By KATIE MOTHER
WETLANDS, SHELL BOTTOM, HARD BOTTOM, SOFT BOTTOM, SUBMERGED AQUATIC VEGETATION AND THE WATER COLUMN — THESE SIX CRITICAL HABITATS ARE THE CRUX OF NORTH CAROLINA’S COASTAL HABITAT PROTECTION PLAN, AN INTERAGENCY STRATEGY THAT OUTLINES ECOSYSEM MANAGEMENT PRIORITIES IN THE COASTAL REGION.
NOW, FIVE YEARS AFTER ITS ADOPTION, THE POPULAR PROGRAM KNOWN BEST AS CHPP IS UNDERGOING A SCHEDULED REVIEW AND UPDATE BY STATE OFFICIALS AND THE PUBLIC.
“The success of the CHPP thus far has been a factor of the overall support from the public,” explains Jimmy Johnson, CHPP coordinator in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Johnson and colleagues will organize the plan review, including discussions by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, Environmental Management Commission, Marine Fisheries Commission and Wildlife Resources Commission.
The revised plan will cite program progress in particular types of habitats. It also will consider emerging issues, such as anticipated sea-level rise and its impacts, as well as detection of pharmaceutical waste in coastal waters.
“We encourage folks to look for announcements of public comment sessions on the CHPP updates,” Johnson adds.
The N.C. General Assembly’s 1997 Fisheries Reform Act required the initial CHPP, as well as the establishment of Fishery Management Plans for various marine species.
“The quality of coastal habitats and the species they support are key elements in determining the environmental, economic and cultural health of communities in the coastal region,” notes Michael Voiland, executive director of North Carolina Sea Grant.
Thus, many outreach efforts by Sea Grant staff target CHPP focal areas. And research grants administered by the state/federal Sea Grant program-including the Fishery Resource Grant Program and the Blue Crab and Shellfish Research Program, both funded by the N.C. General Assembly — often serve informational needs identified in the CHPP.
“As we updated our strategic plan for Sea Grant in North Carolina, we considered many of the same issues addressed in the CHPP” Voiland says.
Johnson notes the role of Sea Grant research results in CHPP focus areas.
“The oyster work has been huge,” he says. “Also the ability to note the use of strategic habitat areas by river herring and striped bass.”
Sea Grant’s work on oysters has covered varied factors, from tracking the movement of larvae in currents to identifying the optimal conditions for settlement and growth; from mapping locations of historic reefs to characterizing the optimal shape and design of restored reefs.
Other oyster projects have looked at the genetics of native oysters, and the abilities of various strains to avoid disease and otherwise survive to maturity.
“Genetic research serves as the basis for differentiating stocks and identifying those best suited for use in restoration efforts,” notes Marc Turano, a Sea Grant extension specialist with a focus on shellfish.
In terms of river herring and striped bass research, Roger Rulifson of East Carolina University is part of a team that has had notable findings using otolith (ear bone) chemistry. The researchers characterized the movement and residence habits of juvenile striped bass among habitats in Albemarle Sound.
Recent studies show that the fish grow faster when they stay in “strategic habitat areas,” or SHAs, where mainland watersheds empty into Albemarle Sound. “For the more transient fish — those moving randomly — growth rates are lower,” Rulifson says of the findings of then-graduate student John Mohan and fisherman Terry Pratt.
The FRG study of striped bass, featured in Coastwatch in Winter 2009, analyzed chemical markers of bass otoliths that correlate fish life histories to specific watersheds. It also set the stage for additional research funded through N.C. Coastal Recreational Fishing License revenues.
And a new FRG project that includes fisherman Willy Phillips will look for similar geographic habitat markers in the otoliths of river herring. The results may be drastically different: “Herring are plankton feeders. Striped bass are predators,” Rulifson explains.
After all, different fish species have different habitat and feeding needs — considerations crucial to shaping the CHPP.
Other contributions to the CHPP include the N.C. Marine Fisheries Fellowship that Sea Grant co-organizes with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF). In recent years, the fellows have reviewed extensive data sets in effort to identify SHAs in Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound, as included in CHPP.
Fellow Tim Ellis reviewed fisheries data for the Albemarle and identified relationships between water quality and fish abundance.
His analyses showed lower fish counts in areas with high levels of human alterations, notes Jeffrey Buckel of North Carolina State University, who serves as the Sea Grant advisor to the fellows.
“Currently, Jen Weaver is analyzing fisheries monitoring data from Pamlico Sound to assist in identifying SHAs for CHPP Region 2,” Buckel adds. Because of the wealth of data for CHPP Region 2 — Pamlico Sound, Pamlico River and Neuse River — Weaver will continue her project during 2010-11.
“These analyses are possible because of the hard work that DMF personnel put into the monitoring of our state’s resources,” Buckel says.
DMF also has the lead in drafting the CHPP update.
As for the different bottom habitats, over the years Sea Grant has funded projects looking at short- and long-term impacts of beach nourishment on the surf zone habitats, and the role of nutrients in the estuaries that serve as critical nursery grounds.
“One really big take-home message is that standard beach/ runnel/bar habitat is very productive and likely a critical habitat for juvenile fishes,” says Larry Cahoon of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, whose research was featured in Coastwatch Summer 2009 and presented at the international Benthic Ecology Meeting in March 2010. A runnel is a trough between the beach and a sand bar.
Earlier research had established that beaches support measurable populations of benthic microalgae — and that sediment grain size chosen for beach nourishment projects can be a key variable affecting the level of microalgal biomass.
Cahoon also cites Sea Grant-funded studies done by the late David Lindquist in the 1980s that looked at rock-reef fish communities and adjacent soft bottoms that have productive benthic food chains.
That team estimated that “halos” of about 500 meters radius of sand bottoms also support rock-reef fishes, Cahoon explains, noting those results were included in the original CHPP. Diverse habitats mean a healthy diversity of fishery resources, Michael Voiland says.
“North Carolina Sea Grant is pleased to have been a partner in CHPP over the years,” he adds.
“And we are eager to work on the emerging issues, such as sea-level rise, that will be in the updated plan.”
For more information on the plan, including the review process, go online to: http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/habitat/CHPP.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources will be holding a series of meetings in June to receive public comment on draft revisions to North Carolina’s 2010 Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (CHPP).
This article was published in the Spring 2010 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.