Army Corps doesn't play shell games with turtle protection
By JoAnne Castagna
New York District
NEW YORK -- Several years ago, Howard Ruben and a team of other biologists with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District, were performing environmental work along a New Jersey beach that had been newly restored by the Army Corps.
"An onlooker approached us and said he had seen a baby sea turtle in the water," said Ruben. "Because this is an endangered species and you never see baby sea turtles on the shore in the northeast, we got very excited and began looking for it in the shallows where we had been working."
"We didn't find anything and went back to our work," Ruben recalled. "Just before we left for the day, I saw something in the seaweed along the shore. When I parted the weeds and looked down I saw a plastic baby turtle, but one of those that's very realistic. I laughed out loud."
This may seem funny, but the Army Corps takes the protection of endangered sea turtles and all marine life seriously, especially when performing beach replenishment projects. In the waters in the northeast there is a small risk that sea turtles can be injured or killed during these projects, including the most common endangered species in this region -- the Loggerhead Sea Turtle and the Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle.
Every time the Corps begins a beach replenishment project, it takes measures to protect sea trtles that comply with environmental policies established by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS. Recently these measures were activated for the Monmouth Beach Replenishment Project, in Monmouth County, N.J.
This past fall, the Corps began the Monmouth Beach Replenishment Project in partnership with the New Jersey State Department of Environmental Protection and dredging contractor, Weeks Marine of Cranford, N.J.
"This area of the New Jersey shoreline is in serious need of sand replenishment," said Roy Messaros, a coastal and hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District. "There hasn't been a beach here in several years, just a seawall."
"Without a beach, waves break directly on the seawall and eventually you will have a problem with the seawall," Messaros continued. "Building a beach provides protection to the shoreline that is vulnerable to storms and protects infrastructures and homes. A beach will also draw visitors to area stores and restaurants, which can stimulate the local economy."
"Building a beach is also good for the environment. Beaches are essential for sea turtles to reproduce, which are an integral part of our ecosystem," said Messaros.
To replenish sand on Monmouth Beach, the Corps is dredging 800,000 cubic yards of sand from an area of the ocean two miles off of the shore. The dredges are then taking the sand to the beach where it's being pumped onto the shore through a steel pipe and graded to create a beach.
To dredge the sand, they are using hopper dredges.
"These dredges are like under water vacuum cleaners," explained Ruben. "They suck up sand from the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, they can also take marine life with it."
Because of this, the NMFS develops policies that govern the activities that might impact species under its protection and the New York District has been very successful in following them.
These regulations require that the Army Corps perform its dredging during the winter, from December through April, when sea turtles are not expected to be in the northeast. If dredging has to occur during the warmer months, May through November, the Corps must take measures to prevent harm to sea turtles. These precautions include having a NMFS certified Sea Turtle Observer on board the dredges around the clock.
The Sea Turtle Observer is a trained and certified independent contractor who goes out on the hopper dredges with the crew to observe and document the dredging procedures that includes documenting if any marine life is harmed, such as sea turtles, whales, dolphins and seals.
The observers do this by monitoring the dredging operations inside and outside of the dredge. If they spot a marine animal swimming near the boat, they inform the crew so that the dredge can avoid it. If an observer sees a marine animal get injured they halt the dredging operation, document the incident and contact the proper authorities, including the District, NMFS and a wildlife rehabilitation facility.
The Sea Turtle Observers submit their daily reports to the District and this information is eventually entered into the Army Corps' national sea turtle data base.
"The NMFS sets strict limits for how many Sea Turtles can be "taken" during dredging procedures each year and if this limit is reached we must cease our dredging operations," said Ruben. "For the past twenty years, the district has been very successful when it comes to Sea Turtle protection. We have documentation of only one possible sea turtle mortality."
According to Ruben, the need for Sea Turtle protection is increasing. The Army Corps has worked tirelessly with the NMFS to develop dredging methods and equipment that minimizes the harm to sea turtles. An increase in the awareness of the plight of endangered sea turtles has also led to the creation of commercial fishing gear that is more "turtle friendly." Because of all of these protective measures sea turtle populations are showing signs of recovery and we may see more turtles in our waters.
"Even though the District's knowledge, and past experience has shown us that impacts to these turtles in the northeast are very unlikely, we still go out of our way to protect them by continuously expanding our knowledge and improving our methods," Ruben said.