Monday, February 27, 2017

The Dirty Myrtle: More than meets the eye

Genevieve Guerry is a student in the Masters in Coastal and Ocean Policy program. She graduated from the University of South Carolina at Columbia in 2015 with a B.S in Marine Science with an emphasis in Biology. As the daughter of South Carolina natives, she spent several summers in the low country inspiring an interest in water quality and conservation. 

A hot summer’s day in July and once again the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach is packed from the parking lots to the water line. As one of America’s top beaches, Myrtle Beach attracts everyone and everything. 

The area has a nickname, "Dirty Myrtle"  which refers to anything between a type of drink to a mud run.  But over the last decade, the nickname's meaning has slipped away from local leaders control over marketing towards the numerous swimming advisories that warn visitors of the poor water quality along the beach. 

South Carolina is the 3rd worst state for beach water quality in the country. Over the last few years  the most popular beaches in the area have had increasing bacteria levels.

Swimming advisories indicate that bacteria in the water such as, fecal coliform, are too high for the public to swim or consume fish caught in that area. Symptoms of swimming related illness  range from mild to severe including, ear infection, skin rashes and diarrheal.  The young and the elderly are at greatest risk of illness from high bacterial levels in swimming water. 

Science shows that harmful bacteria come from storm water runoff. 

Storm water outfalls are a common occurrence on the Grand Strand and surrounding beaches. They carry the storm water from the city onto the beach and into the ocean. While there are some signs near these outfalls warning of the dangers of them they are small and hard to read. Often the signs are pointed in the opposite direction of beach goers. 

The picture above by Genevieve shows beach goers sitting close to a storm water outfall.  The signs notifying visitors of potential risks is small and faces away from beach access points.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) monitors bacteria levels in the Myrtle Beach Area as a part of the Beach Act.   Legislators established The Beach Act in 2000 as an amendment of the Clean Water Act.  The Beach Act mandates that coastal states have a beach notification system for public safety in regards to coastal recreational waters. DHEC is also responsible for issuing a statement to local news outlets of an advisory and posting signs on the beach effected.

Since 2007, DHEC has implemented long term advisories for Myrtle Beach. 

DHEC illustration depicting the meaning of a long-term swim advisory. 

While swimming advisories may appear as a small issue it sheds light on the problems of political corruption in Myrtle Beach such as, the Chamber of Commerce. 

There is a power struggle between the residents of the area and local leaders.  The Chamber of Commerce is trying to bring more out of state tourists with incentives like the penny tax and business deals with foreign corporations particularly with China.  However, the local community consider these shady business deals of Mayor John Rhodes and Chamber of Commerce President, Brad Dean.  Former Governor Nikki Haley fought against the Penny Tax through veto power to protect local interests, but she lost the fight as the bill was ultimately passed in the house. in their corner as the Penny Tax went to the state where it was vetoed by Nikki but ultimately passed by the house.   

Beach vacations are a favorite American pastime and the last thing vacationers want to worry about is whether the very beach they came to visit is going to make them sick. 

At the end of the day each summer season offers South Carolina billions of dollars. The value of business is more important than public safety in the eyes of the Chamber of Commerce even though their statement is Promote, Protect and Improve.  

If Myrtle Beach wants to rid itself of the dirty nickname they must improve their water. Until then, DHEC must create a better system of warning beachgoers of potential threats in beach waters. If the trends continue in Myrtle Beach the town could lose the very tourism dollars they are trying to draw in. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and the Red Snapper

Kathy Cyr is a Masters of Coastal and Ocean Policy student and will graduate from UNC Wilmington this spring. She is also a 2006 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy where she earned a BS in Operations Research and Computer Analysis. She is currently an active duty Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. She has six years of sea time on three ships conducting fisheries law enforcement, drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, search and rescue, and security escorts for the U.S. Navy.

Map of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
In 1992, the United States designated Flower Garden Banks as a National Marine Sanctuary. The designation of “marine sanctuary” legally afforded the reef protection from commercial fishing and other potentially destructive human activities. The Flower Garden Banks is located one hundred miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. It includes three reefs, two of which are 15 miles apart. The area between the reefs is not part of the marine sanctuary. 

One reason the US decided to protect Flower Garden Banks is because the reef is a habitat for highly sought reef fish such as grouper and snapper. Reef fish make up approximately 18% of the Gulf’s commercial and recreational fishing industries.  

Status of the Northern Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Stock
During the 1990s, the Gulf’s red snapper stock, a particularly valuable reef fish species, nearly collapsed due to overfishing. Fisheries managers implemented policy to save the fishery including: reduced catch limits, limited fishing permits issued, restricted the size of retainable fish, restricted the type of gear used, and designated a fishing season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) projection models from the most recent red snapper stock assessment in 2015 shows the stock improving and continuing to rebuild under the current fishing policy and environmental conditions.

However, over the past several years, especially during 2016, scientists noticed coral bleaching and sponge die off events throughout the reefs (graph below). Coral bleaching is a visual stress signal, which can cause the coral to die if sustained over a long period of time. Coral bleaching usually occurs when water temperatures are too warm, but can also be caused by other factors such as pollutants and even an influx of fresh water from the coast. 

This threatens the effectiveness of protecting the reef as a means of protecting reef fish such as the red snapper.  The Flower Garden Banks reef does not serve as a spawning ground or home to the juvenile red snapper like it does for other reef fish. Instead, the red snapper relies on the reef habitat for shelter during the day.  During the night, the red snapper forages in the nearby muddy areas and then returns to the reef. The red snapper also only uses the reefs from ages two to approximately seven years. These ages are when the female red snapper is old enough to spawn and account for most of the commercially caught red snapper.  If the reef dies the life cycle of the snapper is interrupted.   

