Opinion

Evaluating our coastal wetlands and coastal water quality

This commentary will be a shock to the “No Wetlands, No Seafood” bumper sticker crowd, but if things are going to get better regarding NC coastal water quality, it’s time we all have an honest discussion about the truth. There has been a cover-up in the scientific community about the contribution coastal wetlands make to poor water quality. For many readers, this will seem crazy and contrary to everything they have learned previously. Still, after nearly half of a century of coastal wetland “science” propaganda, the facts need to be aired.

Interestingly, there is not a single ill word spoken about wetlands in searching the internet. It’s like anything negative on the subject has been purged from the planet. My question is, how can anything be that perfect? In this day and age, it’s not a stretch to believe there is an unseen force guiding the messaging.

All this is easy to understand when considering that leftists are totalitarian absolutists. Their issues demand total compliance and obedience. There are numerous examples out there, but when an issue commands phrases like “no net loss” and “zero tolerance,” like wetlands do, there may be a problem with anyone questioning the status quo.

Understand that there is real, honest science that shows coastal marshes to be some of the most productive lands on earth. With some marsh species, this productivity is even better than rain forests.

Whereas you can see a portion of the carbon accumulation in a rain forest by the presence of trees, the excess material marsh produce is carried out by currents and tides and spread all over the estuary. This material, to the tune of 3,000 to 5,000 pounds per acre per year, accumulates as an extremely light, fine sediment in depressions and other low velocity areas of coastal estuaries, creeks, and sounds. If you consider there are approximately 250,000 acres of coastal wetlands in North Carolina, this is hundreds of thousands of tons of organic decaying material per year.

As the marsh remnants breakdown and decay, they place a high demand on the available dissolved oxygen. This creates anoxia (no oxygen) climes on coastal marine bottoms. Besides being toxic to the bottom-dwelling creatures, such as oysters, anoxia can spread throughout the entire water column after hurricanes and other climatic events. The most visible result is fish kills. Under extreme conditions, low/no oxygen conditions can persist, covering widespread areas for long periods of time; creating “dead zones,” where marine organisms cannot survive.

Because of the potential political implications, this is the third rail of marine research. And back in the day, there were absolutely no studies on this subject. There were clues, however, and this assembled into a body of evidence that began when I was involved with implementing the NC Coastal Management regulatory program as a field consultant.

First was the observation of a simple pattern. Initial excavation of a new boat basin would involve mineral sediments. The same basin being maintained a couple of years later, however, produced a very different material, a highly organic muck. These mucks sometimes bore physical evidence of embedded marsh stems in the excavated material.

Then there was the seemingly anecdotal account of a commercial fisherman at a public meeting. He indicated areas that were trawled heavily for shrimp were in better condition, water quality wise, than ones that weren’t. He said the bottom disturbance of trawling was like “plowing a field”, and the incidental stirring of the bottom sediments “cleaned it out”. The comment was dismissed with an eye roll by everyone at the time, but the observation had more merit than he was credited. Lifting bottom sediments into contact with the dissolved oxygen in the water column would have a positive impact.

Then there was the oyster management project by the Coastal Federation in northern Pamlico Sound. The problem was a suffocating accumulation of mud on the bottom that destroyed historical oyster beds. The solution was constructing a large field of giant limestone boulders, stacked one on top of another, forming a raised platform for the oyster spat to attach. No mention was made of the where/when/why/how of the suffocating mud they were trying to escape. They just whistled right by that graveyard!

Additionally, there was a private discussion with two scientists studying the sediments in Pamlico Sound. They indicated there were bands, like the rings of a tree, in core samples. Though not the focus of their investigation, they agreed these bands were likely annual wetland sediment deposits. And then there was the chance meeting with the former wetland scientist on the Outer Banks.

This person had advanced university degrees but had given up the scientific research career for the life of a commercial fisherman. His research showed coastal wetlands to be huge carbon sinks, overproducing organic matter relative to what could be consumed by the benthic microbes forming the bottom of the food chain. This finding put him at odds with the wetland protection at any cost research culture, and his integrity forced him to quit. If only he had toughed it out, he might have found a place today with the climate change research community.

Conversely, scientists are not so narrowly concerned about government wetland policy in climate change research, at least not in the traditional sense. Their interest is narrowly focused on the ability of marsh to “sequester” carbon or remove it from the atmosphere. They even have a name for it. They call it “blue carbon.”

Because they have a different public policy focus, these scientists are not bashful, and their research inadvertently reveals the serious problem wetlands pose to water quality. In a 2013 study by Louisiana State University, it was stated that coastal wetlands are “a significant source of organic carbon contributing to hypoxia (low oxygen levels) in the Gulf of Mexico.” Pamlico Sound has more wetlands, percentage wise, than the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, Pamlico Sound, bounded by the Outer Banks, is more of a closed system with relatively little flushing. Albeit indirectly, now scientists are finally revealing the truth!

The online profile of a prominent North Carolina scientist who has devoted his long tenure to researching coastal water quality points to “human-induced” impacts as the only source of water quality degradation. After a 50-year plus research career, he still ignores the 800-pound gorilla in the room. In recent media interviews, he continues to call for more and more regulation of land development, farming, and forestry.

Calling for more regulation on humans just because the research doesn’t meet leftist political goals is simply dishonest. The leftist environmental community intends to set things up for humans to take the fall for what is merely an unfortunate natural process.

But nothing unusual here. Blaming humans for all the environmental problems in the world is the hallmark of the environmental movement. The big lie is that if you take people out of the equation, the world will be just fine; in other words, the world would be perfect without people. Placing areas off-limits is the ultimate solution to environmental problems.

Continuing to accuse people of being the source of our poor coastal water quality dovetails nicely with the climate change mitigation proposals that aspire to relocate humans due to increasing sea levels. If the inhabitants of the NC coast don’t start standing up to the scientific tyranny soon, they will need to start packing their bags!

In the words of the Psalmist: “Of old You founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. Even they will perish, but You endure; and all of them will wear out like a garment; like clothing You will change them and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will not come to an end. The children of Your servants will continue, and their descendants will be established before You.” (102: 25-28)

Nelson Paul is a real estate agent, former NC Coastal regulator, inventor, husband, and father of four, and a grandfather of seven.