2020 South Atlantic Regional Biological Opinion for Dredging and Material Placement Activities in the Southeast United States

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers remains dedicated to protect all species that we may encounter. We will continue to seek new technologies and improved methods to ensure we keep that promise. We remain open to ideas from others to make these improvements.” – General Jason E. Kelly  

“We seek to follow the science as we fulfill our mission of harbor maintenance. But we never turn our back on our legal and moral obligations of caring for the environment.” – Colonel Joseph R. Geary 

Sea Turtle Photo by Olga TsaiIn an effort to balance the Corps’ requirements to keep harbors open and protect Threatened and Endangered Species, the USACE worked to revolutionize and streamline the way we do Endangered Species Act (ESA) compliance for dredging and beach nourishment projects in the southeast.  The Corps’ South Atlantic Division, in consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service and in partnership with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, completed over 10 years of work to finalize the SARBO in March of 2020.   

The 2020 SARBO is a programmatic Biological Opinion that covers a large geographical area and an increased scope of species throughout the geographic boundary.  Active processes have been built into the Opinion that requires pre and post construction reporting, pre and post project reviews, take analyses, and annual program reviews to ensure the project design criteria are protective of the species. 

This is the first update since the 1997 SARBO and addresses additional activities, 25 ESA-listed species, and critical habitat for 8 ESA-listed species, most of which were not previously covered under the 1997 SARBO.  The 2020 SARBO expands the geographic extent by adding rivers used for spawning by Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, the entire east coast of Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands and provides a single consultation for all maintenance dredging and dredging for beach renourishments, which reduces the number of individual consultations for dredging for both civil works and regulatory actions and considers the cumulative effects of those actions to species and critical habitat.  The 2020 SARBO allows maximum operational flexibility with less emphasis on seasonal windows and more of an emphasis on risk-based approaches for all ESA-listed species and expands coverage for species and their critical habitat that have been listed since the last version of the opinion. 

The Corps closely tracks all interactions with ESA-listed species through it’s Operations and Dredging Endangered Species System (ODESS) public website.  ODESS provides a platform to centralize and archive data regarding species observed or encountered from dredging activities for long-term continuity and evaluation of these data. This tool can be used to monitor regional non-lethal and lethal captures of species, referred to as “take” under the ESA. Although the overall impacts to ESA-listed species from dredging activities is relatively small, the USACE and dredging industry is committed to the continued pursuit of efforts to further reduce dredging impacts on sea turtles, sturgeon, and all species encountered. This is a dynamic site that is continually being populated and updated. ODESS can be accessed here

Photo credit: NOAA.

Frequently Asked Questions

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 What is a Take?

The term “take” under the Endangered Species Act means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.

 What types of activities are included in the 2020 SARBO?

The proposed action for the 2020 SARBO is categorized into 5 types of activities: dredging, transportation of dredged material, dredged material placement, geotechnical and geophysical (G&G) surveys, and ESA-listed species handling.

 How many North Atlantic right whale strikes occur in the SAD region on average per year? How many are lethal?

Vessel strikes are a leading cause of death to North Atlantic right whales.  Thankfully, there are no confirmed cases of a North Atlantic right whale death from the Corps or any vessels under contract by the Corps to include dredges, survey vessels, work boats, and other auxiliary equipment.

 How will water quality certifications that contain dredging moratorium be addressed with the 2020 SARBO?

In some state water quality certifications, dredging moratorium are included as part of the water quality certification. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that states’ conditions are limited to water quality standards in EPA-approved plans, and that broader, non-water quality impacts are more appropriately reviewed by the federal licensing or permitting agency under the National Environmental Policy Act and other applicable environmental programs.

 Since you will be dredging year round, will you take additional precautions to avoid turtle deaths? If so, what additional precautions?

Under the 2020 SARBO, the Corps will implement the risk-assessment process to continue to identify risks to each species and ways to minimize these risks in an effort to continue to reduce take to all species.  The Corps is committed to continuing to gather available information and work with species-experts to make informed decisions over time.  Timing and equipment options available under the 2020 SARBO provide important methods to be successful including updated guidance for protected species observers, the ability to use relocation trawling to safely move sea turtles and sturgeon out of the project area, bed-leveling during the cleanup phase when hopper dredging is difficult and potentially higher risk to species.

 What critical Habitats are covered under the 2020 SARBO?

Critical habitats considered are elkhorn/staghorn corals, Atlantic sturgeon, green sea turtle, hawksbill sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, Johnson’s seagrass, and North Atlantic right whale. Thus this Opinion is now multi-species and as such restrictions on the timing of actions reflect a balancing of the risk to species.

 What does the 2020 SARBO cover?

All maintenance dredging as well as dredging and placement for beach renourishment related activities authorized or permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Civil Works and Regulatory Programs in state and/or Federal waters extending from North Carolina/Virginia Border through and including Key West, Florida and also includes the U.S. Caribbean (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

 What happens when a take limit is reached?

The 2020 SARBO provides a three-year take limit for sea turtles and sturgeon to account for potential variability in years based on environmental factors.  USACE has a long history of adaptively managing projects and conducting a risk-assessment after each take to ensure this take limit is not exceeded.  USACE coordinates closely with the National Marine Fisheries Service during this process and provides deceased animals to be examined to determine how they were entrained and died, when needed.  Injured sea turtles are transferred to specialists for evaluation and care and often released back into the wild.  In the unlikely event that take exceeds the amount covered under the 2020 SARBO, USACE would coordinate with NMFS to determine if reinititation of consultation would be required.  

 What species are covered under the 2020 SARBO?

The 2020 SARBO considers effects to the following species: sea turtles (Kemp’s Ridley, green, hawksbill, leatherback, and loggerhead), sturgeon (shortnose and Atlantic), Nassaugrouper, Giant manta ray, scalloped hammerhead shark, smalltooth sawfish, oceanic whitetip shark, whales (North Atlantic right, Blue, Fin, Sei, and Sperm), Johnson’s seagrass, and corals (Boulder star, Elkhorn, Lobed star, Mountainous star, Pillar, rough cactus, and staghorn). The Corps has added many more species and habitats for protection under the 2020 SARBO.


Savannah Harbor Dredging Courtesy Photo

EDITORIAL: Corps of Engineers pledges to protect endangered species

By Col. Joseph R. Geary, Commander, Savannah District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

As a federal resource agency, the Army Corps of Engineers provides certain protections to wetlands, wildlife at Corps’ reservoirs, and in operation of our nation’s rivers and harbors. Not only do we have a legal obligation to do so, we also have a moral responsibility which we take very seriously – and personally. MORE...