It’ a paradox that we often love something to death. Man and the coast. Our love of it jeopardizes its very existence. It also leaves many livelihoods hanging in the balance. — Frank Tursi

These words preface a special report, “Our Coast: A Heritage Seeps Away,” written nearly two decades ago for the Winston Salem Journal by then environmental journalist Frank Tursi.

His 1988 series of articles was the result of a month-long journey following watermen, and talking with homeowners, shopkeepers, scientists, and state and county officials from Currituck Banks to Brunswick County.

In an era of fish kills, algal blooms and burgeoning coastal growth, Tursi set out “to find out what is happening on the coast, what rapid development is doing to fishermen and to the fragile ecosystem.”

Now, with development in some coastal counties approaching critical mass, Tursi continues to pursue answers to many of the same questions as a full-time environmental “guardian.”

Tursi is one of three Coastkeepers hired by the North Carolina Coastal Federation (NCCF) to preserve and protect coastal water quality and habitat.

As Cape Lookout Coastkeeper, Tursi’s territory encompasses the central coast. Cape Fear Coastkeeper Ted Wilgis oversees the southeastern coast. And, Cape Hatteras Coastkeeper Jan DeBlieu covers the northeast coast.

Their job description is straightforward: Prevent pollution and habitat degradation; enhance the role of federal, state and local agencies — and relevant regulations — responsible for protecting the coast; and organize citizens to be a concerted voice for coastal resources.

Getting the job done is a bit more dicey. Describing the North Carolina coast is much like the old adage about the blind man describing an elephant — it depends on where you are standing.

From north to south, the geography is dominated by many different water features — ocean, sounds, bays, rivers and creeks; tidal marshes that sustain submerged sea grasses and aquatic life; wetlands that drain significant watersheds; and inlets that open and close at the mercy of severe seasonal storms.

All are shaped by nature and influenced by human activity.

Coastal urban sprawl — with its inherent loss of wetlands and open space, and increased polluted stormwater runoff from paved surfaces — is degrading water quality, straining limited resources, and nudging out traditional coastal livelihoods.

In 2000, the federation was approved by the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance to license three Coastkeepers, explains Todd Miller, executive director of NCCF, an environmental advocacy group with 8,000 members. The federation is the only Alliance-affiliated organization licensed to cover a state’s entire coast.

“We always have maintained that North Carolina is excellent at designing environmental laws,” Miller says. “The problem is its inability to fully implement and enforce them because of budget and staffing constraints.”

That’s where the Coastkeeper initiative comes into play. Coastkeepers interact with university, state and federal scientists, and form partnerships with organizations that share water quality concerns.

More importantly, they recruit and train volunteers to become “extra eyes” for agencies.

Global in Scope

The addition of the three NCCF Coastkeepers raises the number of the Waterkeeper Alliance-sanctioned programs in the state to nine — second only to California.

The Waterkeeper Alliance was incorporated in 1999 as a way of unifying a number of grassroots keeper programs operating independently across the country. The Alliance now is the hub of a global network of 117 affiliates, all about one thing — protecting the integrity of waterways.

Many North Carolinians were introduced to the Waterkeeper program by Rick Dove, who served as Neuse Riverkeeper from 1993 to 2000. Much of his work focused on educating the public about the ailing Neuse River. During his tenure, his Riverkeeper activities were the topics of more than 4,000 news stories.

It was Dove who urged the NCCF to consider funding Coastkeeper positions.

“Rick Dove made Riverkeeper a household word. We’re not there yet, but the Coastkeepers are gaining recognition in their geographic regions,” Miller says.

“We are seeing an increase in compliance checks by regulating agencies as a direct result of reporting by keepers,” he adds.

Tailored Agendas

To be effective, Coastkeepers must be part investigator, legal expert, lobbyist, teacher and public relations specialist, says Miller.

Above all, they must have outstanding communication skills.

That may explain how Ted Wilgis gets dozens of volunteers to respond to calls for help with a number of projects. The “invitations” urge volunteers to bring shovels, work gloves, buckets, old shoes and insect repellent.

