There was this “No Wetlands, No Seafood” bumper sticker on the back of a Subaru station wagon sitting in the Walmart parking lot. It had the typical dark blue background and plain white letters we all have become accustomed to. This one differed in that it was only one of 50 plastered all over the lift gate, and was almost indistinguishable, lost amongst all the others. Stickers that said things like “Coexist,” “This Car Climbed Pikes Peak,” along with various beer logos, state outlines, and rainbow decals. For some reason I really didn’t believe this particular driver was capable of coexisting with, say, fundamentalist Christians, or that THAT particular car had actually climbed Pikes Peak!

Next, pretend for a moment the other evening, while you were distracted, doom scrolling cat videos on your iPhone, your 5-year-old decided the fish “looked hungry” and sprinkled dose after dose of fish food into the aquarium. Being a kid, they eventually just popped off the cap and dumped the entire contents into the tank, leaving the container floating partially submerged on the water surface. Bored, they then trudged off to bed. In the morning, everyone woke up to the fish doing the dead-smell backstroke, right next to the soggy cardboard fish food container!

Keep these two images in mind as we talk about the current dynamics in N.C. coastal wetlands.

Pamlico Sound is bounded by roughly 116,000 acres of salt-marsh coastal wetlands. These wetlands are dominated by black needlerush (Juncus romerianus) marsh. Black needlerush has tough, stiff, tapered, needle-like stems, about 1/4” in diameter, that also serve as the leaves. These stems grow in a thick mass, from a clump of roots, to approximately 4 feet high. The vast gray meadows of black needlerush are of such uniform height, that from the air, they appear freshly mowed. The color comes from the fact that most of the needles are actually dead and designed to break off and float away, in thick masses, during flood events. Once waterborne, micro organisms work to break the stems down into extremely fine particles.

Even the most conservative, back-of-the-envelope-type calculation indicates the natural discharge of plant waste from this growth is enormous. Black needlerush marsh produces about 1.5 lbs of plant material per square meter. This works out to a conservative estimate of seven million pounds of nutrient rich organic material being discharged into Pamlico Sound every year!

It is generally understood that this detritus, or decayed plant material, is exported into the estuary to become the foundation of the maritime food chain. But here is where the deep scientific research screeches to a halt. Casual observation indicates substantial excess detrital material accumulated in Pamlico Sound and adjacent tributaries from over production. This build up has been going on for decades, possibly even centuries.

Just this month, a study was published in the Limnology and Oceanography Letters, entitled “Extent, patterns, and drivers of hypoxia in the world’s streams and rivers.” This study indicates that one of the causes of increased stream hypoxia (no oxygen) is sediment discharges from wetlands. The study states that wetland impacts to adverse water quality is comparable to the adverse impacts associated with urban area runoff! Though the article is directed towards the study of streams and rivers, a comparison can be made to any low flow, little or no gradient water body, such as Pamlico Sound.

Millions of pounds of fish food being discharged into Pamlico Sound sometimes leads to hypoxic (no oxygen) conditions. The micro organisms breaking down this plant material remove the dissolved oxygen from the water column and this can become excessive. Remember the dead fish in the aquarium? In addition, even without the sediment, the study mentions the discharge of anaerobic (no oxygen) waters from wetlands is another factor contributing to poor water quality conditions in adjacent waters.

The significance of this study is that, up to this point, we have experienced an absolute information black-out regarding adverse water quality impacts of wetlands. This fact has been ignored, and I would suggest, even covered up, for many, many decades.

Any admission that wetlands could be a contributor to water quality problems runs the risk of removing their sanctimonious aura. This religious-like enshrinement has created a bias where any adverse impacts caused by wetlands can never be questioned. When a bias like this is acted out within the scientific community, this is cause for alarm!

Who can really blame the scientists, though? The government doesn’t give money to study issues adverse to public policy — and scientists have to eat! But have they been feigning all this hand-wringing over coastal water quality problems for decades? In addition, is this the reason scientists haven’t been able to model the water quality in Pamlico Sound? How could they do this if they couldn’t account for all the inputs politically? To factor in the adverse impacts of wetlands would put the scientific community at odds with government wetland policy! Major party foul!

But now, pulling the curtain back on this issue presents a huge quandary for the scientific and regulatory communities. Up to this point, the blame for ALL the estuarine water quality in Pamlico Sound has got to forestry, agriculture, and development on the adjacent uplands. Forestry, agriculture, and development have been the convenient scapegoats for virtually unfettered restrictions on vast land areas by state and federal agencies.

Now, it appears the basis for the “No Net Loss” wetland policy was the result of another government propaganda program. False science has long been used by political leaders to control public opinion in order to maintain a communal reality. However, the impact of portraying this particular issue in a deceptive manner has had significant generational economic repercussions, particularly to coastal society in general, and multiple individual family situations specifically.

We need to adjust this old angelic halo on coastal wetlands and replace it with REAL science. With this new revelation, it appears the dominate, yet false, scientific understanding of wetlands is no more valid than the random bumper sticker messaging plastered all over the back of that Walmart Subaru.