Hurricane Matthew impacts sea life at Winyah Bay

Hurricane Matthew impacts sea life at Winyah Bay

GEORGETOWN COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The heavy rain from Hurricane Matthew left a vivid mark of damage, but less noticeable, is the mark storm water left as it made its way toward the ocean.

It's there that the extreme weather can also impact marine life. WMBF News Anchor Michael Maely tagged along with CCU scientists for an explanation.

"Yeah, it's a lot of work, yes. I love what I do, I wouldn't change it. I love sharks," said CCU graduate student Caroline Collatos.

The CCU Marine Science students and staff on their boat in Winyah Bay in Georgetown County have their hands full, in the name of research, sending almost 200 long lines into the water since May. Collatos teaches younger students how to sample what's beneath, while she pursues her PhD.

"Ultimate goal of the research is to get a comprehensive picture, what species are in the bay, what time of year they come, why they're using the bay and how that may change from year to year. Are we noticing a decline in populations?" said Collatos. The crew is also testing the amount of salt and organisms in the water.

CCU Professor George Boneillo said the fresh water from heavy rain is much less dense than salt water, so it sits on the top, preventing oxygen from getting to all that's living below. The abundance of fresh water also changes the bay's wildlife makeup.

"Usually we got a lot of croaker and shrimp in this area. Instead, we were catching catfish, for example," said George Boneillo. So a lot of those species that are usually associated with fresh water, were actually washing down into the bay.

"It took a while for that system to rebound. That system was in October and it wasn't until November where we started seeing some of those salinities return to normal," Boneillo said.

And now, after Hurricane Matthew, the crew is seeing results similar to last October's flooding. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources said the saltwater mixture is better now than it was shortly after last year's event. Crews said they're not seeing any fish kills, either.

The storms also impact shark tags and releases. After heavy rain, fewer sharks lead to greater concern.

"Sharks are critical to our oceans, so in order to have healthy oceans, we need to have healthy shark populations," Collatos said. But Friday, there were good signs, she said.

"Today we got a bunch of sharks, some red drums and a sting ray. So, that shows that the sharks are still present in the area this late in their migrating season. And it also shows that we have individuals ranging from adult size to immature babies," she said.

Experts said it's unclear whether the sea life will continue to survive, at healthy levels.

"It's hard to tell if there are long-term impacts. What we do see is it does change the dynamics for at least six weeks sometimes. It's a resilient system, so it does come back, but what will be interesting to look at is what happens if we start getting more and more of these big storm events coming through," Boneillo said.

The researchers said they're hopeful the water mixture will continue to balance itself out, so they'll get to keep seeing what they can't wait to see.

"We love those sharks," Collatos said.

The research program is in its second year. A concern from the testing is the increase in marine debris. Team members said they're seeing more tiny pieces of fabric and plastic in the water. The pollution is just one more risk for marine life. For more information on the team's research, click here.

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