(CN) – A federal judge ordered the removal of seawalls on two stretches of South Carolina’shoreline on Monday to protect rare turtles that are having difficulty nesting because of the plastic structures.
U.S. District Judge David Norton’s ruling is a victory for conservation groups that fought a state decision to allow the experimental plastic walls at Harbor Island in Beaufort County and the Isle of Palms in Charleston County.
Norton says that walls must come down pending the outcome of a separate federal court case.
“If these sea walls remain, endangered sea turtles will continue to false crawl,” Norton wrote. A false crawl is an unsuccessful attempt to nest and lay eggs on a beach.
South Carolina is home to loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, green and leatherback sea turtles, which are considered either endangered or threatened. The nesting season is from May to October.
Researchers at The Citadel developed the plastic sea wall, known as a “wave dissipation system,” to preserve erosion-plagued beaches. They were installed in 2015 after the state general assembly allowed them as an exception to the state ban on sea walls because they were considered a research project.
Staff at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control ultimately concluded the experimental sea walls did not work as intended, but an agency board allowed them to stay anyway.
The South Carolina Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club then sued the agency, saying the walls violated the Endangered Species Act.
The walls could force sea turtles to dig nests in less than optimal areas inundated by the tide or deposit eggs in the ocean where hatchlings have a slim chance of survival, the lawsuit said.
DHEC asked that the suit be dismissed, arguing the sea walls were properly permitted and managed so as not to harm turtle nesting.
Norton, who heard oral arguments in the case on Friday, concluded that there was sufficient evidence the sea walls created a “take” of turtles as defined in the Endangered Species Act.
“DHEC argues that the sea walls are permissible because any concerns about federal endangered species were already taken into account in this decision-making process by the relevant state and local agencies that authorized the sea walls. Not so,” the judge said.
“The deputy field supervisor of the South Carolina Field Office of the FWS sent photos of false crawls that have occurred on multiple occasions during the nesting season with the message ‘[s]ea turtle blocked by the [sea walls] on Harbor Island,’” the ruling states.
An affidavit submitted to the court by Sally Murphy, the lead sea turtle scientist at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said, “False crawls use up previous energy needed for the production of the next clutch of eggs. The loss of energy from false crawl(s) can result in a female sea turtle producing fewer clutches of eggs than she otherwise would have. This lowers the reproductive potential by reducing the number of clutches laid in a season.”
In an email to Courthouse News, Christopher Hall of the South Carolina Sierra Club said, “The DHEC staff recommendations stated from the beginning that these structures don’t work and we supported those recommendations as both sound science and legal standing.
“Unfortunately, the DHEC board over-ruled the staff decision and allowed the sea walls to remain. With the federal ruling, both science and law were recognized and the illegal sea walls were ordered to be taken down. We’re hopeful that the next sea turtle nesting season will bounce back and continue its recovery,” Hall said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Environmental Control said the agency is reviewing the judge’s order.