Environmental advocates came together Thursday at the Georgia Aquarium to celebrate the special designation of the continental shelf and the Blake Plateau off the Georgia coast as an “international Hope Spot” through the Mission Blue alliance.
Friday, they gathered again in Savannah to discuss the designation and what they hope it means for Georgia’s marine life.
Joe Pfaller, a sea turtle biologist with the Caretta Research Project on Wassaw Island, said the geologic area provides a home for the sea turtles for which the Georgia coast is known.
“The turtles don’t only nest on the coast of Georgia, they also use the continental shelf off Georgia’s coast for foraging — that’s where they spend the majority of their time,” Pfaller said. “So, along with things like right whales and white sharks and other protected species that are also in the public eye, sea turtles are spending a lot of time off Georgia’s coast. This area also includes Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, where our turtles spend a lot of time.”
He noted that the massive width of the continental shelf provides huge ecological diversity.
“So, it’s a critical piece of habitat for the turtles that nest not only in Georgia, but all the way down into Florida, where you have a globally important sea turtle nesting population that nests in Florida but sometimes comes up to the Georgia coast during their offseason,” Pfaller said.
Simona Perry, a marine mammal scientist with extensive expertise in conservation, said the Hope Spot designation carries with it four goals — a preservation site linking habitats across the area, support and awareness of sustainable fisheries, prevention and reduction of marine and nutrient pollution, and reducing adverse effects to North Atlantic right whales while actively assisting their recovery.
Charles McMillan, coastal director of the Georgia Conservancy, said the designation is an inspiration.
“I think this new designation as a Hope Spot is a wonderful chance for us all to be a part of something larger,” McMillan said. “I love the way that Joe mentioned the megafauna and all the impacts and importance with the turtles. The Georgia Conservancy, we’re doing our part right now — particularly looking in at this … (congressional right whale conservation legislation), which was cosponsored by (U.S. Sen. Johnny) Isakson over the last month or so. It plays right in to the theme of what we’re doing with this Hope Spot.”
The effort to achieve the designation came through Perry, Oceana Georgia campaign organizer Paulita Bennett-Martin and Catapult Design CEO Angela Hariche, who worked out the details and took the proposal to oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue coalition.
“I’m just really thrilled to meet with the other partners and get to know them and really look at innovative ways we can further the cause,” Hariche said.
She mentioned the problem of marine debris was a driving force here.
“If we look at marine pollution, there are a million tiny design challenges as to how we tackle that problem,” Hariche said. “If you look at our Hope Spot, it’s 16,865 square miles. According to the U.N., there are on average 8,078 pieces of plastic litter to be found on every square mile of the ocean. So, that amounts to an estimated 136,235,470 pieces of plastic litter in our Hope Spot, and all of which comes from land activities, basically.”
She said people need to look at all sorts of ways to address this problem, and she’s looking forward to finding those solutions.