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Soon mutilated turtle remains began washing up on the tourist beaches. Newspapers called it a scandal. PORT DREDGING KILLING TURTLES read a headline in the Canaveral-area weekly Today. For years Florida media have carried stories on the over-exploitation and near extinction of sea turtles. According to experts, only about 20,000 loggerheads remain alive of the millions that once swam ashore to spawn every year on South Atlantic beaches. Many of their natal beaches have been destroyed by condominiums and resort hotels. The Fund for Animals reports that last summer 1,850 dead sea turtles washed up on beaches from Virginia to Texas, probably the victims of drowning in shrimpers' nets.
At the same time conservation organizations, land owners and Florida's Department of Natural Resources have been hard at work trying to increase the declining loggerhead population. Along the barrier beaches volunteers walk the shore each night during the nesting season to dig up turtle eggs and relocate them, so they may develop and hatch, safe from poachers and natural predators.
Against such concern, it was not long before the public outcry became intolerable for the Corps. Finally, a special agent from NMFS' Charleston, S.C. office boarded the dredge and inspected the grisly remains. Then he climbed the metal steps that led to the wheelhouse, and there in the clean, quiet, air-conditioned room he explained the possible penalties for violations of the Endangered Species Act to the captain and first mate of the Long Island. The captain could be thrown in jail, the $30 million dredge could be confiscated, and/or the contractor could be fined up to $20,000 for each turtle killed.
Whereupon the firm of Henry DuBois' Sons Company, Inc. of Chicago, which leased the Long Island and held the Port Canaveral dredging contract, began making calls to the Corps and to congressmen. Once again the Corps was in the middle. It would cost the Corps between $10,000 and $15,000 a day in downtime if the dredging were halted. Meanwhile, the Navy was getting angry about the delays and the publicity. It certainly didn't need turtle blood on its hands.
Within a week the Corps' Environmental Division in Jacksonville ordered the DuBois firm to hire a shrimp boat. The Corps softened the blow by informing the contractor that it could add the extra costs to its contract; the important thing now was to get started hauling the sleeping turtles away from the dredge.
Finding a shrimp trawler for hire in Port Canaveral as a savior of loggerheads was not all that easy. In 1979 NMFS first learned there were hibernating sea turtles in the Port Canaveral Shipping Channel, and it closed the channel to shrimping. That angered fishermen because the channel, with its deep, relatively warm water, was one of the few places where shrimp could be caught in cold weather. NMFS had reasoned that if the turtles were driven from the mud, they might freeze to death, an argument that left most of the shrimpers cold. Reports that one trawler owner in Texas had been thrown in jail and fined $5,000 for butchering a loggerhead had further infuriated the shrimpers.
Finally, Captain Glen Buffkin of Merritt Island, Fla., eight miles southwest of Port Canaveral, came to the rescue with his 75-foot shrimp trawler Miss Natalie. After hiring out to the Corps, he could be seen every evening heading down the busy channel with a boatload of government biologists, observers and crew members to drag for loggerheads.
"Shrimpers don't think sea turtles are becoming extinct," Buffkin said one night in November as he left the jetties behind and headed out toward the Atlantic. "No matter where they drag, they catch one or two every now and then. Snapper fishermen see them in 90 feet on the hard bottoms, and swordfishermen see the little ones way out in the Gulf Stream floating in seaweed. I don't believe the government should close down shrimping in favor of the turtles, but when I heard the Army Corps wanted someone to drag these cooters out of the channel, I thought I'd check it out."
He turned the wheel as the channel took an oblique turn and put the trawler on automatic pilot. "I'd been fishing up around the Carolinas," Buffkin continued, "and was getting pretty tired of staying away from my family for nine months out of the year. It was a chance to stay home, so I gave 'em a price and they took it."
His price: $2,000 a day. The dredging contractor tacked on $500 a day for "handling," and the Corps said yes—anything—just get started. Now Buffkin was the envy of the shrimp fleet.