Why sharks are thriving near the NC coast

Climate change is negatively impacting our relationship with our state’s coast. Our famous beaches are taking a heavy hit from rising sea levels. Meanwhile, loss of property, loss of natural coastal habitats, and changes to our fisheries threaten our economic well being.

Sea levels are rising especially fast in the southeast, bringing potentially devastating losses to property values and real estate. Hurricane damage and chronic flooding due to rising seas a huge concerns. By 2045, more than 15,000 homes are at risk of being flooded on more than 26 days every year.

In addition to the property losses, so much sand is being eroded from beaches at Nag’s Head that the state spent $36 million to pump new sand from the sea floor onto beaches in 2014 and will spend $48 million in 2018. This brings total state spending on beach nourishment since 1990 to $640 million. The rising costs of beach nourishment impacts our state’s coastal tourism economy, which brought in an estimated $3 billion in 2013 according to N.C. Department of Commerce. With sea level predicted to rise at least 1 foot and by as many as 8 feet by 2100, there is much at risk.

Sea-level rise is not our only problem. Pamlico Sound had changed from an occasional feeding ground to a shark nursery as a direct result of climate change. Pamlico Sound already had many of the features of a good bull shark nursery: ocean access, proper salinity, and plenty of prey fish. The only missing piece was warmer water temperature. While adult bull sharks have been occasionally encountered in the sound for a long time, the sudden appearance and consistent presence of juveniles after 2011 signaled a change that has been correlated with rising water temperatures, particularly during late spring and early summer when bull sharks give birth.

Shark bites on humans are rare and these baby bull sharks are too small to pose a threat, but they signify something potentially more frightening. Northward range shifts are occurring all along the coast of North America, as marine species move north into areas that only a decade ago were too cold for them. Sharks aren’t the only species on the move. Some fisheries are already being affected by their target species leaving as conditions become too warm and new species moving in to replace them. In North Carolina, fishermen may soon struggle to keep up as important commercial species like black sea bass and monkfish range farther north.

While warming waters and rising seas threaten our state and nation, we believe that it is not too late to swerve away from the worst of the damage. We join in a bipartisan army of economic and policy experts in support of Carbon Fee and Dividend, a proposal that has bipartisan support in the nation’s capital and promises to send a market signal to shift our economy to a low-carbon footing.

Chuck Bangley and his crew catch and measure a female Blacknose Shark during a research trip off the North Carolina coast near Cape Lookout on Sunday, July 11, 2015. The team hopes to varify and identify the species of sharks found in the estuary waters of the sounds. Tegan Johnston tjohnston@newsobserver.com

This policy is economically feasible and will reduce carbon emissions. It starts by placing a small fee ($15 per ton) on carbon at its point of entry into the economy. The fee increases by $10 per ton per year, thereby incentivizing a switch to renewable energy sources. Fees collected from this program are returned to American households equally in the form of a monthly energy dividend. Border tariffs on imports from all countries that lack a similar system would protect U.S. businesses and encourage other countries to adopt similar legislation.

Under this scenario, cutting carbon emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels within two decades is possible. The carbon fee and dividend model is championed by Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

The United States needs to spearhead this effort and set an example for the rest of the world. We call on members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation to step up to the plate and join the climate solutions caucus and on our senators to support carbon fee and dividend legislation.

Charles Bangley, PhD, is with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Justin Baumann, PhD, is with the UNC Department of Marine Sciences. Melissa Malkin-Weber, sustainability director for the Center for Community Self-Help in Durham and Jen Almond of Cary contributed. Opinions are those of the authors, not their employers.