Local marine experts say they were not consulted by the Army Corps about the proposed change, and that there is little evidence that right whales are affected by dredging. Right whales and their calves (who weigh approximately 1 short ton) cannot fit into, or be sucked into, a dredge the way sea turtles can. Right whales seldom come into the shallow channels where dredges are located, suggesting that when protective measures are in place (like reducing dredge ship speeds), strike likelihood remains low. In the 2020 SARBO, it shows that right whales are minimally impacted by dredging. The document states that interactions, like ship strikes, between right whales and dredging related vessels is very low — citing only 2 reported dredge vessel strikes on North Atlantic and South Atlantic (closely related) right whales, despite decades of dredging worldwide. In the NMSF (National Marine Fisheries Service) 2011 Environmental Assessment document
Issuance of a Science Research Permit for Research on North Atlantic Right Whales in the Southeast United States dredging effects on right whales are categorized under habitat degradation. The primary anthropogenic threat facing endangered North Atlantic right whales is entanglement in the heavy fishing gear used by lobster and snow crab industries in New England. An article in Frontiers in Marine Science, Future Directions in Eubalaena spp.: Comparative Research to Inform Conservation, states that from 2010 to 2015, 85% of diagnosed right whale mortalities were due to entanglements and 15% were due to ship strikes. Individual reproductive female right whales are the most important in the population, and data supports that a loss of just 4-6 females a year will lead the population to extinction.
Scientists also see a relationship between poor right whale breeding success and low zooplankton populations, which are their main food source. Their feeding grounds in South Georgia have been affected by increasing ocean temperatures. The combined stress of entanglement, ship strikes, and feeding changes required by climate change make it difficult for the female right whales to put on enough weight to calve successfully. The fate of the right whale remains precarious; those that work along the coast understand this and are deeply invested in the recovery of the North Atlantic right whale. Georgia DNR invests heavily in teams that help with detangling right whales trapped in fishing gear. If endangered right whales could be helped by switching the dredging window, there would be no argument about the schedule change from marine experts. However, there is little evidence that right whales would benefit from this change — but there is 50 years of data showing that endangered sea turtle populations would be negatively impacted by dredging during their nesting season. This “save the whale” spin is a way for the Army Corps of Engineers to appear environmentally-conscious while still getting the cost-savings and convenience they so desperately want.
An article about changing the dredging window for North Carolina’s ports, published in September 2020 in CoastalReview.org, Corps Asks State to Eliminate Dredge Window, notes that the hopper dredges are in short supply — with only 13 available to operate on the coast from Maine to Florida and across the Gulf Coast to Texas — and that eliminating the hopper dredging window would save the Army Corps millions of dollars.
If you need more proof, an Army Corps dredging document from August 1996, Savannah Harbor Long Term Management Strategy (Appendix A), states that environmental windows and other restrictions limit dredging operations to ensure that environmental resources receive appropriate protection. Those limitations often increase the cost of dredging…if the restrictions were lifted or reduced, lower dredging costs would result.”
The window that excludes hopper dredging from December 1 to April 1 to protect sea turtles is one of the restrictions that (unfavorably) impacts dredging costs.