Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Tourism and Power in the OBX

Hayley Grabner is a candidate of the Masters of Coastal & Ocean Policy program at UNCW. She earned a B.S. in Environmental Biology from Appalachian State University in 2013 and has since worked in wilderness guiding, environmental education, and adventure recreation. She is currently the Education & Outreach intern for City of Wilmington Stormwater Services.

The cooler is packed, the gas tank is full, the GPS is programmed and the countdown has begun. The boogie boards are in-between the bicycles, the umbrellas are in-between the boogie boards, and it’s not even light outside yet. You’re caffeinated and ready to go – you’ll buy the rest when you get there. 

For thousands of families nationwide, packing up and heading off to the beach for a week of sun, sand and surf is a familiar summer ritual. Particularly for families from New England to the Midwest, there is a good chance that North Carolina beaches are the annual destination. In fact, 54.6 million people visited North Carolina in 2015, ranking it 6th highest in visitation by state. Of that figure, roughly 8.8 million were headed to the states 3,375 miles of shoreline. While the state’s beaches all enjoy a tourism influx during the summer months, Dare County pulls the majority. This is because Dare County is home to the Outer Banks (OBX): a 200-mile network of barrier islands flanked by large, estuarine sounds on one side, and pristine, Atlantic beaches on the other. 

Dare County is also one of the twenty counties in North Carolina governed by the Coastal Area Management Act of 1974 (CAMA). Among several specific objectives, CAMA mandates “wise use of land and water resources... to preserve, protect, develop, and enhance the nation’s coastal zone for this and succeeding generations.” Since tourism and the associated development can absolutely be considered a “use” of the land and water resources, it is then necessary to consider the “wise-ness” of tourism and the impact it has on the region environmentally, economically, and culturally for the CAMA mandate of wise use to be achieved. 

Even in the earliest days, tourism was a dominant force driving OBX economic development. Right away, locals knew to take advantage of the economic window of opportunity and began to capitalize on the demand to provide tourists with needed goods and services. Tourism in the 1800-1900s was driven largely by hunting, fishing, and recreation. Early visitors sought seclusion and simplicity, which were a sign of prestige. 

Today, the profile of the average OBX beach goer looks much different. While still an indicator of wealth, tourists no longer appear to seek solitude or cultural emersion. Now, the focus is on relaxation and amenities. As a result, giant beach houses, Costco-sized packages of hotdog buns, and improved technology have brought more people to OBX than ever. Aside from infrastructure, this also has a big impact on the pristine land and water resources of the Outer Banks. 

But, to what extent is it being addressed by the ‘wise use’ clause of CAMA?

Undeniably, tourism has a huge economic impact on the state, accounting for 21.9 billion in spending in 2015. Once again, the bulk of this is generated at the coasts particularly Dare county, which consistently boasts the highest per capita tourism revenue by a large margin. Many local and state agencies pour millions of tax and private dollars into promoting tourism, annually. This is guided by the common social narrative that, in the words of the Dare County Tourism Board, “tourism means jobs and paychecks, and because of the taxes paid by visitors while they’re here, we [locals] even enjoy significant tax relief.” However, local, working-class residents prove to be less likely to agree with this statement than tourists, and much less likely to agree than government officials. Instead, many locals are experiencing difficulties affording housing in vacation areas where their jobs are because property values have sky rocketed with new development, yet part-time seasonal earnings appear stagnant. 
Data from US Census Bureau
Environmental and social concerns are also rising faster amongst the local population, but are becoming prevalent with visitors, too. According to a National Geographic travel expert [JW1] quoted in the Virginian-Pilot, “with giant houses taking over the horizon and chain restaurants and stores replacing the quirky mom-and-pop establishments on the Outer Banks, tourists are taking note.” In other words, it is not just the amenities, and sandy beaches that tourists flock for; it is also the rich natural and cultural heritage and local flavor that make OBX unique and desirable. 

