Teeming with sea turtle nesting beaches and beneficial salt marshes, South Carolina is one of the most important ecological habitats in the United States. People derive myriad economic, emotional and ecological benefits from these natural spaces and, as such, adopting a mindset of proactive and intelligent environmental risk mitigation is critically important to ensure our local communities can continue to prosper well into our children’s future.
Unfortunately, two priority challenges exist today that have the potential to significantly harm our local communities if action is not taken: sea level rise and environmental plastic pollution.
The loggerhead sea turtle, a culturally important animal that is the South Carolina Aquarium’s flagship species for conservation, is concurrently impacted by these two challenges.
Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, located approximately 40 miles northeast of Charleston, is home to the largest number of nesting loggerhead sea turtles north of Cape Canaveral, Fla. For this federally threatened species, the Refuge islands that comprise this breeding ground are literally a lifeline to recovery. For more than a decade, aquarium staff members have been partnering with Refuge Manager Sarah Dawsey and her team to both help protect nests from current threats like beach erosion, and to explore solutions for future risks associated with climate change. Just one single foot of sea level rise, equivalent to what’s already been documented in Charleston Harbor over the last 94 years, would essentially decimate this entire Wildlife Refuge.
When Cape Romain’s nesting beaches are underwater, a likely scenario given NOAA’s recent worst-case projection of more than 8 feet of sea level rise by 2100, where will these loggerheads lay their eggs? This expected loss of critical nesting habitat will increase the ecological importance of other local beaches, such as those on Hilton Head and Kiawah islands, for nesting sea turtles and other wildlife species.
For 17 years, the South Carolina Aquarium has served as South Carolina’s premier sea turtle hospital, rehabilitating and releasing more than 230 sea turtles back into the Atlantic Ocean. Consistently strained beyond capacity and alarmed by the recent marked increase in the number of patients suffering from human impacts like ingested plastics, we opened the $5.3 million Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery in May. Of the 18 sea turtle patients we’ve observed with plastic trash in their gastrointestinal tract, 13 have been treated in the last 2 ½ years, and 10 have eaten sheet plastics consistent with single-use plastic grocery and/or trash bags, which may visually mimic jellyfish (a preferred prey item) when floating in the water.
However, we can only provide medical treatment to the fraction of sea turtles fortunate enough to be rescued and transported to our facility, and our care does not mitigate the source of the plastic pollution problem. Ponder this: What is the long-term fate for a sea turtle with a demonstrated propensity to eat plastic when our oceans contain so much of it?
The litter that pervades our land and waterways, typically composed primarily of single-use plastics like plastic bags, can also directly result in harmful repercussions for humans. The ramifications of these single-use “convenience” items include the proliferation of disease-spreading mosquitoes breeding in rainwater pooled in discarded trash, the leeching of dangerous toxins from plastic waste into our water supply, and costly complications resulting from aggregations of debris clogging storm drains and harboring disease-causing microbes. Many consider the infiltration of litter into South Carolina’s natural habitats to be an unsightly yet benign issue. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In places like Beaufort County, one of South Carolina’s most important ecological habitats, actions taken now to mitigate the risks of environmental hazards like sea level rise and plastic pollution may reach beyond the local level to benefit the state’s inhabitants. Solutions do exist, many can be scaled for visible impact, and inspirational leadership in implementing realistic solutions may have global implications.
The South Carolina Aquarium recently has developed tools to empower individuals to advance community-specific solutions. The SeaRise tool easily informs individuals about potential sea level rise scenarios using data provided by NOAA, and citizen science functionality being implemented this fall by ROK Technologies will foster a social network to promote community safety and resilience.
South Carolinians interested in galvanizing solutions to plastic pollution can employ the South Carolina Aquarium Citizen Science mobile app developed by the MDI Biological Laboratory, a renowned biomedical research institution focused on improving human health and well-being. The app houses Litter-free Digital Journal, an online community that fosters crowdsourced data acquisition. Data can be freely accessed and utilized by anyone to inform community-tailored plastic pollution policies, which generally go beyond litter removal to proactively address the production, use, and disposal of products destined to become marine litter.
The aquarium’s goal in sharing these tools is to inspire conservation of our shared natural world. In working together to sustain local habitats such as our critically important beaches and salt marshes, we can ensure the long-term health and welfare of South Carolina’s citizens, businesses and associated ecosystems.
Christi L. Hughes is conservation and research specialist at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston.