Turtle trawlers relocate 23 turtles during restoration project

Matt Algarin
There were a variety of turtles relocated during the West Destin Beach Restoration project, such as green turtles, loggerheads, Kemp's ridley and leatherbacks.

Crews from Coastwise Consulting Inc. successfully relocated 23 turtles as part of a turtle trawling campaign during the West Destin Beach Restoration project.

"We are not required to trawl at this time of year," said Okaloosa County Beach Projects Manager Jim Trifilio. "It's just a good thing to do."

In 29 days of work, the trawling boats, which resemble shrimp boats, could be seen traveling roughly 200 yards in front of the dredge boat as its nets skimmed the borrow site, scooping up four different species of turtles.

With 23 rescues and no turtle deaths, the trawling efforts saw a variety of turtles rescued, including leatherbacks (1), loggerheads (2), green turtles (2) and Kemp’s ridley (18).

As part of its coastal dredging program, the Army Corps of Engineers has been trawling selected projects since the early '80s, according to a report titled “Sea Turtle Relocation Trawling: Is it Effective?”

Once a turtle is captured, the report says, it is examined, weighed, measured, tagged and photographed and eventually released.

Trifilio told The Log that when a restoration project is under way, there are a certain number of turtles that can be "taken" as part of the project. By trawling, the plan was to limit the number of turtle deaths.

"If you kill too many turtles, they (Army Corps of Engineers) can cancel the project," he said.

In 2006, that scenario became a reality for the Destin area when the Army Corps shut down the large-scale restoration project after four turtle deaths, including a loggerhead and endangered Kemp's ridley. After stopping the Destin/Walton County project mid-way and delaying it beyond hurricane season, the Corps allowed contractors to complete the work.

"Turtle casualties are the unfortunate downside to beach restoration projects," then project coordinator Brad Pickel said in 2006. "No matter how many safeguards you institute, there will still be risks ..."

That makes the 2013 project a true success given that no turtles were sucked up into the dredge works.

While the number of turtle kills allowed are closely monitored, Trifilio said the number of turtles that are relocated is also under constant supervision.

While crews were trawling ahead of the dredge, Trifilio said at one point they were told by the Army Corps that they had relocated too many turtles.

"We had to go back and forth with them to be able to relocate more turtles," he said.

Now that the trawling has wrapped up, Trifilio said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans to use the data from the Destin project as an example for similar projects moving forward.