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.