sustainable exploitation

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources explanation for their most recent initiative to gin up support for their activities in the populace (“develop an environmental ethic,” in Spud Woodward, the Director’s words) reads as follows:

 Coastal Georgia Ecosystem Report Card
Click here to view the report.

The Coastal Georgia Ecosystem Report Card is an important tool for planning restoration activities and conservation. It provides a transparent, timely, and geographically detailed assessment of health in coastal Georgia. Coastal Georgia health is defined as the progress of indicators toward scientifically-derived thresholds or goals. The twelve indicators in the report card examine human health, fisheries and wildlife.

Ecological report cards are considered a public friendly way to provide a timely and geographically detailed assessment of ecosystems and rivers. Report cards provide a numeric grade or letter that is similar to a school report card, allowing for quick and understandable results to a broad audience.

Everyone who didn’t attend the presentation by two academics from the University of Maryland (the universe minus about two dozen people) owes me. And, while I did carry home the eight page glossy (plus a printed page of verbiage) handout, I have to admit that I haven’t read it and likely won’t. I took notes and will use those to provide a quick run down of a presentation that, according to the scientists, is similar to what they’re doing all over the globe.

But first, let me admit that the GA DNR self-assessment quoted above is accurate. They do think that pieces of paper and good intentions are “tools” and that the march of “indicators” is synonymous with goals. That goals are to be “derived,” rather than achieved, is further evidence for why nothing much of value comes out of that building under the Sidney Lanier Bridge.

Why “ecosystems and rivers” are referred to as separate entities is a puzzlement, unless it is an upfront admission that the major rivers on the Georgia coast, the Savannah and the Altamaha, aren’t actually included in the report card because those water bodies aren’t covered in the 150 “scientific data sets” that were reviewed. Water quality data, in general, weren’t included because “that’s an EPD (Environmental Protection Division) issue” and, for some unexplained reason, “they weren’t available to participate today.” Also, it seems, the data collectors couldn’t agree on the significance of the water quality data they do have. So, they just left it out and concluded that coliform bacteria in samples collected from the beaches and which are usually within “acceptable limits” would serve as indicators of human health.

I often find it useful to look for “the thing left out” when I’m considering any issue. The problem here is that just about everything put in by the GA DNR is worthless when it comes to environmental and public health. When the scientists were asked what surprised them about the Georgia coast, this ecologically unique environment, all one could come up with was the fact that “you have right whales.”

But, let me turn to my notes:

  • The presenters, Heath Kelsey and Alexandra Fries from the University of Maryland, obviously aim for their report on the Georgia coast to be the first of an annual product, similar to what they prepare for Chesapeake Bay. Their methodology is to consider the “big picture” via indicators to define “health” by correlating scores and then communicate the results to the public.
  • Because the GA DNR is focused on the “management of resources” — i.e. making sure that the exploitation of nature by man can be sustained, there’s been little sampling of the Altamaha and Savannah Rivers. That these water bodies are being exploited to the fullest by industries, whose pollution has rendered the fish and crustaceans inedible, wasn’t mentioned in the presentation. (The only protection extended to “impaired waters” is to restrict access by new sources of pollution).
  • “Fish advisories” — i.e. a notice to the public that the fish they catch in our water bodies ought not to be eaten on a regular basis — are recognized as potential indicators of human health, but weren’t included in this particular report. Perhaps they’ll be used in future years. That there has been a significant decline in the female blue crab population is now being blamed by the fish and game people alternatively on “cool weather,” high fresh water flows or some other, unknown, environmental insult.
  • Because the data processors couldn’t agree on a threshold for water quality assessment, local data were left out and the national standards, which are promulgated by the EPA, were deemed inapplicable to the local area. So, despite having a 150 data set, the GADNR has to admit to significant gaps, which can’t be filled because “there aren’t enough staff”.

Other matters brought up in the Question and Answer session were:

  1. That the indicators in each report are unique and should not be compared. So, conditions in Chesapeake Bay, where blue crab populations also happen to be decreasing, should not be compared with what’s happening here.
  2. That eleven thousand individuals and stakeholders were notified about the report. The small number of attendees at the presentation, augmented by some participants in a webinar, is not concerning because the presenters had a good interview with the press earlier.
  3. That the dolphin population, which, unlike the whales, is actually resident in the region, was not included in the indicator data set is to be blamed on insufficient staff. Ditto for overlooking marsh mammals and microorganisms.
  4. That industrial and chemical contaminants aren’t tracked.
  5. That it is possible future reports will include data from the Riverkeepers who monitor our major waterways.
  6. That the purpose of the “indicators” is to “reflect” negative influences — i.e. the report is an indirect process and not aimed at corrective action.

Which, come to think of it, school reports have devolved into, as well.


Monica Smith

Monica Smith writes Hannah's Blog. Born in Germany, she came to the United States as a child, living first in California, then after an interval in Chile, in New York. Married to a retired professor at the University of Florida, where she lived for 17 years, she moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia, in 1993 and now divides her time between Georgia and New Hampshire. (New Hampshire, she says, is always interesting during a presidential election.) She and her husband have three children and five grandchildren. Ms. Smith says she "learned long ago that I am not a good team player when I got hired at the Library of Congress, fresh out of college with a degree in political science and proficiency in four foreign languages, to 'edit' library cards and informed my supervisor that if she was going to insist I punch the clock exactly on time, my productivity was going to fall from being the highest to being the same as everyone else's. The supervisor opted to assign me to another building where there was no time-clock. After I had the first of our three children, I decided a paycheck wasn't worth the hassle."

One Comment
  1. A remarkable deficiency in this report that’s been overlooked by all commenters [as far as I know] is that DNR’s own Coastal Advisory Council [CAC] knew nothing about this ‘report card’ assessment until it was released to the public. Surely the agency’s own advisory group should have been involved in editing, if not producing it. After all,, the CAC is supposed to be guiding the implementation and improvement of Georgia’s ‘Coastal Management Program’ – so a central role in evaluating the region’s ecosystem would be fundamental to that mission.

    Another common pattern of malfeasance at DNR that’s not disclosed in this evaluation – yet evident statewide throughout Georgia’s pretense of ‘resource management’ – is that data gathering and assessment are woefully insufficient to determine conditions and causes vital to achieving true natural-resource management. Accordingly, for example, after decades since adopting the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act and the Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Act regulatory programs, no studies have ever been done to determine the effectiveness of specific decisions made under current practices – and none are mandated or planned.

    It seems that those in charge would rather not really know how regulatory activities are actually working – in part because failures revealed would be politically embarrassing but also because having such information would compel improving practices that would be likely to constrain those who profit by exploiting the public’s natural resources. Thus, stabbing in the dark is preferred to – and much cheaper than – conducting a full-blown comprehensive program of legitimate coastal resource management. It’s equally discouraging that the federal agency funding Georgia’s coastal program [at about $1.8 million annually], NOAA, is also politically compromised and therefore unable and unwilling to expose such profound inadequacies.

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