Way more sea turtles than expected captured by Outer Banks beach widening project
A dredging company has scooped up way more sea turtles than expected during a summerlong beach nourishment project on the Outer Banks.
Great Lakes Dredge and Dock has accidentally snagged 65 sea turtles since work began in May instead of 17 anticipated by biologists, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman Allison Garrett said in an email.
One of the 65 turtles died, well below the eight forecasted, she said.
Plans are to widen about 8 miles of beaches along Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills. Operations have gone on night and day and are expected to last through the summer. Federal agencies are responsible for overseeing the work’s environmental effects.
The sea turtles are chasing after an unusually large number of cannonball jellyfish, a preferred meal, Garrett said. Higher than normal sea surface temperatures could be attracting additional jellyfish, she said.
Observers on board the dredges have tagged and released 52 loggerhead, two Kemp’s ridley and 10 leatherback sea turtles. Listed as threatened in the United States, loggerheads are the most common sea turtle seen on the Outer Banks. Endangered leatherbacks are more rare and almost never nest there.
So far, volunteers have counted 11 nests from the Virginia line to the southern boundary of Nags Head. A record 52 nests were counted last year in that same area and 22 in 2015.
Officials are not sure if widening the beach has slowed nesting, said Dennis Pohl, president of the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles, located on the Outer Banks. The number captured so far is a concern, he said.
“Chances are they will break 100,” Pohl said. “Nobody really knows what effects it has on sea turtles.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service consulted with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management – the lead agency of the project – when dredges began capturing more sea turtles than expected, according to a release from BOEM. The agency did not require a permit and has no plans to place penalties on the dredging company, and work will not be delayed, the release said. Biologists are updating the original forecast based on the new information, Garrett said.
The sea turtle “takes” or captures are not expected to be harmful to the species and do not break environmental rules, the release said. “The information collected on sea turtles in association with this project will be invaluable for future offshore management efforts.”