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With tortured, metallic groans, the immense drag arms of the 400-foot dredge Long Island were lowered to the silty bottom of the Port Canaveral (Fla.) Shipping Channel last July. Pumps roared as the colossal vacuum cleaner began sucking up the muck and speeding it through a 24-inch pipe into a hopper amidships.
Tim Clabaugh, a student of marine biology, patrolled the railings around the mouth of the hopper, wearing ear protectors and intently watching for traces of sea turtle remains in the reeking black slurry that foamed and boiled into the ship, eventually overflowing and cascading back into the sea. Clabaugh had been hired by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to determine the impact of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' dredging operation on the sea turtles sleeping down in the mud, below.
"Our final estimates of how many turtles are killed are going to be very conservative," he shouted above the screaming pumps. "We know we're missing turtles. If you see a carcass, that's one. Two days go by and you find a flipper and some intestines, that's two. So far, I figure around 50 have been ground up."
Filled with a cargo of muck, the Long Island lumbered off to the dump site five miles away, out in the Atlantic. Upon reaching its destination, the Long Island stopped and, like a malignant black duck relieving itself, opened its huge hopper and spewed sludge into the sea, turning the water black and turbid. There was no telling how many shredded turtles went with the muck as it fell toward the growing submarine mountain of silt. Voided, the enormous dredge rushed back for another load. Day after day, 24 hours a day, it worked to clean out the ship channel.
Two years ago, when the Corps announced plans to widen and deepen the channel, the NMFS, which is charged with protecting endangered species, notified the Army Engineers that the bottom was practically paved with loggerheads, a "threatened" species. No one knew why the giant turtles hung out in the channel, but the Canaveral Port Authority, the Corps of Engineers and the Navy all wished they would go away, especially when the NMFS said the Corps couldn't just bring in a super scooper and start work.
The Corps has become increasingly sensitive to environmental issues, particularly those involving endangered sea turtles. "If this were just a navigation channel and we knew all those turtles were there, we probably would have delayed action," says Jon Moulding of the Corps' Jacksonville Environmental Branch. "But this was for national defense." Thus, in April of last year the Jacksonville office of NMFS agreed to the dredging operation—when procedures protecting the loggerheads were devised.
A giant basin was under construction at Port Canaveral to load and off-load missiles on Trident-class nuclear submarines. The Navy demanded that the channel be cleared to let the subs enter the new basin no later than Oct. 1, 1980. That meant the dogleg channel, which stretches 5.2 miles into the Atlantic, would have to be scooped out to a uniform clearance of 42 feet from the gently sloping bottom. It would be a massive undertaking, because for much of its length the 20-year-old channel averaged between 30 and 35 feet in depth. The Corps found itself caught between the military's rock and the Endangered Species Act's hard place. In June, meetings were held in Washington between the Corps and NMFS' national office, and thereafter the letters flew back and forth. The endless bureaucratic postponements seemed to be working in favor of the turtles.
But finally, the needs of national defense prevailed, and the Corps was given the go-ahead to begin dredging on July 12, 1980, with the understanding that if the dredge was killing turtles, the Corps would have to hire a trawler to literally drag the turtles from the jaws of death. The NMFS sent four observers, Clabaugh among them, to monitor the dredging.
Before long the NMFS' fears were realized as bloody pink turtle intestines appeared in the spoil overwash. One of the observers, Paul Raymond, another marine biology student, had taken photographs of turtles torn in half and others with their shells cracked and their guts sucked out. One shattered female came through the pipe spilling her half-ripe eggs.
Raymond photographed furiously on the day the drag arm was raised out of the water with the front half of another big loggerhead hanging limply from the drag head's mouth. The dredge crew tried to help Raymond pull the turtle out to be measured and described, but it was so tightly wedged in the metal maw, they finally gave up. Down went the drag head, and once again the vessel shuddered as its six-foot-high pumps began to roar and the turtle was sucked through its pipelines with the raging torrent of mud and blasted into the hopper, forever lost in the fetid morass.