Summit in New Bern looks to improve water quality in coastal ecosystems

CARTERET COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) -More than 100 stakeholders from around the state recently gathered in New Bern for a summit on the importance of coastal water quality, with the goal of the meeting to help identify solutions to improve degrading water quality all throughout the state’s coastal ecosystems.

Eliza Wilczek, Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Campaign Coordinator says, “We have so much evidence from areas like the Chowan that have these algal blooms that can pop up overnight and really halt the way of life for fisherman that are out working in those waters.”

Poor water quality isn’t just being blamed for fish kills, closed shellfish harvesting waters, or even those algal blooms, it’s also killing an unseen but critical part of the coastal ecosystems.

Dr. Jud Kenworthy, research marine scientist says, “These SAVs are environmental engineers once they are growing and healthy they control the environment they grow in, they trap sediments, they stabilize the bottom and they protect our shoreline by attenuating currents and waves so once they are gone those services are gone.”

SAV, or submerged aquatic vegetation, also known as seagrasses, are the lifelines for a number of animals. Scientists say one acre of seagrass supports 40,000 fish and even more crabs, shrimp, and other species, that’s why communities like Beaufort joined in on the conversation.

Sharon Harker, Beaufort Mayor, says, “A lot of times when people come to Beaufort they see all of that beauty but we also want to educate not just our citizens but our visitors how important it is for us to maintain that. We all bear a responsibility for water quality.”

But the grasses require a lot of sunlight. Dr. Jesse Jarvis, UNCW Associate Professor says, “Seagrasses or SAV need a lot of light compared to land plants, they need between 4 and 29% of all of the light that hits the water to make it to the bottom whereas your land plants only need about 2%.”

Scientists have been sounding the alarm that these grasses are easier to protect than to try and bring back.

Dr. Jarvis says, “We have tried so many different ways to restore SAV, and it’s just really hard to do because we’re trying to restore plants where the reason they declined is still there.”

Experts explain that having seagrasses and good coastal water quality actually provide a massive contribution to not only the ecosystem but also the economy.

Dr. Kenworthy says, “A thing people don’t realize is the economic value of that resource and the services it provides both the intrinsic value for the natural ecosystem plus an enormous amount of economic value on the order of billions of dollars per year to our local and regional economies through fisheries, through tourism, through wildlife.”

That’s why it’s not surprising to see a wide range of businesses, groups, and organizations coming together to figure out exactly what they can do to improve water quality and protect coastal waters.

Dr. Kenworthy says, “Our goal is to get ahead of the curve, protect what we have and let them take care of themselves by us keeping the water quality in a state that they can grow, survive, and reproduce in.”

Harker says, “Good water quality is critical for our long-term survival.”

Experts say the summit involved commercial fishermen, farmers, and local governments which shows that more and more people agree there is a problem and now state leaders are ready to act on it.

On November 9th the Environmental Management Commission’s water quality committee will be meeting to consider creating a water clarity standard that will complement stakeholder action.

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