Without a thriving local community, environmental protections, and a political process that represents all stakeholders, policymakers are failing to achieve wise use of the land and water resources of OBX. As the void grows between values of locals, tourists, and decision makers, agencies like NC Chamber of Commerce and OBX Visitors’ Bureau need to start promoting more than just visitation and spending. It is time to abandon the “trickle down” tourism-economic model and directly invest in what makes the region special: the people, the culture, and the natural landscape, in order for wise use and a sustainable tourism industry to be achieved.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Public Beach Access in New Jersey

Christopher Yoda is a student in the Coastal and Ocean Policy Master’s program and is graduating this spring. He graduated from Gettysburg College in 2014 with a BA in Organizational Management Studies and a Minor in Business. Chris became interested in public access and related coastal management issues during his summer internship with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Picture: Surfrider Jersey Shore Chapter
There is a long history of some towns and private beach clubs in New Jersey attempting to restrict access to the beach to residents or members only. The most recent iteration of this can be seen in Deal, New Jersey, where the town has attempted to limit parking near the beach to residents only. Within the State’s Coastal Management Plan, under Enforceable Coastal Policies the government is required to provide “visual and physical access” to the waterfront. In some cases, the state falls short of its goal of physical and visual access because some municipalities, private organizations and private property owners attempt to limit access to the general public by means of exclusion.

The legal principle of public access rests in the Public Trust Doctrine. The origins of the Public Trust Doctrine date back to Roman law and states that navigable waters are resources that belong to the public, and are not eligible for private ownership. New Jersey recognizes the Public Trust Doctrine as an extremely important principle and applies it to the public’s access to and use of tidal waterways and their shorelines for the benefit of all people. 

Picture: NJDEP
Data from the NJDEP’s Public Access Website, demonstrates that the average beach town has 30.75-access points on 2.17 miles of beach per town. Moreover, of the 95 miles of beach, not including state parks, the State as a whole averages 14 access points per mile. 

Three towns in Monmouth County that have had public access issues in the past, are far below the state averages for public access points. 
  • Sea Bright has 8 access points along 3.7 miles of beach, which is 2.16 access points per mile. 
  • Monmouth Beach has 5 access points along 1.62 miles of beach, coming out to 3.08 access points per mile. 
  • Deal has 8 access points along 1.62 miles of beach, which is 4.94 access points per mile. 
Of the 33 towns with less than 2 miles of beach, Sea Bright, Monmouth Beach and Deal are in the top 4 for fewest access points per mile.

Currently, under the Coastal Area Facility Review Act, The Department of Environmental Protection reviews and approves permits for all coastal development in the state. The Department however, does not have the authority to require towns and municipalities to abide by any set standard of public access. Instead, municipalities come up with their own individual plans for access points. 

This paradigm has been debated and gone back and forth in the courts for a decade. Right now, a new bill (S-2470/A4092), “the public access bill” is being voted upon which would codify public access across the state. If passed, the bill will take power away from the municipalities in developing their own individual access plans. More responsibility would be put on the Department to be hands-on in public access decisions in each municipality. 

Regardless of the outcome, it proves to be a difficult task to satisfy all stakeholders and contentions will likely continue into the future.

A second, perhaps equally important factor for limits on beach access is a value-driven disconnect between the private property owners in municipalities with access issues and the general public. This disconnect may be founded in several different dynamics. 

Perhaps the most important dynamic however, is financial or socio-economic status of homeowners. Many of the towns with access issues do not target summer tourists as much as some neighboring municipalities and are mostly private residential communities. It is hypothesized that the wealth of these residents has created an unfair advantage over the average beachgoer seeking access. The wealth of these residents can influence decision makers, afford litigation fees and make limiting access possible. 

The future of public access in New Jersey relies upon the “Public Access Bill” currently being voted upon by state legislatures. Recently, the bill has faced opposition by lobbyists attempting to block its passage. Without the passage of this bill, the statue quo will be reinforced and it will be easier for certain stakeholders to attempt to limit access moving forward.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The 1997 NC Fisheries Reform Act: An Oral History Perspective

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the NC Fisheries reform Act of 1997, several scientists and commercial fishing representatives joined together to provide an oral history of the act including, its passage and locals' experiences.  

The research team conducted 13 oral history interviews, created 3 podcasts, and developed a discussion guide suitable for use in classrooms and public forums.  

During the Spring 2017 term, the MCOP capstone class participated in the researchers' introduction of their podcast to elicit feedback and students had the opportunity to discuss the material with project leads.  

The podcast was very cool and very well done!  Definitely worth a listen.

You can find more information on the project and the full podcast at Raising the

Where have all the wetlands gone?... To Mitigation Banks!

Brooks Surgan is a candidate for a Masters in Coastal and Ocean Policy, and is set to graduate from the program this spring. He performed his undergrad at the Stony Brook University, earning a Bachelor’s of Science in Marine Science in 2012. Prior to his graduate career, he was an environmental consultant in New York for three years. He is now working for the North Carolina State Division of Coastal Management and continuing his passion for coastal environmental regulation.

