May 1, 2017

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By: Sam Athey, Plastic Ocean Project


There is fewer and fewer places left in the world truly wild, untouched by man. Places where one can escape the human world and be completely submerged in living nature. Cape Hatteras is one of these places, however, the untouched area is shrinking.

I have been on the planet for two short decades and can only imagine what Cape Hatteras was like over half a century ago. Locals tell me stories of strolling along Coquina Beach hunting for the largest seashells, sailing twenty miles offshore of Cape’s Point following the biggest schools of dolphinfish, and laying under the Milky Way at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and feeling as if you were on the edge of the universe. The pods of dolphins frolicking in the surf, the large bodies of whales breaching in the bright sunlight, shattering the water’s surface like crystalline glass, were recurrent sitings. Each story is different, but with a common theme: an abundance of life. No evidence of man.

Cape Hatteras is found on the coast of the Outer Banks, North Carolina, a 200-mile stretch of narrow barrier islands. Adjacent to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic, Cape Hatteras is the closest landmass to the continental shelf along the entire East Coast. It’s where the warm Gulf Stream collides with the cold waters of the Labrador Current and the deepwater Virginia Current, bringing nutrients up from the equator allowing a multitude of species to flourish. The convergence accumulates large masses of Sargassum, free-floating algae, which provides important habitat for marine life. Key fishery species including amberjack and tuna, coastal marine mammals, deep diving sei, fin, and sperm whales, endangered loggerhead sea turtles make up just a small portion of the diversity in marine life that can be found in Cape Hatteras waters. In addition to its ecological significance, this region is home to world-renown fishing sites important not only for the recreation and tourism economies, but the commercial fishing industry as well.

What Does it Look Like Today?

From the sandy beaches of Pea Island Wildlife Refuge to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream offshore of Cape Hatteras, there is evidence of man. Familiar laundry detergent bottles float slowly in the currents, the occasional murky slick of oil shines on the water’s surface, the deafening sound of ships fill remote area, and even the delicate climate systems are changing due to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One of the most common items pervading shoreline and waters is the single-use plastic bag. Unfortunately, these collisions of human civilization and nature are not always good.

Most recently, we are working to fight legislature (HB 271 and SB 434) put forth by the North Carolina Congress to repeal the current plastic bag ban in the Outer Banks, which protects the coastal area from plastic pollution. We are encouraging communities to become informed on plastic and to contact their representatives about the importance of a plastic bag ban.

Establishing Hatteras as a Hope Spot with Mission Blue last fall has allowed us to stand up for our special place in the ocean and come one step closer to seeing the beautifully wild place it once was. Sharing our story with coastal communities has inspired action. As part of our work to raise awareness on the newly established Hope Spot, we created a number of educational videos, including a short documentary called ‘Put It On the Map’. We have brought our Hope Spot story into classrooms and communities across North Carolina in an effort to inspire action for Cape Hatteras. We have also teamed up with UNC-Wilmington students to study the distribution of dangerous plastic debris off the coast of North Carolina and its effect on local fish species.

Through this outreach we see communities across the East Coast come together in support of Hope Spot Hatteras. Our hope is fifty years from now, we will share stories of our Hope Spot with younger generations and inspire them to take a stand for their favorite wild places.

 

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