Can the National Marine Sanctuaries Act save the Flower Garden Banks reef system from decline? 

The Act provides the reef protection from commercial fishing and pollution through enforcement by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While both agencies can monitor pollution spills and help prevent overfishing, neither have the means to adjust the water’s salinity nor prevent the water from becoming progressively warmer each summer. These issues require a much larger scale solution than the National Marine Sanctuaries Act provides. 

Can the red snapper survive without a natural reef system? 

One potential solution to help the red snapper adapt is artificial reefs. The red snapper currently inhabits several artificial reefs, in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Another solution is to include the 15-mile area located between the two reefs as part of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. This would protect some of the red snapper stock from commercial fishing as they feed at night. 

Ultimately, the United States created the National Marine Sanctuaries Act to protect critical marine habitats. These habitats are important to the survival of marine life, but may require more protection than the government can offer. In the case of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and the red snapper, it’s not only a matter of protection, but also a matter of adaptation. Artificial reefs and expanding the area within the Marine Sanctuary are viable options, but neither addresses the threats to the reef itself. Scientists and policy makers must address the larger climate issue influencing the state of the Flower Garden Banks reef system in order to protect the reef, red snapper, and Gulf Coast fishing industry.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

American Aquaculture: A Failing System

Caitlin Lashbrook is completing her Masters Degree in Coastal Ocean Policy at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she also received her Bachelors of Science in Marine Biology. Throughout her collegiate studies, she has always taken interest in issues dealing with fisheries and wildlife management. Her research focuses on the regulatory nature of aquaculture operations and find solutions for future growth in sustainable aquaculture.

Photo Credit:
In recent decades, seafood products have taken a more established role in the American diet with demand increasing yearly. Most of this seafood, however, is not produced or caught in the United States.

On the heels of the 1970s oil crises, congress passed the National Aquaculture Act of 1980. Aquaculture refers to the raising of aquatic animals or growing of aquatic plants in a controlled environment. The act’s intentions included “reducing the U.S. trade deficit in fisheries products” however has failed to do so.

The amount of seafood imported into the U.S. continues to rise and the current value is about five times higher than exported seafood products. In addition, recent years show a decline in seafood production as a result of the shrinking number and size of fish farms. One way to reduce this trading gap would be to increase aquaculture production in the United States.

United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service
So why does it matter that domestic seafood production is down and imports are rising?

During the 1970s oil crises, the U.S. economy experienced a recession and a near-halt in trade as foreign relations became strained. The Yom Kippur War caused an oil embargo, or trade ban, between the U.S. and Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC). Oil prices skyrocketed, placing a heavy financial burden on consumers. The crises displayed the dynamic nature of foreign relationships.

U.S. reliance on foreign goods becomes problematic when economic, political, social and environmental factors in other countries influence and potentially jeopardize future supplies and prices. Based on the oil embargo example, it makes economic sense to increase domestic aquaculture, thereby reducing our reliance on foreign trade to ensure affordable seafood as demand continues to increase.

Data collected from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Fishery and Aquaculture Department

Why hasn’t aquaculture progressed like the act had hoped?

One of the largest hurdles aquaculture faces is regulation. 

Federal, state, and local government all play a role in permitting and regulating aquaculture facilities. Studies demonstrate that aquaculturists, government officials, and researchers all identify regulatory restrictions as the leading cause for sluggish aquaculture growth. In addition to the various levels of government involved, numerous agencies at each level playing an active role. From the Fish and Wildlife Service, which focuses on endangered species, to the Army Corps of Engineers which tackles coastal zone uses, aquaculturists are faced with specialty agencies each with their own set of rules for aquaculture operations.

In addition, special interests groups such as, homeowners, environmentalist and fishermen advocate for aquaculture restrictions. Coastal homeowners want to restrict any operation that inhibits their pristine view. Fishermen see aquaculture as a threat to their livelihood. Environmentalists worry pollution and genetic degradation of wild fish stocks. All of these groups have potential to influence permitting regulations when mobilized and vocal.

So how do we improve outcomes towards the legislative goals set out by the National Aquaculture Act?

Keeping with the status quo would result in increasing reliance on foreign sources for seafood products. American demand has been rising for decades and is likely to continue that trend. With that being said, alternative options could result in aquaculture expansion which in turn would reduce the trade deficit. 

One option for aquaculture is to increase the abundance of land-based facilities. Since much of the opposition and regulation imposed on aquaculture deal with issues of coastal zone usage, increasing the abundance land-based facilities would negate the issues surrounding land use in coastal areas. 

Another option is offshore aquaculture, an alternative that is in the beginning stages of development. Offshore aquaculture could be beneficial as it is removed from most human viewpoints and interactions. Offshore aquaculture also reduces the concern of pollution since greater water depths would reduce the concentration of waste compounds. 

In addition to any of the proposed alternatives, increasing collaboration in governance is needed. Between interest groups, aquaculturists, federal, local and state officials, a cooperative form of regulation would serve in the best interests of all groups. 

Through cooperation and collaboration of regulatory agencies and interests groups, the United States could make great strides towards the goals of the National Aquaculture Act.

It's that time of year!!

It's that time of year where MCOP capstone students will post short essays about their research projects.

As a basic backgrounds, in the Fall students are taught the fundamentals of problem orientation as practiced by the policy sciences.  During the spring semester, students continue the works they began during their Spring semester but are encouraged to broaden their scope to include context, perspectives and the messy interface of science, politics and policy.

Every week for the rest of the semester will showcase a different student and their research.