The passage of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act in 1972 redefined the historical role the Army Corps of Engineers from civil and military development to environmental protection and restoration. This created a reliance on compensatory mitigation through mitigation banks to protect the environment, while still allowing for development and growth.

Mitigation banks are the preferred method by the Army Corps of Engineers to offset wetland impacts from development because they are a convenient way for developers to compensate for natural wetland losses. A developer simply buys the amount of wetland acreage that the Army Corps deems satisfactory from a mitigation bank, and uses that to offset the wetland impacts. The process removes the developer’s obligation or responsibility for the public’s wellbeing, and transitions it to the mitigation bank operators. The Army Corps has encouraged this mindset by consistently approving permits for impacts to wetlands, and authorizing compensatory mitigation from mitigation banks.

Number of authorization by compensatory mitigation source and permit type from 2010 to 2014. (Institute of Water Resources, The Mitigation Rule Retrospective, 2015)
The use of mitigation banks for compensatory mitigation is a growing trend over the last 20 years. Since the development of the 1995 Federal Guidelines for mitigation, the number of authorized commercial mitigation banks have rapidly increased from 77 to 1,428 in 2014, and now consist of 91% of all bank types.
Cumulative total number of approved mitigation banks, from 1995 to 2014. (Institute of Water Resources, The Mitigation Rule Retrospective, 2015)
The increasing trends in development and authorized use of mitigation banks threatens the existence of local wetlands and the functions they provide to the area. The wetlands targeted for mitigation provide local water storage functions, species habitat, and local water quality functions, especially those pertaining to non-point source pollution. Removing wetlands from throughout the watershed, and consolidating them in to banks at a different location within the watershed, has a severe impact on the function of the watershed. Without the large spatial distribution of wetlands, runoff carrying pollutants and bacteria will enter streams and rivers instead of filtering through wetlands, and may have serious health implications.

The use of mitigation banks also has social implications. Developers, the Army Corps, and Mitigation banks, create a closed system for the removal, relocation, and creation of wetlands within a watershed. The public does not have input to these decisions and bear the burden of lost localized wetland functions and social benefits. These functions include water storage, habitat, and runoff filtration, and improvements to air quality, urban heat absorption, and physical and psychological health of the community.

Current rules and regulations for choosing a mitigation site are vague and don’t contain the appropriate criteria for replacing natural wetlands. Creation, enhancement, and restoration rarely ever meet the same functionality, in terms of nutrient uptake, habitat, and diversity, of a naturally occurring wetland. It takes years to decades for mitigation projects to acquire the same functions of naturally occurring wetlands, and most of the time they never do. Army Corps mitigation policy should incorporate the loss of social benefits from removing natural wetlands, and develop more stringent evaluation criteria for replacing wetland function.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Marine Mammal Protection Against Human Noise Pollution Under the MMPA

Jackie Meyle is a student in Coastal and Ocean Master's program. She graduated from Drury University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Advertising and Public Relations. She has developed interests in the environment and conservation through her education in the Coastal and Ocean Master's program. 

Throughout the centuries, humans have traveled over the ocean for trade, employment, and more. Technological improvements have increased the speed of travel and have developed the use sonar and seismic testing to map the seafloor. Although we are now able search for oil and gas reservoirs, collect valuable data about the ocean, and many other things, but these activities have polluted our oceans with noise.

Noise pollution from human activities has a negative impact on marine life. Marine animals rely on their own acoustics to navigate, hunt, reproduce, and communicate. Noise pollution disrupts these behaviors by interfering with their acoustics which can reduce communication ranges and masks sounds of interest.

In 1972, then-President Richard Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which was enacted on October 21, 1972. The MMPA was created in response to increasing concerns about the decline of marine mammal populations caused by human activities. The Act protects all marine mammals and makes it illegal to “take” marine mammals without a permit, meaning people cannot feed, hunt, harass, capture, or kill a marine mammal or part of a marine mammal.

Scientists have linked several incidences of marine mammal mass strandings to the increased noise caused by human activities. These strandings have an effect on marine populations, which goes against what the MMPA is trying to accomplish. Policy makers need to work to ensure that marine life is being protected under the MMPA from the noises caused by human activity in the ocean.

