The cost of the nearly $1 billion Savannah harbor deepening project is measured not only in money, but also in wildlife. And it’s getting steeper.

Take the story of two green sea turtles nicknamed Hopper and Manni. Sucked up by a hopper dredge in the outer harbor, they were rescued, rehabbed for about $10,000, and released, providing a rare — though pricey — happy ending for wildlife that tangles with dredging equipment.

In addition to Hopper and Manni, the first two years of dredging the outer harbor has disturbed or killed another seven green sea turtles, a threatened species, and 101 Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered species. With only 60 percent of the outer harbor dredging finished, that tally exceeded what the federally funded project was authorized to encounter in total.

That triggered a reevaluation of the limits set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, and the agency released its latest assessment Oct. 13.

It details how the deepening project was previously allowed to kill three green turtles, and catch or otherwise interfere with another three. The new biological opinion, as the assessment is called, allows an eight-fold increase in kills, up to 24. It ups the non-lethal encounters to five.

For Atlantic sturgeon, a prehistoric-looking fish that grows to 8 feet long and was once prized for caviar, NOAA Fisheries quintupled the lethal allowable limit, boosting it from four to 20. It expanded non-lethal encounters from 23 to 195.

Focus on population

The Savannah District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages harbor deepening, hailed the new limits in a press release, saying the updated opinion gives the corps “more flexibility in contracting and scheduling construction activities as workers continue with the massive deepening project.”

Dave Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, sees the impact differently.

“The more they kill the more they can kill,” he said. “So the methodology is flawed.”

But biological opinions are meant to safeguard species at the population, not individual, level, said Selina Heppell, a conservation biologist who studies sturgeon and sea turtles at the Oregon State University, where she heads the department of fisheries and wildlife.

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