Center Comments On Decline in Fishery Resources- May 2009

It was encouraging to see a recent article in the Brunswick News (May 12) on coastal fisheries issues and the May 23 editorial advocating state and federal studies to determine the reasons for decline in availability of fish and shellfish in local waters. After all, no matter how complex they may be, recognizing our problems is the first vital step toward solving them.

At the Center for a Sustainable Coast, we have been raising such concerns since our organization was founded in 1997. Like others commenting on the issue, we believe that there are a number of factors contributing to decline in variety, size, health, and sheer numbers of marine and aquatic life - some natural and some caused by human activities. We are especially concerned about these trends because they both threaten public health and jeopardize our region's nature-based businesses - which we estimate to be worth over one billion dollars a year, supporting some 40,000 jobs in fishing, seafood processing, and eco-tourism.

Of course, we agree that Georgia's 3-year drought is significant in this issue, but too seldom recognized is the extent to which our alteration of natural features adds to the adverse effects of drought. By ditching and filling wetlands, various types of activities, including forestry and inappropriate land development, have reduced the slow-release of fresh water needed during dry periods. Likewise, through excessive and concentrated withdrawal of groundwater in the area, industries have deprived our rivers, wetlands, and estuaries of the water that used to flow into them from natural springs beneath the ground surface.

Perhaps the most debated factor in this issue is chemical contamination of our waters from both known and unknown sources. The Georgia Public Interest Research Group reports that between the late 80's and the late 90's, the amount of toxic chemicals Ćofficially' released into state waters under permits issued by EPD increased by more than 80%. Numerous coal-burning power plants still release dangerous levels of mercury across vast land and water areas, while mercury is a toxin known to be causing the majority of fish-consumption advisories in Georgia.

In Glynn County we are still trying to address the full extent of toxic contamination from local industrial pollution, which according to the Glynn Environmental Coalition, has so far cost more than $100 million to clean up. It is likely that the lingering effects of these toxins, like PCBs, dioxins, toxaphene, and mercury, are still causing problems in waterways, wetlands, groundwater, and river sediments, but more research and assessment is needed.

Both EPA and EPD emphasize that in addition to these 'point-source' pollutants, the overwhelming water quality problems statewide are caused by non-point sources - chemicals washed off yards, golf courses, forestlands, farms, and parking lots as rain flows across land into rivers and wetlands, as well as organic waste seepage from septic system drainfields and waste-treatment settling ponds.

Combined, these human-induced threats to our resources are unquestionably compounding the problems caused by drought, if not exceeding them. Although we fully agree that more study is needed, to improve protection of our water quality and fisheries, there are effective steps that should be taken immediately.

For example, officials should more consistently enforce the legal requirements for buffers on land development, needed to protect waters of the state with natural, undisturbed vegetation. In general, when selecting and developing land, more attention should be given to retaining the site's natural ability to retain and filter water by leaving vegetation and soils as unaltered as possible. Whenever feasible, landowners should restore their property's features by allowing ditches to fill in, and by removing any barriers that restrict flow of water needed to support or restore connected wetlands areas. As consumers and landowners, we should reduce application of landscape chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides), and properly dispose of unwanted oil, antifreeze, paint and other household waste. Conserving both water and energy through more conscientious consumption will also help.

To solve such problems, we must change our priorities and practices, based on the realization that protecting our landscape and waterways is in the maximum long-term interest of everyone. Redefining self-interest in terms of the fundamental value of natural resources is imperative if coastal Georgia is to retain our quality of life and fulfill the region's promising potential in years ahead.

-- David Kyler
Center for a Sustainable Coast
Saint Simons Island, Georgia
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