How Ocean Pollution is Injuring South Carolina’s Marine Animals

Our world is a trashy society, and that is causing big problems to oceans and the marine life that call it home.

“I hope we would be more enlightened about throwing trash in the oceans,” said Dr. Dan Abel, a marine biologist at Coastal Carolina University. “This was something that was done in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; then the environmental movement was supposed to educate people.”

According to the Ocean Conservancy, more marine debris was found in the United States than any of the other 65 countries in 2007.

Roland Geyer tallied how much plastic people have manufactured since its invention and he came up with more than eight-point-three billion metric tons. Geyer says that can cover the size of Argentina, which is the eighth-largest country in the world.

That translates to an estimated 14 billion pounds of trash -most of it plastic -is dumped in the world’s oceans every year.

Abel says that plastic trash is causing big problems for the sharks and sea turtles that swim off the coast of Myrtle Beach.

Plastics don’t usually break down entirely, but they break down into small components which organisms ingest. There are chemicals in there, and plastics themselves can block digestive tracts,” said Abel.

According to a study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin about the impacts of plastics entering whales’ diets, found that since plastics cannot be digested, it sits in the stomach without being able to go anywhere.

This can affect more than 600 species of marine animals.

Caroline Collatos, a graduate student at Coastal Carolina University, says she has seen first-hand the damage plastics can cause.

“Both of my field seasons so far I have seen direct evidence of plastic physically harming and cutting into sharks,” said Collatos.

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Juvenile Sandbar Shark with plastic embedded in its neck.
Photo Courtesy: Dr. George Boneillo, Marine Biologist at Coastal Carolina University

Last year Collatos and her team caught two sharks that were suffering from plastic wounds. One shark, a female black tip, had the plastic cord wrapped around her neck. Collatos says it cut her so deep the muscle was showing.

Collatos believes this shark was already halfway through her healing period when she was caught.

“Sharks can be very resilient when it comes to wounds, and they have a very fast and effective healing process,” said Collatos. “This shark was halfway through her original healing period, so her original wounds must have been much worse than what we saw.”

A few weeks later a female Juvenile Sandbar shark was caught. That shark was also suffering from plastic injuries. This time it was plastic cord used to wrap around a box that cut into this shark’s fifth gill.

Both plastics were removed from each shark; they were tagged and released.

Abel says the sharks are incredibly lucky they were caught.

“We were able to save both sharks, but they would have certainly died within weeks if we had not caught it on a long line and removed the strap,” said Abel.

According to the State of the Oceans Summit, it is estimated that 90 percent of the world shark population has disappeared in the last 50 years. The reason is that of the trash accumulation in the waters.

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   Female Juvenile Sandbar Shark, tagged and released in Winyah Bay.                                  Photo: Sharon Tutrone

Abel, who has more than 30 years of experience researching sharks, has been shark tagging in Winyah Bay for more than 15 years. He started the program to give his undergraduate and graduate students a chance to study Juvenile Sandbar sharks.

Abel says shark tagging allows researchers the opportunity to study the movements of these ocean predators and why they like to frequent certain waters over others. The sharks can have a tag placed near the shark’s dorsal fin, or they can have an acoustic telemeter inserted into the abdomen of the shark.

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To see the possible shark path of one of the sharks tagged in Winyah Bay, click on the picture above

Winyah Bay is a prime location to go shark tagging because it has a huge watershed. It drains 18-thousand square miles, with four different rivers dumping into the Bay. It is also the primary pathway to the Atlantic Ocean.

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Four rivers that flow into Winyah Bay.
Infographic made using Animaps.

Many fishing vessels, sharks, and sea turtles all share this open water. The increase in congestion means more pollution, and sharks are not the only animals at risk.

How Ocean Pollution is Injuring South Carolina's Marine Animals

Sea turtles also suffer dangerous consequences from ocean debris.

“Sea turtles have a really small brain, and they eat a lot of things that look like trash. They will eat a lot of jellies and fish and so they will mistake trash for their prey,” said Ann Wilson, park ranger. “Their brains are so little they won’t learn from their mistakes.”

Wilson works at Myrtle Beach State Park and says a lot of the trash that ends up in the ocean begins at the beach.

“It is because of our picnics, or what we take to a fishing pier. Even out on the roadway with wind and then it blows out towards the ocean,” said Wilson.

But Wilson feels fishermen pose the biggest threat to our sea turtles.

“To me, fishing line is a really slow death. As an animal keeps growing it’s going to keep strangling and strangling. It’s not going to be a quick easy death,” said Wilson.

When a sea turtle gets caught in fishing line, that is where the biologists at the South Carolina Aquarium come into play. They nurse these injured animals back to health.

