Watermen Assist Hurricane Recovery with Marine Debris Removal in North Carolina

Posted Thu, 12/12/2019 - 16:57

Guest blog by: Ted Wilgis, Biologist & Coastal Education Coordinator with the North Carolina Coastal Federation

On a recent cool foggy morning near Surf City, North Carolina, Joe Huie stepped out of his skiff, trudged through the marsh, and up to a small hammock. Hoping he wouldn’t see what he knew would be there, he gazed out over the marsh dotted with small spider webs glistening with the morning fog and dew. Soon, Joe could pick out the telltale signs of the pieces of docks, polystyrene, and other hurricane debris that littered the beautiful marsh.

Debris from Hurricane Florence strewn across the marsh.
Debris from Hurricane Florence became embedded into the upper reaches of the coastal marshes (Credit: North Carolina Coastal Federation). 

Joe, along with his dad and two fellow commercial watermen, are working with the North Carolina Coastal Federation to remove at least 35 tons of marine debris left in the wake of Hurricane Florence in Onslow, Pender, New Hanover and Brunswick counties in coastal North Carolina. This effort is being funded through a two-year, $249,657 removal grant to the Federation from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. The Federation is partnering with the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, local governments, community fisherman, and volunteers.

Soon after Hurricane Florence, Federation staff received a number of reports of a significant amount of debris from docks, piers, and other waterfront structures floating in the estuary and drifting up in the marsh. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s aerial imagery of the coast taken right after the storm provided a view of the very high number of docks and other structures that were damaged or destroyed along the coast. The debris from these structures along with tons of other debris was picked up and deposited into coastal waters and habitats from the storm surge and wind.

Much of the debris is hard to see, but it is heavily embedded in the upper reaches of the marsh and even sits among maritime shrubs and trees along the coast. Earlier efforts in the year by the Federation and its field crews of commercial fishers removed over 200 tons of marine debris from 42 miles of estuarine shorelines. Unfortunately, significant debris remains, so the removal work continues.

These large scale marine debris removal efforts are the first of their kind in recent history for this area of coastal North Carolina. The 4-person field crew of commercial watermen, all born and raised in nearby Sneads Ferry, are working very hard, and though they are quiet, the pride in their work is very evident and appreciated.

The North Carolina Coastal Federation four person field crew.
The 4-person field crew of commercial watermen, all born and raised in nearby Sneads Ferry, are working very hard on this large scale marine debris removal effort (Credit: North Carolina Coastal Federation).

For future preparedness, the Federation will also work with NOAA to develop best management practices for protecting important natural resources and work with local municipalities to create model building codes and construction specifications to ensure docks and piers are built stronger to better withstand the forces of future hurricanes.