In 2004, fishermen were reeling in flounder in record numbers off Springmaid Pier in Myrtle Beach. No one seemed to know why.
By chance, Dr. Susan Libes, a marine science professor at Coastal Carolina University, was testing for stormwater runoff contamination in that area at the same time. Her sampling discovered that oxygen in the water around the pier was at surprisingly low levels. The flounder were suffocating.
It was a "dead zone", an area where fish struggle to survive due to hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in the water.
Regular monitoring of oxygen levels began off Apache Pier in 2006. Since then, Libes' testing has found further evidence of hypoxia in the ocean off the Grand Strand, though the reasons for it are unclear. Libes said it's probably a combination of factors involving various physical and chemical conditions along the area.
"Because of the shape of our shoreline, we don't have very good mixing of the near shore waters with the coastal ocean, so the water tends to get penned up and biological activity withdraws oxygen from the water at a faster rate than it can be replenished," Libes said.
Water outflows off the land, whether it's stormwater runoff or groundwater seepage, probably contribute to the problem, she said. But regardless of what's causing the hypoxia, Libes said it's bad news for fish.
"They'll either be outright killed, or if the oxygen impairment is not that bad, for fish, they'll swim away, or otherwise slow down. Reproduction will be interfered."
The ocean off the Grand Strand is so delicate, the area is always right on the edge of having a dead zone problem, she said.
"It just takes a little bit of a nudge in the summer to tip it over to hypoxic conditions, so whatever we can to stabilize the system is going to be helpful."
Libes made a nearly hour-long presentation about hypoxia and related issues at Wednesday's meeting of the Coastal Alliance, a group made up of local mayors and Horry County Council. She said funding to continue the hypoxia monitoring at Apache Pier will run out next month.
Libes said her main goal is to educate local leaders and residents about the problem of dead zones and then let others decide how to handle it.
"I think that science-based management is the preferable way to go, but that's the choice of the community. The fact does remain, without further funding, we do need to shut the gear down in September."
Surfside Beach mayor Alan Deaton said the ocean is the area's most valuable asset, economically and ecologically, and local municipalities should try to find ways to make sure the water monitoring continues.
"When you go looking at your budgets, there's always parts of pots of money. There's hospitality fees, accommodation tax money, recreation money, so we're going to have to go back in each council and look at what's available."
Libes said it costs about $40,000 a year to do the monitoring at Apache Pier, mostly to pay someone to maintain the equipment. Libes would like to expand the monitoring to two more area piers, which she estimated would cost about $75,000 a year.