Today’s society is more aware of animal welfare issues due to the increase in media coverage. This rise of awareness has given way to new trends such as the “Blackfish effect”, coined from the severe backlash SeaWorld received from the public after the documentary Blackfish by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. This increase in awareness has caused people to propose stricter regulations on noise pollution so that marine populations can be protected. For example, in 2015 environmental activists protested Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

But, this is a difficult thing to accomplish because there has also been an increase of oil and gas production. According to the Institute for Energy Research, global oil production growth increased in 2014 by over 2 million barrels per day, which was more than double than its 10-year average. This growth has given rise to more seismic surveys in order to find oil and gas reservoirs. Society places high values on these products. Oil and gas are important to society because they are a part of everyday life. Oil and gas are used to fuel cars, heating, and electricity. It is difficult to ask for stricter regulations when one of the major causes of noise pollution is essential to our everyday lives.

Global Shipping Routes from Kate Wheeling (Wheeling, 2014) 

The image above displays the global shipping route across the ocean. According to the Environment and Natural Resource division of the Government of Northwest Territories, from the 1980s, ships going through the Northwest Passage have become an annual transit. The number of ships that go through this passage has increased by four each year in the 1980s, but has risen to 20-30 ships per year through the years 2009 and 2013.

It is impossible to eliminate noise pollution in the ocean completely. However, there are opportunities to improve legislation by appealing to policy makers to ensure marine mammals are better protected from noise pollution. There are multiple alternatives that would reduce the amount of noise polluting our oceans.

One alternative would be to invest in new, quieter technologies that would have less of an impact on marine life. Marine vibroseis is an example of a new technology that has the potential to minimize the impacts of seismic surveys. This technology still needs to be tested to see if it produces data that is comparable to the current methods being used.

A second alternative is to have marine sanctuaries in critical habitats such as areas for migration or breeding. This would ensure that areas used for migration and breeding are not being affected by noise pollution and could reduce the amount of marine mammals affect by noise pollution.

A third alternative would be to require ramp-ups for all marine vessels. Ramping-up the airgun array sound levels is a technique that is used to let animals that are sensitive to sound to leave the area.

A fourth alternative would be to fund research on how to improve noise reduction methods (IDW). This would help lawmakers understand the best way to reduce the noise pollution in the ocean.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

CAMA Protection of Coastal Resources: Shellfish Closures and Water Quality

Jennifer Ryan is a student in the Coastal and Ocean Policy Master's program, and is set to graduate this spring. She graduated from the University of Scranton in 2015 with a BS in Political Science with a minor in Biology and a concentration in Environmental Studies. She has developed interests in water quality issues and conservation through her education and internships in Wilmington.
Signage used in North Carolina to indicate a closed down shellfishing area due to excessive fecal coliform levels.
When vacationing on the coast of North Carolina, many tourists frequent restaurants hoping to indulge in fresh seafood, including shellfish like scallops, crabs, clams, and mussels. The occasional interested patron will ask the server where the restaurant gets their shellfish.

While many hope or assume their food comes from the local area or from within the state’s coast, it is common that the actual answer is usually, Louisiana, Maine, Washington, or even China.

This may come as a surprise to many because North Carolina’s coast is host to abundant shellfish habitats and harvesting areas. Shellfish are considered an important natural resource to North Carolina’s coast and are protected under the Coastal Area Management Act. However, elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria in coastal waters have impacted shellfish harvesting areas in the state, particularly in southeastern North Carolina where coastal development has increased. The high quantity and concentration of development in the southeastern part of the state has caused a decline in water quality in the rivers, creeks, and bays in the area.

Fecal coliform describes a group of bacteria with potential health risks that are found in the feces of warm-blooded animals such as people, pets, livestock, and wildlife. The Clean Water Act (CWA), establishes federal water quality standards including limitations on fecal coliform concentrations for swimming and for shellfish harvesting waters. Shellfish harvesting areas with fecal coliform bacteria levels that exceed water quality standards are closed down either temporarily or permanently.

North Carolina’s Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) assigns responsibility for carrying out CWA quality standards to the Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality Section within the NC Division of Marine Fisheries. Yet, despite their efforts they are not adequately addressing and protecting water quality. Currently, cities and towns can adopt their own land-use plans to mitigate stormwater runoff, but it is not mandatory under CAMA. As a result, few follow through with the recommendation.

Scientists link increased shellfish closures from heightened fecal coliform levels to an increase in population and impervious surfaces. Population increase, especially on the coast, leads to more development. More development creates more impervious surfaces. Impervious surfaces transport fecal coliform into coastal waters via stormwater runoff. Since 2000, the Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality Section has permanently closed 2,318 acres of productive shellfish waters due to stormwater runoff.

