Bordered in part by a thin chain of barrier islands—the Outer Banks—the sounds, shorelines, and marshes of North Carolina’s coast form one of the largest estuary systems in the country. The seagrass found in its vast underwater meadows is unusually diverse, consisting of species found to the south and the north, but nowhere else together. The coast is also home to a wide array of wildlife that depends on this habitat year-round. And at some point in their lives, most of North Carolina’s marine fish find refuge or food in the state’s coastal waters.
Visits to preserves, shorelines , and other outdoor attractions in North Carolina and nationwide have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. That rise in use, coupled with the growing threats from climate change, makes the Sept. 21 release of North Carolina’s latest Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (CHPP) especially timely. The CHPP is a blueprint for improving the state’s millions of acres of estuarine environment. The plan contains policy recommendations and strategies that communities and businesses can use to protect and restore essential habitats, such as seagrass and salt marsh.
The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is accepting public comment on the plan through Oct. 21, and it will become final if three state commissions approve it during their regularly scheduled meetings in mid-November.
Latest plan shows how goals have expanded
The many state agencies and commissions involved in developing and refining the plan, led by DEQ, have also sought substantial feedback from experts and stakeholders over the past two years, including supporting an independent working group—which Pew and the North Carolina Coastal Federation helped convene—to propose voluntary actions to improve water quality and protect coastal habitat.
When the original CHPP was developed more than 20 years ago, it focused on benefiting marine fish species that were prized by commercial and recreational fishermen. In the 2021 update, state officials have broadened the priorities of the CHPP, which is now in its fifth iteration, in part by relying on up-to-date, sound science to recognize that healthy coastal habitat is important for more than sustaining fish. The nearly 250-page document outlines actions that include mapping, enforcing environmental regulations, and restoring habitats that range from upstream wetlands to rocky marine areas.
Too much water moving too fast—or not at all
One of the realities underpinning the CHPP is that North Carolina’s coastal communities are increasingly seeing the impacts of climate change—chiefly from flooding and other weather-driven destruction—in their daily lives. Some of the flooding occurs because today’s heavier rains fall on landscapes that have been transformed from natural areas, such as forested wetlands, into developments with roads and other impervious surfaces.
Much of that stormwater, unable to reach and percolate through the soil, floods low-lying areas or rapidly overflows streams and rivers. Along the way, it picks up sediment and excess nutrients—such as nitrogen and phosphorus, compounds used in fertilizers—that, once in the water, produce algae blooms or otherwise block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses, sometimes called submerged aquatic vegetation, or SAV. With the ecosystem out of balance, people again experience disruption to their lives, with oyster beds closed for harvest and water unsafe for swimming.
Healthy marshes absorb floodwaters, filter runoff, and dampen wave energy but are also at risk from sea level rise, which can drown marsh habitats that do not have space to migrate upland. The CHPP recommends that North Carolina work with the Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability—which includes federal and state agencies and nongovernmental organizations—to develop a regional salt marsh conservation plan.
Empowering the public
In addition to five pages of recommendations for actions that state agencies can take, the new CHPP includes seven pages of recommendations from the independent stakeholder working group for how communities and members of the public can design local projects and solutions and begin taking positive actions to protect the estuary system. In the Neuse River basin, for instance, those concerned about algal blooms can identify where additional vegetation along streambeds could be planted to help absorb and slow polluted stormwater runoff.
DEQ also has expressed interest in forming a public-private partnership to maximize the interest and commitment of residents who want local solutions and are willing to contribute to them.
As Keith Larick of the North Carolina Farm Bureau says, “One of the great things about the CHPP is that people who care about these issues, who want to identify solutions and get to work, can use the document as a guide to get started now. In my opinion, it’s a great example of how government is supposed to work: pulling together experts, listening to the people, and creating a plan that has a role for everyone.”
A plan worthy of support, and a model for other states
Pew, which helped to convene the 10 organizations, businesses, and individuals who participated in the stakeholder working group, supports the revised CHPP and its effective implementation in the coming years, and encourages others to do the same. The public has several options for providing feedback on the CHPP through Oct. 21. Those familiar with coastal habitat issues in North Carolina may opt to fill out the 32-question survey, while others may choose to simply provide a comment by choosing this option in Question 5.
As Tom Looney, a Raleigh-based businessman and advocate for the state’s burgeoning oyster industry, says, “Especially when combined with the North Carolina Oyster Blueprint, which was released earlier this year, the CHPP gives me a lot of hope that our coasts are on their way to becoming more resilient and even more valuable, in so many ways, to people in this state.”
When it comes to the future of North Carolina’s coastal habitats, the public will be both the agents of action and the ultimate beneficiaries of the long-term, sustainable conservation initiatives laid out in the plan. By protecting nature, North Carolinians can protect themselves. And for other states looking to develop similar comprehensive plans for their coastal habitats, Pew recommends following North Carolina’s approach to creating a blueprint for action that is comprehensive, science-based, practical, and encouraging of community involvement.
Leda Cunningham, who lives in North Carolina, works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.