By Sarah Burnheimer
For Lowcountry residents, wildlife and wild places make up the blueprint of our backyard. We are fortunate to go about each day with a soundtrack of crashing waves, cawing seagulls and wind whirling through marsh grass. Soft, salty air is often filled with the distinctive smell of pluff mud, and water is everywhere – physically, throughout our memories and in our plans for the weekend.
On any given day in the Lowcountry, one can trek through the swamplands, wade in the salt marsh and stroll along a sandy beach. This area is comprised of many ecosystems, and in each one, wildlife awaits.
In the swamps, bald cypress trees tower above everything. Reaching staggering heights of up to 120 feet, these trees are exceptionally resilient and thrive in the warm, aquatic environments common to this area. They have a unique natural support system comprised of vertical knobby “knees” growing from their underwater roots. These knees provide interesting insights into the tree and its surroundings. Typically, the more knees you see, the older the tree. The taller the knees, the deeper the water. It’s a mystery if bald cypress trees have always had this biological trait or if it evolved over time because of environmental pressures.
The scaly bodies of American alligators can usually be seen along swamp banks. Their rounded snouts showcase 70-80 teeth that give them the appearance of a permanent smile. Often seen basking in the sunlight with their mouths wide open, alligators possess unique ways to adapt to their surrounding environment. As ectothermic animals, they take on the temperature of their outdoor world. Sunbathing warms them up, and the open-jawed behavior cools them down, providing them with a remarkable ability to adapt to the variable temperatures of our coastal landscape.
When the swamp shifts to a salt marsh ecosystem, marsh cord grass can be seen in every direction. Also known as Spartina alterniflora, this cornerstone plant is able to grow while submerged in water and is incredibly influential in sustaining many types of life in the Lowcountry. It offers a safe refuge for shrimp, fiddler crabs, fish and other animals. And it provides a protective barrier from the ever-changing tides, a vital necessity in a region inundated with rising sea levels and urban development.
Another key player that helps protect the shoreline against relentlessly changing tides are oyster reefs, which are often seen on the outskirts of Spartina grass as high tide recedes. The reefs also serve as a safe haven for different forms of marsh wildlife and they filter marsh water – lots of it. With one oyster responsible for filtering up to 50 gallons each day.
Ah, the beach! The outlying layer of Lowcountry ecosystems, and the one probably most well known to many people. The items found here are more familiar, from the off-white skeletons of sand dollars to lettered olive shells, sea stars and coquina clams digging into the sand.
Every Lowcountry habitat is overwhelmingly beautiful in its own way. However, if we start to look more closely, there are intrusions within the landscape today. Abandoned plastic buckets are buried halfway in the sand. Stuck between the Spartina blades are discarded plastic bags deposited by the wind. And plastic water bottles are found floating along waterways.
Impacts from the Remains of Convenience
Used as a convenience during the hustle and bustle of daily life, plastic is permeating the places we love in the Lowcountry. Single-use plastic is a particularly heinous offender and a large part of the plastic pollution problem. This includes plastic grocery bags, straws, water bottles, utensils, food carryout containers and snack bags.
Studies estimate that seven tons of plastic could be floating in Charleston Harbor, and more is traveling with currents into the open ocean. Coastal regions aren’t the singular culprit of this plastic displacement, though – plastic can be carried throughout South Carolina’s intertwined waterways, causing damage along the way before it lands in the ocean. This unrecycled plastic poses a threat to many species.
Through the eyes of sea turtles, plastic can resemble common components of their diet. A plastic bag floating in the water looks oddly similar to a jellyfish, which loggerhead sea turtles are quick to consume. This ingested plastic can form an impaction in their stomach, hindering chances of survival if left untreated. Sea turtles also face entanglement from discarded monofilament fishing line.
Thankfully, the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Care Center™ is on hand at all hours to treat sea turtles that are affected by plastic in our area. But the numbers are increasing. Out of the 20 sea turtles that have been admitted with plastic-induced injuries since the Aquarium’s founding, 15 of those turtles arrived within the past three years.