The relationship between the percent of impervious surface coverage to the density of fecal coliform bacteria in five watersheds in southeastern North Carolina. Graph credit to M. Mallin 
The water quality standard for shellfish harvest is 14 CFU/100 mL. The graph above demonstrates that impervious surface coverage at about 10% and above indicates impairment.

Increased closures of polluted shellfish harvesting waters are an indicator of poor water quality, which has public health, economic, and cultural impacts. Eating polluted shellfish can make people sick with illnesses such as Shigella, Salmonella, and Hepatitis A. Increased shellfish closures reduce access to various commercial shellfish fisheries that are economically beneficial to the state and citizens involved in the industry. The shellfishing industry has also long been a cultural part of coastal communities, and increased shellfish closures are a detriment to keeping that culture alive and thriving.

Effective stormwater mitigation is critical for protecting the public health and the economic and cultural dimensions of shellfish.

Improved and mandatory land use and stormwater plans under CAMA that better account for nonpoint pollution sources like stormwater runoff are key to reducing shellfish pollution. Implementing Low Impact Development (LID) strategies also helps mitigate stormwater runoff through development strategies such as rain gardens, pervious surfaces, and rain cisterns. Increasing incentives to implement LID strategies such as, tax cuts and reducing green infrastructure permit pricing, may assist in making these development strategies more appealing. As well, increasing outreach and education efforts to inform the public about the dangers and impacts of fecal coliform pollution and stormwater runoff aim to inform and involve the public in solutions.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

North Carolina’s CAMA: Exacerbating erosion along its estuarine shoreline

Betsy Baldwin is a student in the Masters in Coastal and Ocean Policy program and graduates this spring. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2013 with a B.S. in Marine Science and Biology. Before starting her graduate career, she worked for SeaWorld Orlando, where she gained her interest in marine policy. 

As coastal communities experience population growth, development has shifted away from oceanfront properties to estuarine properties. North Carolina has over 12,000 miles of estuarine shoreline or sheltered coast. Sheltered estuaries are becoming a more popular building location since they offer water accessibility and provide protection from coastal storms. These estuarine areas are the most biologically productive and ecologically valuable habitats in the coastal region, providing many ecosystem services.

A bulkhead. Photo credit: North Carolina Coastal Federation 
Estuarine shorelines experience erosion by both short-term processes as well as long-term processes, such as sea level rise. Most North Carolina estuarine shorelines are experiencing significant erosion with some areas more rapidly than others.

Bulkheads are the most commonly used shoreline stabilization strategy to protect from erosion. NC Division of Coastal Management permit data show that 79% of the permitted shoreline stabilization activity since 1980 covered bulkhead installation.
However, bulkheads increase erosion due to wave reflection and prevent natural migration of wetland vegetation inland. Alternatives to bulkheads are available that provide similar levels of erosion protection while minimizing the impacts to coastal marshes.

One such alternative that is growing in popularity with scientists are living shorelines. Living shoreline use natural elements to protect the shoreline from erosion like oyster shells, native marsh grasses, wood, limestone, rip rap, or constructed oyster breakwaters. Unlike bulkheads, living shorelines act as a natural buffer, absorbing wave energy, minimizing shoreline erosion, and protecting marshes. Additionally, living shorelines allow for marshes to migrate inland as sea level rises.

A living shoreline project on Stump Sound in Onslow, County. Photo: North Carolina Coastal Federation

Profile of a type of living shoreline design 

However, in North Carolina bulkhead permitting is easy and straightforward while alternative shoreline permitting is difficult and time consuming. The differences between the two lead property owners and contractors to favor bulkheads over alternative techniques.

In North Carolina, existing legislation and regulations present difficulties that discourage alternative shoreline restoration efforts. The Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) prohibits permanent erosion control structures on ocean shorelines, but estuarine shorelines are exempt. General permit schemes often lean toward traditional shoreline stabilization measures, like bulkheads, while alternative techniques may require the more demanding major permit process. A major permit requires more time and more money, making it less appealing to property owners and contractors.

In order for the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management (DCM) to encourage natural erosion protection, it must reevaluate the permitting process currently in place for estuarine shoreline stabilization. Creating a more streamlined permit for alternative techniques, like living shorelines, will make them more appealing to property owners and contractors. This appeal will boost living shoreline installation throughout the NC. By doing this, estuarine shorelines will become more resilient to erosion and sea level rise continuing to protect its ecologically valuable habitats and provide shelter from coastal storms.