Community & Service
The Plastic Ocean Project Takes on Cape Hatteras
By Arisa Yoon, Broadreach Alumni Student & Staff
Arisa Yoon was a student on the 2014 Caribbean Marine Conservation program and went on to be a Caribbean base staff member for Broadreach in 2015. Currently a sophomore Marine Biology major at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, she has been active in The Plastic Ocean Project at UNCW, the organization’s first campus chapter. She wrote this piece for us about their latest project working to have Cape Hatteras designated as a “Hope Spot.”
CAPE HATTERAS: A PLACE FOR HOPE
The UNCW Plastic Ocean Project is the first student chapter of The Plastic Ocean Project, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to protect and preserve the oceans by addressing the global plastic pollution problem. Those of us at UNCW chapter of The Plastic Ocean Project were recently inspired by world-renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle and her documentary Mission Blue to work to designate a portion of the continental slope 40 miles offshore of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina as a “Hope Spot.” Cape Hatteras is on Hatteras Island, one of the barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks.
A Hope Spot is a “special place critical to the health of the ocean.” Designating the area as such would mean the support of the Sylvia Earle Alliance in our advocacy efforts to protect and increase awareness of this unique habitat and its vital role in the oceans’ ecosystems. According to the Sylvia Earle Alliance, such networks “of marine protected areas maintain healthy biodiversity, provide a carbon sink and generate life-giving oxygen.”
While the Hope Spot designation does not carry the same weight as formal governmental protection, it has the potential to draw the attention of both individuals and institutions who can work to influence public opinion and policy to protect the area.
Why is Cape Hatteras worth protecting?
THE CONTINENTAL SLOPE
Cape Hatteras is the closest landmass to the continental slope on North America’s eastern coast. The continental slope is roughly 40 miles offshore of Cape Hatteras, which helps explain the variety of marine plant and animal life present in the area.
Numerous species of marine mammals are known to frequent this region to forage for food. In fact according to current scientific literature, Cape Hatteras has the highest density and degree of biodiversity of marine mammals along the U.S.’s east coast. Many of the species found in the area are listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) and are therefore federally protected. These species include the sperm, North Atlantic right, humpback, sei, fin and blue whales and Risso’s dolphins.
We in North Carolina are lucky enough to have five of the seven species of sea turtles inhabiting the waters off our coast and using our beaches for nesting. However, all five species are threatened, endangered or critically endangered; protecting their habitats is key to saving these gentle creatures from extinction. North Carolina has a large population of sea turtles that nest on its beaches—of the 25 North Carolina beaches monitored for sea turtle nesting activity, the beaches of the Outer Banks consistently rank among the most active, accounting for 52% of the state’s sea turtle nests.
Because of the interaction of different currents, large clumps of Sargassum, a free-floating brown algae, consistently aggregate just off of Cape Hatteras. Sargassum found off the North Carolina coast is home to an astonishing 81 species of fish.
THE FISHING INDUSTRY
The waters of Cape Hatteras are some of the most important fishing sites on the United States’ eastern coast. The variety of fish found in this region makes it a popular area for fishing charters. The region is home to the spotted sea trout, striped bass, king mackerel, spot fish, flounder, Northern and Southern kingfish, grey trout, croaker, speckled trout, bluefish, red drum, cobia, blue and white marlin, tuna, wahoo and mahi mahi. The presence of so many types of popular fishes is a vital part of the coastal North Carolina economy.
WHAT WE CAN DO TO HELP
All of Cape Hatteras’s biodiversity has become increasingly vulnerable to ocean acidification, global sea-level rise, marine debris, sonar testing and the possibility of offshore oil drilling.
Less than 4% of the world’s oceans are under some type of formal protection, compared with about 12% of the world’s land. In order to continue living on this earth, we must invest in the health of our oceans and its ecosystems like that of Cape Hatteras, and serve as ambassadors for the systems that sustain us. We at the UNCW Plastic Oceans Project firmly believe that a small group of individuals can enact change and that’s just what we intend to do!
The UNCW Plastic Ocean Project recognizes the financial and environmental value of this area, and we have made it our mission to protect it. In doing so, we encourage you to sign our petition, visit our website to learn more about our outreach efforts and watch a short documentary we have made on the subject.