– May 10, 2023 –

Loggerheads return

Right on schedule, loggerhead sea turtles returned to Georgia beaches last week, with a U.S. Fish & Wildlife technician recording the first nest of the season on May 1 on Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge in McIntosh County. Not to be outdone, turtle watchers on Cumberland, Jekyll, Sea, St. Catherines and Ossabaw islands have since recorded up to five nests each for a total count of 14 nests as of Tuesday morning. The Department of Natural Resources’ sea turtle guru Mark Dodd told GPB News he doesn’t expect the turtles to beat last year’s record of 4,071 nests, but no worries. That’s due to natural variability. In general, nesting is trending upward at about 3 percent a year.

Loggerheads, which grow to be more than 300 pounds and can live to be more than 70 years old, owe their increased numbers at least in part to turtle excluder devices or TEDs developed on the Georgia coast to keep shrimp nets from accidentally capturing and drowning turtles. TEDs protect adult turtles. Meanwhile a small army of state, federal, nonprofit and volunteer technicians take to the Georgia beaches each day from May through September to record, mark and protect the 100 or so eggs in each nest until the hatchlings emerge and crawl to the sea. Follow their efforts at the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative’s Facebook page. At seaturtle.org you can check the nesting tally progress at your favorite beach as well as see historical data for each of Georgia’s barrier islands.

Loggerhead nesting will continue through mid-August, with hatchlings emerging about 60 days after the eggs are laid.

The first loggerhead nest of the 2023 season at Blackbeard Island. Credit: USFWS

Dredging v. turtles

Nesting isn’t the only reason loggerheads are in the news. Dredging plans are putting the spotlight on turtles, too. For decades the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Brunswick harbor from December through March to avoid nesting loggerheads. But a few years ago the Corps proposed year-round dredging, citing both a need to access the hard-to-schedule dredges when they’re available and a desire to protect other species, especially right whales that give birth in Georgia waters in the winter.

The machinery used, called a hopper dredge, slurps up everything in its path, shredding sea turtles that get in the way. One Hundred Miles sued in December to stop plans for year-round hopper dredging.

On Monday the Corps released a statement that it had agreed to an in-depth environmental study of the issue to “ensure robust public, agency, and stakeholder engagement” as well as “full evaluation of the impacts that this action may have to the human and natural environment.” 

Catherine Ridley serves as vice president of education and communication at One Hundred Miles and is also the coordinator of the St. Simons Island Sea Turtle Project. The Corps’ announcement was “a big victory,” she said.

“The science is clear,” she said. “Decades of data have shown that spring and summer dredging puts Georgia sea turtles and all of the conservation progress that we’ve made at risk. So we’re asking them to follow the science, and we know the data and the science is on our side.”

A loggerhead returns to the sea after nesting. Credit: Georgia DNR

Fake elector named to DNR board

Last month Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Mark W. Hennessy to the 19-member board of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Hennessy is the CEO of a group of luxury car dealerships in the Atlanta area. But his name may be familiar lately because he’s also one of 16 so-called fake electors from Georgia who signed a fraudulent electoral vote certificate that was submitted to Congress as part of the failed attempt to claim Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Half of the fake electors have accepted immunity deals in the Atlanta-area criminal investigation of the matter, it was reported last week, but those accepting the deal weren’t named and it’s unclear if Hennessy was one of them.

Hennessy serves on the DNR Board in the “At-Large 1” seat. His term runs until March 16, 2030. He donated $135,000 to Kemp’s campaign in 2022, as reported on the web site Open Secrets. Hennessy replaces Miki Thomaston, manager of technical marketing at Rayonier Advanced Materials in Jesup. Thomaston donated $500 to Kemp last year.

There are currently 18 board positions filled. Hennessy is one of 16 white men on the board. His biography does not yet appear on the board’s web site.

The Board, which meets 10 times a year, “is responsible for setting rules and regulations ranging from air and water quality to hunting seasons and provides input into issues such as the agency’s budget recommendations and legislative initiatives,” the DNR web site states. It meets next on May 23.

Of note

The Okefenokee, now threatened by a proposed mining project nearby, has long been a place of refuge and significance for Native Americans as well as African Americans, writes Emily Jones of WABE/Grist. Older members of the Black community have told Rev. Antwon Nixon that during segregation, the Okefenokee was a place they could gather and relax when places like the beach were off-limits. “That’s a real deep connection, that when I heard that story, and me being a person of color, you know, it deepened my connection,” he said. “It also strengthened my fight.”

Pastor Antwon Nixon looks for wildlife from the observation tower on the Chesser Island boardwalk, in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Pastor Antwon Nixon looks for wildlife from the observation tower on the Chesser Island boardwalk, in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Credit: Emily Jones/WABE and Grist

• Georgia lawmakers can move quickly when need be. Witness the passage of SB 115 to protect the public’s fishing access in navigable streams. It cleared both houses in the last four hours of the session, as Jill Nolin of the Georgia Recorder reports. In his signing statement, however, Gov. Brian Kemp criticized the bill as sloppy and called for clean-up amendments to it next year.

• The Georgia Public Service Commission recently expanded the definition of biomass to include tire scraps, allowing power plants that ordinarily burn wood pellets to burn up to 20% old tires, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports. The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club have cried foul and asked the PSC to revoke its order.

If you have feedback, questions, concerns, or just like what you see, let us know at thecurrentga@gmail.com.

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Mary Landers is a reporter in Coastal Georgia focusing on the environment for The Current. It's a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time...