Wildlife could be biggest losers as SC islands wash away

sfretwell@thestate.comNovember 24, 2013 

— Chunks of seashore are vanishing from South Carolina’s Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge as rising ocean levels and storms chew up the remote, unspoiled beaches some animals depend on for survival.

It’s a trend threatening the future of rare sea turtles and birds that frequent the shores of Cape Romain’s barrier islands – and there’s little indication the erosion will stop anytime soon, federal officials say.

During the past 25 years, erosion has claimed about 1,200 acres from four primary barrier islands in the nature preserve north of Charleston, according to statistics provided last week by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Those include Bulls Island, the refuge’s signature land formation, which drew national attention last week as U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured the island’s eroding Boneyard Beach.

But even more erosion is on the way as sea levels are expected to rise up to 5 feet in the Southeast by the end of this century.

Islands in the 66,000-acre Cape Romain refuge provide important nesting habitat for loggerhead sea turtles, federally protected reptiles that deposit their eggs in sand dunes for protection. But many of the dunes are washing away.

When sea turtles lay eggs without plenty of sand, ocean waves can easily overrun the nests and drown the developing turtles. If the beaches continue to erode, there one day might not be enough sand to protect nests.

Lately, sea turtles have bucked the trend and reproduced in record numbers, but some of that success is because refuge workers have moved the nests to more protected areas – a difficult and time-consuming task. Cape Romain boosters say the erosion trend has sparked a gloomy long-term forecast for turtles.

“The bottom line is really critical nesting habitat is disappearing,” said Grace Gasper, director of the Sewee Association, a support group for the national wildlife refuge.

Gasper said 35 percent to 40 percent of nests sea turtles establish on the entire S.C. coast are built in the Cape Romain refuge.

Raye Nilius, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and Cape Romain project leader, said some birds that nest on Cape Romain’s islands also face threats from the encroaching ocean. As islands dwindle in size, birds that lay nests on top of the beach have fewer places for their young to hatch.

Least terns, black skimmers and eastern brown pelicans are some of the birds of particular concern because of nesting habitat loss, Nilius said.

“We used to have huge numbers of eastern pelicans on some of those islands,” Nilius said, noting that at one spot, “They’re all gone now. Their habitat has been diminished in size.”

The ocean also is threatening to wash into a brackish pond area at Bulls Island, which could kill plants that attract ducks and other waterfowl, Nilius said. Bulls Island, a wide island of maritime forests and freshwater ponds, has lost about 425 acres during the past 60 years, according to Fish and Wildlife Service maps.

How bad is it?

Geologist Rob Young, a beach erosion expert at Western Carolina University, said he’s not surprised at the erosion outlined in Fish and Wildlife Service statistics.

While many barrier islands naturally erode or build up depending on currents and storms, sea level rise is likely causing more erosion at Cape Romain than otherwise would have occurred, he said.

Fish and Wildlife Service maps show that fewer sections of Bulls, Cape and Raccoon islands are building up and more sections are washing away.

“Climate change and sea level rise are going on in the background,” said Young, who has studied erosion on South Carolina’s barrier islands. “The long-term trend of rising water is driving the whole coastal zone landward.”

Others, including Interior Secretary Jewell, agreed. During her first visit to South Carolina since taking office last spring, Jewell on Wednesday used the erosion at Bulls Island to highlight concerns about how climate change and sea-level rise are affecting wildlife refuges.

“This is your impact of climate change,” Jewell said as she stepped onto the beach at Bulls Island, where fallen trees litter the beach.

In addition to rising sea levels, Hurricane Hugo devastated the refuge in 1989, heavily eroding beaches and wrecking the natural landscape. But statistics show that some of the refuge’s beaches began to recover after the storm – only to begin eroding again, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service maps.

The issue of climate change and sea level rise is a hot political topic.

Skeptics argue the Earth is subject to natural fluctuations that should not cause people to worry – and not cause the government to regulate businesses more tightly for pollution that contributes to global warming.

Most scientists, however, agree the trend is indisputable and say people’s activities have generated pollution that is contributing heavily to the problem. Average temperatures are up two degrees in the Southeast since 1970, a recent scientific study shows. Higher earth temperatures are causing sea levels to rise.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, erosion has been particularly pronounced at Raccoon Key and Cape Island in the past decade.

Cape, a long, skinny island of sand dunes and dune grass, has lost a net of 262 acres since 2006 to erosion, the service says. In places, new inlets have breached the island. That in turn has exposed Lighthouse Island, behind Cape Island, to erosion.

Whether to interfere

Photographs released by the Fish and Wildlife Service show that one section of Raccoon Key, called Sandy Point, has eroded away completely since 1973.

A sign that once warned visitors against bringing pets to the beach now is sticking out of the water, Nilius said. Without a beach, least terns and black skimmers experienced a 100 percent decline in nesting in the 20 years after 1990 at Sandy Point, the Fish and Wildlife Service says.

Young said the erosion at Cape Romain shows how barrier islands react to nature’s forces.

That’s important because so many of the nation’s beaches are developed and replenished each year with sand dredged from offshore, he said. If they were not artificially built up with imported sand, they’d have some of the same problems as Cape Romain’s barrier islands, he said.

Despite the erosion and concerns about wildlife, Young said Cape Romain’s islands should not be renourished or have sand-trapping groins added, as has been done at Hunting Island State Park – also a highly erosional but undeveloped beach.

“We should leave them exactly as they are,” said Young, who served recently on a state panel that assessed oceanfront development policies in South Carolina. “These kinds of islands that have no human interference are rare.”

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