Press Release | September 27, 2022

Conservation groups win lawsuit challenging elimination of critical North Carolina protections for sea turtles and fish

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In a new ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Cape Fear River Watch, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, succeeded in challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ unjustified decision to eliminate the agency’s longstanding practice of limiting hopper dredging at Wilmington and Morehead City Harbors to winter months.

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

Due to the fact that hopper dredging operations kill and maim coastal wildlife and disturb their sensitive habitat, the Corps has historically conducted maintenance dredging at Wilmington and Morehead City Harbors during the winter months when federally protected sea turtles and sturgeon are far less abundant in North Carolina’s waters. 

In 2021, the Corps decided to reverse course on its decades-old policy by allowing year-round maintenance dredging — including during the spring and summer months when sea turtles, sturgeon and commercially and recreationally important fishery resources are most vulnerable to harm. 

“The court’s decision confirms that the Corps’ failed to reckon with the facts before it regarding impacts to coastal wildlife,” said Ramona McGee, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The Corps’ failure violated the law. Now, the Corps must go back and re-examine its decision to eliminate historic seasonal restrictions on dredging that have been in place for decades and are supported by numerous scientific entities precisely because they work.”

The court held that the Corps failed to analyze potential effects on wildlife, and in particular, failed to take a comprehensive look at the impacts hopper dredging during the spring and summer would have on endangered species, including sea turtles. In addition, the court emphasized the agency failed to consider unknown and potentially disastrous effects of removing the longstanding dredging windows. 

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

“We are pleased the Court made clear that the Army Corps cannot cut corners when it comes to evaluating how its policies impact our marine species,” said Heather Clarkson, Southeast Outreach Representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “The Corps failed to take into account the disastrous effects its dredging-on-demand policy would have on the rich populations of sea turtles, fish, and other marine life that are critical to maintaining the biodiversity of the Wilmington and Morehead City Harbors.”

“The Corps did not provide an adequate reason for ceasing to adhere to established winter dredging windows — the same windows that the Corps has self-imposed for the last three decades in recognition of their utility,” said Kemp Burdette, Riverkeeper for Cape Fear River Watch. “Thanks to the court’s decision, successful seasonal limitations can once again protect marine life, like endangered sturgeon, from needless injury and stress.”

Hopper dredges present a particular risk to sea turtles. During the spring and summer, five different species of federally protected turtles — including hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, green, and Kemp’s ridley — travel to North Carolina’s coast for breeding and nesting. In addition, hopper dredges pose significant risks to fish species that rely on estuary areas and spawning sanctuaries in and around Wilmington and Morehead City Harbors, including the lower Cape Fear River within the Wilmington Harbor project area, which is designated as critical habitat under the Endangered 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 most significant to the reproduction and recovery of sea turtles, sturgeon, and other marine life,” said Tim Gestwicki, CEO for North Carolina Wildlife Federation. “This decision is a win for the fish stocks and at-risk sea turtles that rely on our harbors during the spring and summer months.” 

About Cape River Fear Watch: Cape Fear River Watch was founded in 1993 to protect and improve the water quality of the Cape Fear River Basin for all people through education, advocacy and action. We have a history of proven success in the improvement and preservation of the health, beauty cleanliness and heritage of our watershed.

About North Carolina Wildlife Federation: North Carolina Wildlife Federation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection, conservation, and restoration of North Carolina wildlife and habitat since 1945.

About Defenders of Wildlife: Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With nearly 2.2. million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come.

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