Water quality devices track dead zones off Grand Strand

Dead zones, those areas of low oxygen levels in the ocean that can cause various environmental problems, seem to be showing up more often off the coast of the Grand Strand.

Researchers from Coastal Carolina University have placed water quality monitors on several local piers with the hope that the measurements they gather will help scientists get a better idea of what causes dead zones and perhaps what to do about them.

Scientists from CCU's Environmental Quality Laboratory showed off their newest sensor equipment to reporters Wednesday.

While fishermen at the Cherry Grove Pier work on landing a big one, the CCU lab's sensors in the water beneath their feet quietly gather information about things like ocean temperature, dissolved oxygen and barometric pressure.

That information is sent to a public website, where the CCU scientists can use it to get a better idea of what's going on beneath the ocean surface.

Fishermen can use it, too.

"Different people have different theories about what's the best time to go fishing and fishing for different fish, and so they can form their own opinions, go on there (to the website) and get the data for themselves and plan their day," said Dr. Michael Trapp, the director of CCU's Environmental Quality Lab.

But perhaps the major goal of the monitoring is to find out more about those regions of hypoxia, or low oxygen levels in the ocean, which can lead to fish kills, algae growth and a foul smell.

Researchers think storm water runoff from cities might have something to do with the formation of dead zones along the Grand Strand, but the scientists aren't sure, which is why Trapp says they need long-term monitoring.

"We don't know what it was like before there was people, we don't know what it was like a hundred years ago. We only know what it's like now and so it's important to understand what's going on."

The city of Myrtle Beach contributed $110,000 toward buying the water monitoring equipment, plus $40,000 per year to help maintain it.

City officials say if it helps the ocean, it's worth it.

"It is our biggest natural resource. We want to know all that we can about it to make sure that it is here forever for our visitors and our residents, so more data is good, so we're happy to be a part of this," said Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea.

The monitor at Cherry Grove pier is the newest, but others are in place at Apache Pier and 2nd Avenue Pier in Myrtle Beach.

The information is updated on the web every 15 minutes.