The mangled flipper resembled a piece of rotting chicken, the shredded meat looking like it had been caught in the blades of a lawn mower. The flipper belonged to a loggerhead turtle, one of several endangered sea turtle species that nest in the sands of South Florida. But this mauling wasn’t the work of a predator or even human carelessness. The butchered flipper, and the dead turtle it once belonged to, were collateral damage from a beach renourishment project in the Town of Palm Beach. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, in less than a month, the project has killed at least four loggerhead turtles and injured a green turtle.
South Floridians have for years grappled with the issue of beach erosion. Condos continue to go up despite wave action that carries sand away. Residents want wide, sandy beaches — and so do turtles, who need it to nest. Almost every city in South Florida has at some point resorted to having sand from afar brought in to artificially replenish the beaches. But as this project shows, turtles are being killed in the machinery.
The current $17.6 million renourishment project is bringing in about 800,000 cubic yards of sand from off the coast and depositing it onto Midtown Beach in Palm Beach. The project is being carried out by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems. The first phase is expected to last until the first week of May.
Officials are required to document the deaths of and injuries to endangered species harmed in the process. They use the term “taken” rather than “killed.” The turtles are being hurt by a hopper trawling vessel that sucks up sand from the bottom with a suction tube. According to Robbin Trindell, biological administrator at FWC, the hopper dredge is equipped with something called a turtle exclusion device. But the device doesn’t always work, and the turtles are sucked up and maimed by the dredge. A shrimp trawler has been brought in to run ahead of the dredge to scare the turtles away.
Ed Tichenor, director of the conservation group Reef Rescue, points out an absurdity: It’s illegal for citizens to disturb a sea turtle nest or even have lights turned on in nesting areas, yet the government is allowed to dredge — even now, at the beginning of nesting season — killing or severely injuring the turtles along the way with impunity.
“If you live on the beach and turn your lights on after March 1st, you are subject to fines,” he says. “But they’re permitted to grind up sea turtles for a beach project.”
At minimum, he says, “We would like to see these project scheduled so as not to extend into turtle nesting season.” Tichenor also suspects that FWC’s count of dead turtles might be low. He claims the use of a shrimp trawler to run interference for the hopper dredge isn’t something used before on beach projects in this part of Florida. “It suggests to me a desperation move and causes me to wonder how reliable the turtle take number really is,” he says.
Following correspondence with FWC, Reef Rescue has filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to find out more details about turtles encountered by the trawler and whether any have been captured and relocated.
Trindell says the renourishment project is being done by the book, though she acknowledges that the project has been taking place in the early stages of turtle nesting season in an area frequented by loggerhead and leatherback turtles.
“The vessels are equipped with devices that are designed to push turtles away,” she says, “and the trawler can only turn on the sand suction once it’s at the very bottom.”
Dredging and sand placement projects are authorized by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Army Corps of Engineers. The DEP then must consult with FWC, which provides recommendations for avoiding and minimizing impacts to marine turtles, Trindell says.
To conduct dredging in water where sea turtles live or to place sand on a sea turtle nesting area, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service must authorize incidental “takes” in accordance with the Federal Endangered Species Act. This means that some sea turtles will die or be maimed by an activity authorized by the federal government. The trawler is in essence given the green light to harm turtles as long as the vessel meets certain operating requirements.
A turtle “take” report and photographs show just how gruesome an end a sea turtle suffers when falling victim to dredging.
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“Red meat clearly visible, portion of the scapula attached,” the report says, describing a severed loggerhead flipper. “No smell or sign of decomposition.”
Another report describes how a 22-inch turtle flipper was discovered inside the rock box of the trawler’s discharge pipe. “The flipper claw is intact,” the report says, “but the meat where the appendage was detached is visible.”
“The public needs to be aware of all the aspects and consequences of these projects,” Tichenor says. “That includes the death of protected turtles caused by dredges working in the middle of high concentrations of turtles that are trying to navigate their way to the nesting beaches.”