“We see plastic ingestion, many of our turtles will eat the plastic out in the wild or pass it in their tank or pass it while they are here in rehab,” said Katelyn McGlothlin, a sea turtle biologist at the South Carolina Aquarium. “We had two patients we had to do surgery on to remove that plastic, which was fishing line that the animal had ingested. It was wrapped around her neck and front left flipper.”

McGlothin says that many of their patients who have ingested plastic will pass it on their own, and will spend seven to nine months in their aquarium recovering.

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A baby blacktip shark caught on a long line. It was tagged and released in Winyah Bay.
Photo: Sharon Tutrone

While some work daily to save the lives of these marine animals, there are others who are not aware of the dangers plastics pose to sharks or turtles.

“It’s very disturbing I honestly did not realize that was happening and that was going on with the animals,” said Loes Muller, beachgoer.

Muller says she is better educated now since seeing pictures of sharks with plastic wrapped around their necks. She says she will help educate others enjoying the beach to make sure everyone does their part to save marine life.

“I feel a lot of people don’t realize what they are doing and how it is affecting the animals out in the ocean,” said Muller.

According to the Marine Conservation, we should treat our oceans as our life support. To survive, we all need healthy oceans.

Therefore, those who live near beaches or visit them can make a difference when it comes to taking out the trash.

“Don’t use a straw at a local restaurant and keep reusable bags in your car,” said Collatos.

For more tips on how you can reduce ocean pollution, visit Greenpeace.org.

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Sharks of Coastal South Carolina. Why is Winyah Bay such a popular spot for these ocean predators?

Many who live in Myrtle Beach have heard of Winyah Bay. It is where the Waccamaw, Pee Dee, Black and the Sampit River all drain into South Carolina.

But did you know it also makes for a great place to raise kids? Shark “kids” that is.

“Winyah Bay is a primary and secondary nursery. A primary nursery is where an animal will go and give birth, and a secondary nursery will be where that baby then grows up,” said Caroline Collatos, a graduate student in the marine science department at Coastal Carolina University.

Collatos believes that Winyah Bay is a secondary nursery for three different species of sharks.

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Baby Blacktip shark caught in   Winyah Bay. Shark was tagged and released.                                Photo: Sharon Tutrone

“The evidence we collected is showing us that this bay provides an area for these juveniles to grow up and hopefully become sexually reproductive and add to the population,” said Collatos.

Sharks move due to the change of season. Some sharks are more tolerant to colder or warmer temperatures which decide when they leave an area.

“Winyah Bay has both cold water and warm water species. In the winter we have two different species that use the bay. They are spiny dogfish and smooth dogfish sharks,” said Collatos. “In the summer, we have four species that use the bay frequently; the most dominant species is the Juvenile Sandbar shark.”

Collatos says a lot of juvenile sharks that grow up in Winyah Bay eventually move out to coastal areas. But they have also seen older sharks make their way into the bay as well.

“We also have a lot of older adult sharks that come into Winyah Bay to feed on smaller sharks or other prey,” said Collatos.

Sharks are not the only animal that heads to Winyah Bay to mate. Recently the CCU Shark research team caught a female stingray that had two males trying to mate with her as the team brought her in on the fishing line.

So why are the waters of Winyah Bay so attractive to sharks? It is a question Coastal Carolina marine biologists are hoping to answer through their tag and release program.

Dr. Dan Abel, a marine biologist with CCU, started the research program more than 15 years ago. He takes a group of undergraduate and graduate marine biology students out to Winyah Bay to study Juvenile Sandbar Sharks.

“One of our aims is to simply look at the demographics of shark populations,” said Abel. “What factors influence the presence and absence and the diversity of sharks in ecosystems.”

The process of tracking sharks is tedious and precise. Abel and his students bait 25 hooks on a line that is 150 meters long. The line has floats and anchors at both ends. Once the lines are in the water, they soak for 30-45 minutes. The students then hand pull the line in, hoping they have a shark on one of the hooks.

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Long lines are baited with Mackerel. Photo: Sharon Tutrone

 

“Acoustic telemeters are little pingers,” said Abel. “We make a two-inch incision in the abdomen and put a double A battery-sized instrument inside, sew it back up, and it will ping every 60 to 90 seconds. For us to get information on where the shark is, it has to go by an acoustic receiver. Fortunately, there’s a ray of receivers up and down the coast and worldwide.”

Acoustic tagging allows CCU students to track the movements of return visitors to Winyah Bay.

Besides the tagging trips to Winyah Bay, Dr. Abel takes his students every May to the Shark Lab in Bimini, which is located in the Bahamas. Abel says the students get an up close and personal look at the sharks and the stingrays. Abel says everything they learn in Bimini prepares them for their Winyah Bay tagging trips.