A loggerhead sea turtle named Midway was one of the Aquarium’s earliest patients affected by plastic. He was covered in leeches and barnacles, a heavy load to bear when you’re also lethargic. After stabilizing him, the waiting game began. Within one 24-hour period, Midway passed 59 pieces of plastic, including a latex balloon and two types of plastic grocery bags. As the plastic finally left his system, Midway began to improve, allowing for his successful release at Isle of Palms County Park.
Clumpy came into the Aquarium’s care after he was caught “stealing” bait from fishermen and breaking their fishing lines underneath a pier. Clumpy was also missing his front right flipper, most likely caused by fishing line entanglement. Like Midway, Clumpy also passed many pieces of plastic during his recovery. Thankfully, his wounds healed and his voracious appetite was regained. Fewer than six months after arrival, Clumpy swam away into the Gulf Stream during an offshore boat release.
Though these sea turtles’ journeys have happy endings, if we can ultimately stop plastic from entering their homes, we can better protect this treasured species, along with the Lowcountry places we love.
The Ebb and Flow of Environmental Efforts
Respecting the environment is second nature to many Lowcountry residents. Times have taught us to care about conservation, and reducing plastic pollution is something anyone and everyone can rally behind.
Communities like Isle of Palms and Mt. Pleasant are on the frontlines of fighting the plastic pollution problem. Their successful efforts on the legislative level have been instrumental: Plastic bags and other plastic products were banned from use within their municipal borders. Studies have shown that communities implementing plastic bans have seen a 70 percent decline in plastic pollution, an incredible feat. As more Lowcountry communities partake in reducing plastic pollution, these numbers will only continue to improve.
The efforts don’t end there. Local nonprofit organizations are helping citizens get involved to keep the Lowcountry clean and green. South Carolina Aquarium, Surfrider Foundation, Coastal Conservation League, Charleston Waterkeeper and Plastic Free Lowcountry, to name a few, prominently serve as experts on this environmental issue at outreach events in an effort to teach everyone about alternatives to plastic pollution. They also routinely plan litter sweeps and beach cleanups, encouraging others to participate in keeping plastic out of our communities.
Many businesses have also taken a stand by enacting their own set of solutions to plastic pollution, especially in the food and beverage industry. Plastic utensils, straws, cups and other items are staples in a restaurant environment. However, these are also some of the most commonly found types of plastic pollution in waterways. Locally, numerous restaurants and food establishments have opted for reusable items in lieu of single-use plastic items or eliminated them altogether.
Together, the efforts of government entities, nonprofit organizations and businesses have contributed to the reduction of plastic pollution on a local level – but the work doesn’t end there. Every native and tourist alike has an opportunity to protect each Lowcountry landscape and each species that resides within its beauty.
The Solutions Are In Our Hands
No act is too small to stop the spread of plastic pollution. The actions of every individual can help produce a wave of positive change in our communities.
The next time you step foot on a beautiful Lowcountry beach, take action to save the wildlife that lives there from plastic pollution and other human-induced threats. Follow the mantra of “leave no trace” – meaning anything you bring to the beach, you should leave with as well. And of course, participate in litter sweeps whenever possible.
Another simple solution is to stop using single-use plastic. Skip or substitute plastic straws with a reusable steel or glass option. Be prepared for your next grocery run by storing a reusable bag in your purse or car. Bring a refillable water bottle to stay hydrated during daily activities.
Also, support local environmental and nonprofit organizations and their collaborative work to protect the places we love. There’s no shortage of these dedicated, driven organizations, and financial support, volunteer efforts and word-of-mouth recommendations all play a pivotal role in sustaining their efforts.
Finally, take time to enjoy the incredible environment around you. Everyone in the Charleston Lowcountry, whether a visitor or resident, is fortunate to be in a place this diverse and beautiful, where every day can lead to new sights and adventures.
Sarah Burnheimer is Marketing Communications Coordinator at the South Carolina Aquarium.