Wilgis became the federation’s first Coastkeeper in 2001. Four years earlier, he arrived “on loan” to the federation from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). His mission was to expand NCCF’s environmental education programs based on the CBF hands-on stewardship model. The job became permanent.

So, when Wilgis moved into the Coastkeeper post, he already was familiar with the coastal landscape.

Among his current activities, Wilgis oversees the federation’s oyster restoration efforts, in cooperation with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. The projects are funded, in part, by NOAA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

So far, Wilgis and volunteers have shoveled and transported more than 6,000 bushels of oyster shells to construct six intertidal oyster reefs in licensed shellfish management and research sanctuary sites. In addition, they have filled 2,000 mesh bags with oyster shells for setting with oyster larvae. Once the spat, or juvenile oysters, attached to the shells, the volunteers helped transfer the bags to “seed” the newly constructed reefs.

Backbreaking and labor-intensive, the results will be far-reaching, says Wilgis. Bringing back native oyster ecosystems for their habitat, water quality and socio-economic benefits is a priority in North Carolina.

The federation is collaborating with North Carolina Sea Grant and scientists from several University of North Carolina campuses, who are seeking ways to reverse declining native oyster population trends.

Oyster diseases, harvest pressure and mechanical oyster-dredging practices that harm habitat are cited as contributing factors. But, water pollution is seen as the leading culprit.

Scientists are studying the ability of oysters — which filter 50 gallons of nutrient-rich water each day — to improve water quality in some troubled estuarine nurseries. If restoration efforts are successful, mature oysters growing on constructed habitat also will produce larvae for future oyster generations.

An Ounce of Prevention

Restoration is one side of the environmental integrity coin.

The flip side is pollution prevention and slowing the loss of coastal habitats. But, considering development pressures on the coast, it will take more than an ounce of prevention to stay the tide.

Sewer projects, subdivision and shopping center construction, stormwater permits, beach nourishment and inlet projects are on Wilgis’ list of top concerns. He is closely monitoring development and roads that are being built along Howe Creek in New Hanover County. Wetland and stormwater rules were interpreted to allow a new high-density project to be built in the sensitive headwaters and wetlands of the creek.

Little more than a decade ago, Howe Creek was given the state’s highest stream classification of Outstanding Resource Waters. Now, it is permanently closed to shell fishing and is classified as Impaired Waters.

Wilgis has implemented a water-quality monitoring and bacterial sampling regime at various runoff sites to track impacts on the troubled watershed. His goal is to identify potential violations for the N.C. Division of Water Quality and other regulatory agencies in an effort to spur enforcement of clean water rules.

A core volunteer force is helping him help carry the environmental message into the community and to policymakers responsible for protecting coastal resources.

“The next 10 years will determine the future of our coast and whether our grandchildren will be able to swim, eat oysters and experience the beauty of the coast,” Wilgis says.

Vigilant Volunteers

Coastkeeper Tursi knows vigilant volunteers make a difference — especially if they are trained to identify likely illicit land disturbances and discharges, and are savvy about responsible government agencies and applicable laws and regulations.

A Carteret County couple that received the federation’s 2003 Citizen Action Award proves the point. Working with Tursi, Bonnie and Lee Jones diligently recorded a developer’s suspect activities — taking photos and water samples to document sediment and bacterial contamination in Bogue Sound. Their persistence paid off. The state cited the developer for violating erosion-control laws.

Tursi envisions an extensive volunteer network that could function as a rapid-response team. Say a fish kill is detected in a creek. Trained volunteers could be summoned quickly to collect water samples and help track down contributing factors.

When Tursi became the federation’s second Coastkeeper in 2002, it seemed to be a major career change. But, his communication skills are well suited for his new vocation. Moreover, he is familiar with the issues, the policies and the politics.

He says investigative reporting is similar to the detective work needed to research water quality issues. Often, it’s knowing the right person to call and questions to ask.

As a Coastkeeper, though, he goes beyond reporting the facts. Now, he takes action to ensure the interest of water quality is served — such as blowing the whistle when someone appears to be out of compliance. Litigation, a last resort, is “one tool in the box for extreme cases.”

