The stewardship program at the North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve integrates aspects of research, monitoring, education, coastal training, and resource management to provide long-term protection for the natural resources within the reserve and within the watershed community. Watershed development, invasive species, habitat alteration, resource use, climate change and sea level rise pose significant threats to the resources of coastal South Carolina. The priorities of the Stewardship program at the Reserve are:
- To promote watershed protection and protect water quality in the reserve,
- To promote stewardship and good coastal conservation practices in the communities of the North Inlet and Winyah Bay watersheds;
- To evaluate habitat quality and species distributions within the Reserve and to identify current and potential conservation issues; and
- To monitor and control invasive species and maintain biodiversity in the reserve and watershed.
A National Resource Inventory report released in 1997 indicated that from 1992- 1997, 15.8 million acres of South Carolina’s land were converted from farms and woodlands to developed land at a rate six times the rate of population growth; much of this development is occurring as inadequately planned urban sprawl. The population within the North Inlet and Winyah Bay watersheds is projected to increase 25% by 2025 as existing housing communities continue to build-out and new communities are scheduled for construction. Non-point source pollution due to runoff from impervious surfaces of urban/suburban areas is the primary threat to water quality of the North Inlet and Winyah Bay estuaries. It is the goal of the North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve to work with local stakeholders, including home owners, land developers, and municipal and county-level staff and officials to maintain the health of the North Inlet and Winyah Bay estuaries. The Stewardship program is working closely with the Coastal Training and Research programs to examine how storm water detention ponds affect the ecological condition of adjacent coastal waters, and to develop recommendations for storm water management practices. Information about home practices that help to protect water quality is also integrated into educational programs targeted at homeowners within the watershed.
Changes in Biological Communities
The loss of native species and the influx of invasive species are pressing threats to the biodiversity and function of South Carolina’s coastal ecosystems. Ten federally endangered or threatened species and 23 Federal species of concern are known to occur in the area surrounding North Inlet. The habitat needs and status of species of concern in the North Inlet estuary are assessed through species inventories to determine population size and distribution combined with habitat mapping to quantify habitat areas and monitor change. Education materials on biodiversity and native species conservation issues are also developed to target resource users.
Invasive species of concern to the South Carolina coast include the plants beach vitex (Vitex rotundifolia), common reed (Phragmites australis), Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera), and cogon grass ( Imperata cylindrica), the aquatic plants hydrilla (Hydrilla verticallata) and water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), the marine invertebrates Indo-Pacific crab (Charybdis hellerii), green porcelain crab (Petrolisthes armatus), giant barnacle (Megabalanus coccopoma), and Asian green mussel (Perna viridis). The Stewardship program works with partners to monitor and remove invasive species, and is working with staff of other Southeastern reserves to better facilitate communication and collaboration among non-profit, academic and governmental agencies that are working on invasive species issues.
Habitat alteration of the South Carolina coast has occurred as the result of urban development and the growth of both the resident population and the tourism industry. The actual acreage of isolated wetlands that have been filled in the area surrounding North Inlet is unknown, but it is estimated that of the 4,000 Carolina bays that once existed across the state, fewer than 500 are left. Shoreline hardening also threatens beach habitats as decision makers seek solutions to beach erosion. The Stewardship program addresses these concerns primarily through community education efforts, and by serving as a source of information on critical habitats and possible impacts as a result of proposed actions.
Habitat alteration also occurs as the unintentional result of resource use. Critical habitat areas, such as shore bird nesting areas, are protected by managing visitor use through sign posting and public education programs. Marine debris can also degrade critical habitat areas. Derelict crab traps are of particular concern along the South Carolina coast due to the threats they pose to the diamondback terrapin. The Stewardship program is working to develop a marine debris spotting and removal program within North Inlet, and to increase reserve sponsorship of beach sweep and river sweep events.
Climate change and associated sea level rise will alter habitat distribution as temperature, precipitation, and tidal flooding regimes are affected, and the maintenance of critical habitat types is dependent upon our responses to a changing landscape. The Stewardship program is working with partners to examine the potential effects of sea level rise and climate change on critical estuarine habitats and to establish conservation planning methods, such as the development of land acquisition plans, which will help to protect these habitats.