Conservation groups win lawsuit over removal of critical protections for sea turtles and fish in North Carolina.

Press Release | September 27, 2022

CHAPEL HILL, NC – In a new ruling from the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Defenders of Wildlife, represented by Cape Fear River Watch, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and the Southern Environmental Law Center, successfully challenged the U.S. The Army Corps of Engineers’ ill-advised decision to reverse the agency’s longstanding practice of limiting waste dredging in Wilmington and Morehead City Harbors to the winter months.

The decision concludes that the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act in removing highly successful seasonal restrictions on bunker dredging projects that were originally put in place to protect sea turtles, fish species and other marine life for decades.

Because bunkering operations kill and maim coastal wildlife and disrupt their sensitive habitat, the Corps has historically conducted repairs in Wilmington and Morehead City Harbors during winter months when North Carolina’s federally protected sea turtles and sturgeon are less abundant. waters.

In 2021, the Corps decided to change its decades-old policy by allowing technical dredging year-round, including during spring and summer, when sea turtles, sturgeon and commercially and recreationally important fisheries are most vulnerable to damage.

“The court’s decision confirms that the Corps has failed to come to grips with the facts surrounding its impacts on coastal wildlife,” said Ramona McGee, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The failure of the corps violated the law. Now the Corps must go back and reconsider its decision to remove historic seasonal restrictions on dredging that have been in place for decades and supported by multiple scientific bodies.

The court ruled that the Corps failed to analyze the potential impacts on wildlife and, particularly during the spring and summer months, failed to thoroughly consider the effects of dredging on endangered species, including sea turtles. In addition, the court pointed out that the agency failed to consider the unknown and potentially catastrophic effects of removing the long-standing dredging windows.

The Corps’ year-round dredging plans have faced strong concerns raised by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.

“We are pleased that the court has made it clear that the Army Corps cannot cut corners when it comes to evaluating how its policies affect our marine species,” said Heather Clarkson, Southeast Representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “The Corps failed to consider the catastrophic effects that the on-demand dredging policy would have on the rich populations of sea turtles, fish and other marine life that are essential to maintaining the biodiversity of Wilmington and Morehead City Harbors.”

Kemp Burdette, Riverkeeper for the Cape Fear River, said: “The Corps has not provided an adequate reason for ceasing compliance with the established winter drilling windows – the same windows that the Corps has implemented for the past three decades in recognition of its benefits.” Look. “Thanks to the court’s ruling, successful seasonal restrictions can once again protect marine life like the endangered sturgeon from unnecessary injury and stress.”

Hopper dredges pose a particular risk to sea turtles. During the spring and summer, five different species of federally protected turtles—including the hawksbill, loggerhead, loggerhead, green, and Kemp’s ridley—travel to the North Carolina coast to breed and nest. In addition, the Wilmington Harbor project, designated as critical habitat under endangered, poses significant risks to fish species that rely on estuarine areas and spawning refuges in and around Wilmington and Morehead City Harbors, including the lower Cape Fear River within the project area. Species Act for Atlantic sturgeon.

“In the past, the Corps has been willing and able to dredge in the winter to avoid the warmer months that are most important for the reproduction and recovery of sea turtles, sturgeon and other marine life,” said North Carolina Wildlife Director Tim Gestwicki. Federation. “This decision is a win for the fish stocks and sea turtles at risk that rely on our harbors during the spring and summer.”

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