After two years on the job, Tursi says there are few surprises. After all, he has been witness to a changing coast since his student days at East Carolina University and during his lengthy tenure as an environmental reporter.

“We are dealing with the effects of development on the landscape and its consequences on coastal waters,” he laments.

The extent is driven by the amount of land disturbance and percent of hardened surfaces. “When you remove the land’s ability to filter water, stormwater rushes directly into streams, rivers and estuaries, along with all the stuff it picks up in its path,” he says.

The “stuff,” to some degree, depends on sediment and erosion controls in place.

“I could spend every day helping enforce sediment control rules,” Tursi observes. “If there were just one site, it would be bad enough. But with dozens and even hundreds of sites, there is an enormous cumulative effect.”

Unfortunately, he adds, government agencies are overburdened and can’t keep pace with growth. “While agencies face personnel and budget cuts, the number of development permits are increasing,” he says. The result is any given agency’s diminished capacity to enforce rules.

Faulty Systems

And, there are weak spots in the state’s environmental safeguards. Faulty or failing sewer systems are chronic sources of pollution in coastal waterways.

A recent investigation of state records by Tursi and Wilgis revealed that 60 sewer plants in the central and southern coastal counties had violated their discharge limits and were fined — some as many as dozens of times — by the N.C. Division of Water Quality.

Tursi and Wilgis have constructed a federation Web site where they post the most chronic violators who are cited, pay fines and are back to business-as-usual.

But, if the state is going to be successful in bringing back the oyster to historic population levels, it can’t be business-as-usual for any polluter, insists Tursi.

“Oysters are a benchmark species, a symbol of water quality. We must promote smart growth, enforce sewer, stormwater runoff and sediment rules,” Tursi says. “If we are successful in bringing back oysters, then other creatures will be healthier, including humans.”

Nature’s Notebook

Many coastal problems stem from trying to change nature to conform to human purposes, such as filling in wetlands to create “buildable” real estate, says Cape Hatteras Coastkeeper Jan DeBlieu.

On the job less than a year, the newest Coastkeeper is a long-time resident of the region who has spent most of her professional life writing about the natural world. She moved to the Outer Banks in 1985 to write Hatteras Journal, an exploration of the ecology and people. It also was when she cut her grassroots activism teeth. She helped found LegaSea, a citizens group that successfully fought a proposal to drill for oil and natural gas off the Outer Banks.

As Coastkeeper, she parlays her knowledge of natural science with her understanding of policies to help monitor potentially destructive development projects along the northern coast, and to work with regulatory agencies to solve problems. She is building a Coastkeeper Corps of volunteers to help patrol her vast territory by boat, airplane, canoe and truck.

DeBlieu is working with the federation’s senior scientist, Tracy Skrabal, to establish “living shoreline” demonstration projects to protect estuarine shorelines from erosion. Skrabal has designed more than a dozen projects along the coast, including one at Festival Park in Manteo and at a residence in Columbia.

There is no dearth of regional issues. Some of them surfaced dramatically when Hurricane Isabel blew ashore last September. Isabel left broad sections of N.C. 12 under tons of sand — renewing discussion about a long-term solution to the recurring problem.

“Like most barrier islands along the coast, the Outer Banks are migrating westward; the erosion of their seaward shores is a natural process,” DeBlieu writes on her Coastkeeper Web page. “The continual maintenance of N.C. 12 is like drawing a line in the sand and telling the ocean that it can’t pass. It’s a contest of will that humans are bound to lose.”

She describes beach renourishment as another “burning” issue. “The towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head are very anxious to begin beach renourishment, especially after the severe erosion caused by Hurricane Isabel.”

While funding is not a sure thing, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers schedule calls for sand to be pumped onto the beaches in early 2005.

“Renourishment projects can be very effective. They also can turn into disasters, especially if the wrong kind of sediment is placed on the beaches. If we’re going to have renourishment here, one of my primary goals is to make sure it’s done carefully and wisely,” DeBlieu says.

To learn more about the North Carolina Coastal Federation and the Coastkeeper program, go on line to, and click on Coastkeeper. Or, call 252/393-8185.

This article was published in the Spring 2004 issue of Coastwatch.

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