Continental shelves make up just 8% of the ocean’s geology, yet play an immensely important role in its health: the shallow waters of a continental shelf absorb more sunlight than the rest of the ocean, allowing for a rich and healthy marine ecosystem to thrive. The shelf hugging the state of Georgia including the Blake Plateau is wider than any other area along the Atlantic Coast (more than 80 miles wide), making it a critical engine for ocean productivity in the Western Atlantic. Part of what makes the Georgia continental shelf through the Blake Plateau so special is that these waters are home to endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) and white shark (Carcharodon carcharias)– life that local marine conservationists want the rest of the state to recognize and value.
“Putting a spotlight on the often forgotten biodiversity off our coast will enrich and improve marine life and serve as a source of inspiration and well-being for human life for years to come,” says Hope Spot Champion Angela Costrini Hariche.
International marine conservation nonprofit Mission Blue has declared the Georgia Continental Shelf and Blake Plateau a Hope Spot in support of the Hope Spot Champions’ goals of ending unsustainable fishing practices, preventing marine pollution and reducing adverse impacts to the North Atlantic right whale, including seismic testing and drilling.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, says, “The Georgia Continental Shelf and Blake Plateau is a special place. Protecting it really does give cause for hope. It’s an area rich in marine life, and still largely unexplored. If the whales could speak, if the sharks could speak, if the creatures at Gray’s Reef could speak, they would tell you since they can’t speak for themselves that it’s great that this newly dedicated Hope Spot has Champions speaking for them, speaking the ocean and speaking for you.”
Scientists have determined there to be just 411 North Atlantic right whales left in the wild. The whales’ only known calving grounds are found on the continental shelf of Georgia and Florida– making the Georgia Continental Shelf and Blake Plateau Hope Spot a place to be fiercely protected by policies that put marine life first.
“One of our goals for this Hope Spot is to inspire the public to ask questions and make demands of their elected leaders to protect the ocean,” explains Paulita Bennett-Martin, Hope Spot Champion. She continues, “The general public doesn’t even know that these magnificent creatures live right off their shores in their home state! We are advocating for a “Whale Day” in the State of Georgia, and promoting public education about these whales and the threats they face, and what we can do about it.”
The most immediate threat to Georgia’s continental shelf and Blake Plateau– and the North Atlantic right whale– is from offshore seismic blasting for mapping oil and gas deposits, and offshore drilling within the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s South Atlantic Planning Area. Additionally, the federal Five-Year Plan for drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf includes Georgia’s offshore waters. Other forms of exploration, like the development of renewable offshore energy and deep-sea fish farming pose threats to Georgia’s offshore waters as well.
Many locations and living resources found within the Hope Spot have protection and designation under different federal laws. These varying designations allow for current protection under bedrock U.S. environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Management Act. However, there is currently no comprehensive management plan for the protection and conservation of Georgia’s offshore living marine resources and habitats.
“It’s absolutely vital at this point to create an official preservation site that links all the marine habitats within the continental shelf and Blake Plateau,” explains Perry. She continues, “The initial steps are to convene all stakeholders. From there, we can lay the groundwork for a comprehensive management plan.”
Charles H. McMillan, III Coastal Director, Georgia Conservancy, states, “The Georgia continental shelf is a unique place with a highly diverse ecosystem that is threatened by the industrialization of our marine resources. This Hope Spot will help to call for the protection of this vital marine ecosystem.”
Building a comprehensive marine management plan entails raising awareness of the importance of sustainable fisheries to end overfishing, illegal fishing, and destructive fishing practices. Plans also include preventing the accumulation of plastic pollution, while working with recreational boaters and fishing and dive charters to develop an “Offshore Pollution” citizen science collection initiative. Finally, Hope Spot Champions are seeking to reduce adverse impacts to the North Atlantic right whale and take action for their recovery through public education.
These programs will provide the knowledge for Georgia residents and visitors to transform their perception of the offshore waters from being “out of sight, out of mind” to a perception of these offshore waters as being the State’s “blue heart”– a beautiful place that connects Georgia to the entire ocean and globe. It’s Georgia’s commons, and everyone has a role to play in protecting it.
The official announcement of Georgia’s Hope Spot recognition will take place at Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Ga. Georgia Aquarium is the Western Hemisphere’s largest aquarium and is a global contributor to marine research and conservation efforts. Designations like Mission Blue’s Hope Spot make it possible for continued conservation work and inspires action for our ocean and waterways, which is a pillar to Georgia Aquarium’s mission to engage the public with aquatic inhabitants, including southern and Georgia-native species.
About Georgia Aquarium
Georgia Aquarium is a leading 501(c)(3) non-profit organization located in Atlanta, Ga. that is Humane Certified by American Humane and accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Georgia Aquarium is committed to working on behalf of all marine life through education, preservation, exceptional animal care, and research across the globe. Georgia Aquarium continues its mission each day to inspire, educate, and entertain its millions of guests about the aquatic biodiversity throughout the world through its hundreds of exhibits and tens of thousands of animals across its seven major galleries. For more information, visit georgiaaquarium.org
About Paulita Bennett-Martin
Since 2012, Paulita has worked in research, advocacy, and alliance building to protect marine resources and waterfront culture in coastal Georgia and the Caribbean. She has spearheaded community driven movements in marine debris, promoting sustainable fisheries, building marine mammal awareness, and protecting marine resources from offshore energy. With years of research and organizing experience in Caribbean and South Eastern US fisheries, plastic pollution, and environmental justice, she joined Oceana’s international team to manage campaigns throughout the state of Georgia. Her focus areas include: the opposition to offshore drilling, conservation of North Atlantic Right Whales and Sharks, and defending bedrock management acts like the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and Magnuson-Stevens Act. Paulita spends her professional time in the field working with a broad array of stakeholders to protect oceans. In her personal time, she spends as much time as possible exploring the ocean, in her garden, and with family.
About Angela Costrini Hariche
A resident of Savannah Georgia, Angela has been a leader of sustainable development initiatives around the world. Her work has been mainly through the global policy and practice of meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. She has worked on oceans initiatives in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kenya and many others. She is the CEO of Catapult Design that works to build products and services, which improve the resilience and well-being of communities globally. She also co-founded Two Lane Films, which makes documentaries and narrative films on sustainability issues.
About Simona Perry
A 7th generation Georgia native, Simona was a marine mammal scientist with NOAA Fisheries for 10 years, conducting surveys of ocean life, writing peer-reviewed articles, and developing regulations and policies on endangered marine life. In 2009 she earned her PhD in human dimensions of natural resources conservation, and is recognized as a pioneer in community-based methods for understanding the cultural and political consequences of environmental injustice. She founded c.a.s.e. Consulting Services in 2012 to assist communities in recognizing their innate capacities for resiliency and adaptation. Since 2013 she has served as Vice-President of Pipeline Safety Coalition to advocate on behalf of communities impacted by energy infrastructure, and in 2019 she joined the Board of Directors of Wilderness Southeast to contribute to environmental education in coastal Georgia. Her blog can be read here.