fine. (Agencies) say they’re not. But what’s that based on?”

Despite having to contend with so many sea turtles, contractors see an upside in the robust population of the protected marine animals.

“The number of turtles that were anticipated to be relocated by National Marine Fisheries Service for this project was based on historical estimates from other projects in the region,” Julien Devisse, a project manager for contractor Coastal Planning & Engineering of North Carolina, said in an e-mail.

“Although our project has exceeded the anticipated number of relocations, we see this is a very positive reflection of the health of the species. The fact that we are encountering far more animals than historical numbers suggested is a good thing.”


  • Kathy Sparrow

    Love the article as it points to the fact that PERHAPS, some species of sea turtles are NO longer endangered and should be removed from the endangered species list. This however, would require a stock assessment that no one seems to want to do. The goal of putting any species on the endangered list is to eventually get it OFF that endangered species list isn’t it???

    Monday, Sep 11 @ 11:05 am
  • Laura Wing

    The goal of putting any species on the endangered species list is to protect that species from becoming extinct from habitat destruction caused by human endeavors. The goal is not to get them off the list.

    Monday, Sep 11 @ 1:13 pm
  • Outerbanker

    Julien Devisse says:
    “Although our project has exceeded the anticipated number of relocations, we see this is a very positive reflection of the health of the species. The fact that we are encountering far more animals than historical numbers suggested is a good thing.”

    Where does he get his information on “historical numbers” and how many projects on the Outer Banks are involved. I would guess the answer would be one.

    How does Mr. Devisse qualify to suggest the incidential captures “are a good thing “and make a determination on the health of the species? The article states he is a project engineer for a company who is moving sand. What is his background and expertise on sea turtles?

    Monday, Sep 11 @ 3:16 pm
  • Really?

    Someone needs to double check the data. Some of the internet experts that comment on OBV were swearing that the plastic bags were pretty much wiping the turtles out of existence! Lol!

    Tuesday, Sep 12 @ 1:26 pm
  • dave

    Yayyyy!! Now we can re-open the beaches!….right?

    Wednesday, Sep 13 @ 1:54 pm
  • Right Hook

    Here we go with turtles again. The most endangered species in America is humans – still murdering a million babies a year. I guess turtles provide a nice distraction.

    Wednesday, Sep 13 @ 6:02 pm
  • dave

    Hey Right Hook. Just did a very thorough Google search about millions of babies being murdered every year and couldn’t find a thing. You’d think something like that and of that magnitude would be Headlines of each and every news outlet wouldn’t you?

    Thursday, Sep 14 @ 8:35 am
  • Britton shackelford

    Let’s get a number, before we do anything else. Nobody has an idea on how many turtles there are. Let’s start with a stock assessment. Nobody outside of local knowledge is capable of discussing historical numbers, because historically we used to eat turrles. Our group has pushed for sensible turtle regulations for years, and we have hit a stone wall in dealing with the feds. There is no interest in doing a stock assessment, because the more the public knows, the more rational the decisions will be. Notice the report states that a “Few” leatherbacks were caught, yet the “historical numbers were due to a preponderance of cannonball jellyfish. Welcome to the big shell game.

    Thursday, Sep 14 @ 12:58 pm
  • Right Hook

    Hey Dave: Guttmacher Institute abortion data: “In 2014, an estimated 926,200 abortions were performed in the United States”. You don’t see this in your liberal fake news sources because the truth is so tragic – and it is politically incorrect to not celebrate and glorify the taking of innocent lives as a “woman’s right to choose”.

    Saturday, Sep 16 @ 6:01 pm
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