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Georgia coastal environment scores a B+

The Georgia coast scored a B+ on its first ecosystem report card, issued Friday.

“That’s pretty good,” said Heath Kelsey, program director for the Integration & Application Network at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which collaborated with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to produce the report card. “Healthy ecosystems mean healthy natural resources, a healthy economy and healthy people.”

From Ossabaw to Cumberland, the coast’s history as a playground for Gilded Age tycoons left it relatively undeveloped into the 20th century. Since then, Georgia’s pristine coastal habitats have benefitted from state, federal and private protection, including national wildlife refuges on Wassaw and Blackbeard, a National Seashore on Cumberland and a state heritage preserve on Ossabaw.

Geography also protects the islands, most of which are accessible only by boat. And the landmark 1970 Coastal Marshlands Protection Act has prevented development in the salt marsh, leaving Georgia’s 100-mile coast with a disproportionately large chunk of that key Atlantic Coast habitat.

“You have some fantastic coastal resources here,” Kelsey said. “Fourteen barrier islands that are mostly undeveloped. Great habitats. Rivers. You’ve got lots of salt marsh, 370,000 acres of salt marsh, great nursery grounds for animals.”

The report card team boiled down data from key human health, wildlife and fisheries indicators to come up with letter grades after considering input from more than 150 DNR programs ranging from well water to wood storks. The grades were based on 2014 data.

“We want to distill the key messages out of complex data,” Kelsey said.

Sea turtle nesting trends and the state’s shrimp fishery each scored 100 percent, an A+. Blue crabs scored the lowest at 22 percent, a D- on this scale. The other nine indicators fell in-between.

The human health index of three scores — waterborne enterococcus and fecal coliform bacteria plus fish consumption advisories — achieved an A.

“Overall human health indicators are good, meaning that it is generally safe to swim, as well as to eat local fish and shellfish,” an accompanying report states.

The fisheries index, which looked at shrimp, red drum and blue crab, scored a B, a reflection of sustainable fishing practices and the ability of the environment to support most commercial and recreational species. The blue crab’s low score was affected by a rainy spring that saw the population plummet in 2014, but management to improve its numbers is promising, the report states.

The wildlife index also scored a B, “suggesting that key species of birds, sea turtles and whales are being maintained.” Along with sea turtles, it looked at American oystercatchers, wood storks and right whales.

The Integration & Application Network has produced about 25 report cards for ecosystems ranging from the Chesapeake Bay to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Though different ecosystems are not directly comparable to each other, the Georgia coast’s B+ is the highest grade it’s awarded.

The Georgia DNR paid the University of Maryland about $26,000 to compile the report, using grant funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Coastal Management. It took a year to develop.

In other places environmental report cards have been issued, they’ve spurred pride and some rivalries, with neighboring communities vying for the best grades, Kelsey said.

Coastal Resources Division director Spud Woodward wants Georgia’s B+ to be a message to residents and local governments, who make zoning and other land-use decisions.

“What I hope will happen is that it will not create a false sense of security and complacency,” he said. “It’ll say that we have got to manage the land in a way that protects the water and the marsh.”

The report card will probably be updated, and DNR is moving forward with plans for a 2015 report card, said Jill Andrews, program manager for the Coastal Resources Division of DNR.

In the meantime, the report lists ways residents can get involved to protect coastal resources, including picking up after pets to keep fecal bacteria out of waterways and installing a rain barrel to conserve water.

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For the full report card, go to http://coastalgadnr.org/ReportCard 

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