By Pam Longobardi
Something wondrous happened for coastal Georgia – we have been named a new Mission Blue Hope Spot!
Piloted by a 3-woman team, Paulita Bennett-Martin, Simona Perry and Angela Hariche, the designation of the Continental Shelf off Georgia’s coast is now in the focused beam of the lighthouse that is Mission Blue. What this means for the deep-water corals, the loggerhead sea turtles, the native and itinerant fish, and the grand and elusive North Atlantic Right Whale that call this coast home is unmeasurable. As activists and ocean lovers prepare for battle against the onslaught of offshore oil drilling, seismic exploration, plastic ban pre-emption laws, port deepening and unsustainable exploitive fishing, these boots-on-the-ground-and-in-the-state-capital warriors have another arrow in their quiver to weave a network of protection for the creatures of our beloved coast.
Georgia’s continental shelf includes the Blake Plateau and is home to Lophelia pertusa, a filigreed deep-water coral that lives without the symbiotic zooanthellae algae that shallower corals invite into residence for protection. Extremely slow growing, it is the favored home of many species, including sharks, groupers, conger eels and more, which feed on the colonies of hatchetfish and lanternfish swimming above. Other lifeforms cohabitate on or among the Lophelia pertusa, like squat lobsters, brittle stars, crabs and various molluscs. While these corals are not in a threatened status, this may change in the future as deep ocean trawling fisheries destroy large swaths of life on the bottom.
The stunning beauty of the underwater landscape can be appreciated at shallower depths. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is also part of the Hope Spot designation. This 22-mile zone has been protected since 1981 and is proof of how marine sanctuaries actually work: Gray’s Reef is teaming with life, over 200 fish species, loggerhead sea turtles and rich coral beds. Imagine if this marine sanctuary could be expanded to include the Blake Plateau? Oceanic environments, if given the chance, will recover, and grow, and thrive. The Hope Spot may help that happen.
A common resident of Gray’s Reef is the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), who is the only sea turtle of the five species present in Georgia waters to regularly nest on the coast of the barrier islands. These majestic turtles have a rich brown highly patterned shell and will return to the beach of their own birth to lay eggs, only once they reach maturity at 30-35 years old.
There is a dedicated program of volunteers overseen by the Tybee Island Marine Science Center that walks nightly 3-mile patrols during the nesting season of Tybee’s entire beach to watch for newly laid nests. Volunteer ‘babysitters’ sit all night by hatching nests to count the newborn sea turtles and ensure their safe passage to the waves. Nesting turtles are also aided by Tybee’s beachfront lights-out program, and the weekly cleaning of plastic off the beach by the dedicated efforts of Fight Dirty Tybee volunteers.
Many people do not realize that Georgia has a State Marine Mammal, but we do! That distinction goes to the North Atlantic Right Whale, an extremely endangered whale species that come to the waters off Georgia every year to have its young. As the population of this whale species continues to dwindle – currently projected at a mere 411 individual whales – its future is held in precarious balance, and Georgia has a big role to play in its survival. Georgia’s warm coastal waters are the chosen calving grounds for the North Atlantic Right Whale. Heavily hunted because of their natural curiosity and biology, being so blubber-rich that they float when harpooned – thus the “right” whales to hunt, these coastal whales were nearly wiped off the earth by the mid-18th century.
But the Right whales that come to Georgia’s coast to birth their calves have to run a gauntlet of threats on their return from the Labrador Sea and Gulf of St. Lawrence summer feeding grounds. Ship strikes are a common cause of injury and death as the migration path runs along one of the busiest shipping corridors of the Atlantic Eastern Seaboard. A second form of deadly encounter occurs when the whales become entangled in commercial fishing gear, primarily bottom-set groundfish gillnets, crab and lobster pots. With climate change disrupting all natural cycles, the stress on the whales increases. And now, a triple threat emerges when the laboring mother whales and their newborns may be greeted by underwater explosions of eardrum-piercing sound from recent seismic exploration for oil off Georgia’s coast.
The vibrant life and beauty of the Georgia coast is not a given. Threats barrage the marine creatures who share our coast as human populations expand and take more from our fragile planet. But hope drives action. We have just been given a wonderful tool to shore up protections for our non-human coastal neighbors. The Coastal Georgia Hope Spot is a gift to our community, and with our efforts, it will be our gift to the future.
About Pam Longobardi
Pam Longobardi’s parents, an ocean lifeguard and the Delaware state diving champion, connected her from an early age to water. After discovering mountains of plastic on remote Hawaiian shores in 2006, she founded the Drifters Project, centralizing the artist as culture worker/activist/researcher. Now a global collaborative entity, Drifters Project has removed tens of thousands of pounds of material from the natural environment and re-situated it as communicative social sculpture. Winner of the prestigious Hudgens Prize Longobardi has been featured in National Geographic, SIERRA magazine, the Weather Channel and in exhibitions around the world. She is Oceanic Society’s Artist In Nature, and Distinguished Professor and newly named Regent’s Professor at Georgia State University.