To learn more about the Coastal Carolina shark research team’s findings, click here.

 

With two shark bites near Myrtle Beach, is it safe to go in the ocean? 

It’s a sign summer is here. The smell of salt in the air, children playing on the beach, and shark bites dominating local news headlines.

So far, there have been two shark bites off the coast of Myrtle Beach. The first was last month near Pawleys Island. Investigators say a man was bitten on the foot during a morning swim.

A few weeks later a 36-year-old woman was swimming off the coast of Folly Beach, which is just south of Myrtle Beach when she was bitten on her left foot.

Both victims have recovered.

Dr. Dan Abel, a marine biologist at Coastal Carolina University, says most of the time sharks have no interest in humans. But he says, there are some things you can do to prevent a trip to the hospital.

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Sign informing swimmers of beach warning flags at 48th Ave.               North in Myrtle Beach.             Photo: Sharon Tutrone

“Don’t swim at dawn or dusk. That is when many sharks feed,” said Abel. “Avoid swimming near piers where people are fishing and if you see a school of fish, get out of the water.”

What about that fin above the water line, does that mean a shark is coming after you?

“No, that does not mean they are coming after you. Most of the time people see a wave or a dolphin,” said Caroline Collatos, a graduate student in the marine science department. “Sharks rarely do this, and when they do, they’re coming to the surface to eat a piece of fish scrap, or they may be chasing prey that swam up to the surface.”

There is a small chance that a shark will bite you, but if you do go in the ocean here are some tips to make that risk even lower.

  1. Swim in a group. Sharks usually bite someone swimming alone.
  2. Don’t swim too far from shore. Doing so places you away from help.
  3. If you are bleeding, don’t enter the water. Sharks can smell blood, and trace it back to its source.
  4. Keep shiny jewelry at home. The reflection of the light looks like shining fish scales.
  5. Don’t swim in waters containing sewage. Sewage attracts bait fish, which attract sharks.

For more beach safety tips click here.

Research unravels the mystery of sharks and what brings them to Myrtle Beach

(The lines are baited with Mackerel, as Coastal Carolina University students set out on a shark tagging trip on Winyah Bay. Photo: Sharon Tutrone)

Shark research off the Myrtle Beach coast reveals valuable information on the movements of these ocean predators and why they like the Carolinas.

“We have seen up to 10 different kinds of sharks in Winyah Bay,” said Dr. Dan Abel, a marine biologist at Coastal Carolina University.

Abel, who started the research program more than 15 years ago, takes a group of undergraduate and graduate marine biology students out to Winyah Bay to study Juvenile Sandbar Sharks.

“One of our aims is to simply look at the demographics of shark populations,” said Abel. “How stable are they? What factors influence the presence and absence and the diversity of sharks in ecosystems.”

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Coastal Carolina Marine Biology students bait the hooks on a recent shark tagging trip to Winyah Bay. Photo: Sharon Tutrone

The process of tracking sharks is tedious and precise. Abel and his students bait 25 hooks on a line that is 150 meters long. The line has floats and anchors at both ends. Once the lines are in the water, they soak for 30-45 minutes. The students then hand pull the line in, hoping they have a shark on one of the hooks.

“We typically catch as many as zero to 10 sharks per long line,” said Abel. “When we do catch a shark, depending on its size we usually identify and measure it in the water, then we tag and release it.”

This type of tag-and-release research can tell a lot about different shark biology.

“We learn possible migration movements, growth rate estimates, habitats they utilize, and possible population estimates,” said Caroline Collatos, a graduate student in the marine science department.

Depending on what the group’s goals are, Abel said, they put a tag in the shark’s dorsal fin or place acoustic telemeters in the abdomen of the shark.

“Acoustic telemeters are little pingers,” said Abel. “We make a two-inch incision in the abdomen and put a double A battery-sized instrument inside, sew it back up, and it will ping every 60 to 90 seconds. In order for us to get information on where the shark is, it has to go by an acoustic receiver. Fortunately, there’s a ray of receivers up and down the coast and worldwide.”

Acoustic tagging allows CCU students to track the movements of return visitors to Winyah Bay.

“Acoustic tagging has shown Juvenile Sandbar Sharks return to the bay for up to a month at a time. We think they use the bay as a seasonal habitat to feed, grow, and escape predation from larger sharks,” said Collatos.

Collatos says Winyah Bay is a habitat for mostly Juvenile Sandbar Sharks.

Atlantic Sharpnose sharks, Finetooth sharks, and Blacktip sharks also visit the area.

To learn more about the Coastal Carolina shark research team’s findings, click here.