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  • Writer's pictureGrey Gowder

What is SOA-Charleston?

Biologists define a community as an interwoven and interacting system of living things in a shared location. We are members of the Lowcountry community who value a regenerative relationship between the people and the ecology of coastal South Carolina. Our environmentalism is an Intersectional Environmentalism in which our members represent the diverse and beautiful cultural make-up of South Carolina’s people. We are committed to amplifying the voices of all South Carolinians to ensure an equitable and just future for all. We advocate for protecting people and the planet because the injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. We cannot hope to promote a resilient future for our community if any part of the community is left behind. We are scientists, activists, storytellers, teachers, students, fishermen, farmers, conservationists, and policymakers who appreciate our role as stewards of our coastal home. We seek to leave a resilient and thriving environment for future generations.

We are committed to serving all stakeholders in the future of South Carolina’s coast. That includes anyone who uses the abundant natural and cultural resources our estuarine and marine environments provide. We will place a particular focus on underrepresented and underserved communities who are often left out of conversations concerning conservation and climate change.


For millions of years, the vast sea of salt marsh that stretches along our coast was the most dominant feature of our landscape. It is shielded from the Atlantic Ocean on one side by a long chain of barrier islands fed by an interlinked current of sediment stretching all the way from the Canadian Maritimes down to Florida. Renowned geologist and oceanologist Orrin Pilkey calls this current longshore drift. On the other side of the salt marsh is the mainland, a mixture of wetlands, lowland forests, and flats shielded from storm surges by the marsh.

These marshes are nurseries to countless species of marine life, sanctuaries to dozens of species of migratory birds, and home to the humble Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica). Ancient reefs of these small bivalves provide the bedrock for the marsh grass. They also filter hundreds of gallons of water from eight river basins daily. The nutrients of these waterways and the young sea life nurtured and born in them travel out into the Atlantic Ocean in vast swarms of nutrients. This conveyor of life feeds migrating species like the North Atlantic Right Whales on their way to birth their calves off of the Georgia coast and a variety of sharks and sea turtles. Some of these nutrients even make it into the depths of the sea beneath the Gulf Stream where recently discovered ancient mountains of deep-sea coral bustle like busy cities in the darkness. Understanding the interconnected systems of life that intersect in these intertidal zones and coastal waters is vital to maintaining the health of the entire system of life for our region from the headwaters of our rivers to the deep-sea coral off of our continental shelf.

The salt marshes and littoral waters are also at the heart of South Carolina’s human story. Since ancient times, humanity has shaped this landscape and has been shaped by it. Prehistoric indigenous people harvested the oysters from nearshore reefs, piling colossal islands of discarded shells back into the marshes which can still be found today. Some of these shell middens became new reefs or even marsh islands where small maritime forests serve as rookeries for herons and kingfishers. In colonial times, enslaved people transformed some of these marshlands into vast rice fields that required moving more earth to construct a system of dykes and locks that was displaced to build the pyramids at Giza. Their descendants moved to the coastal sea islands where they are now known as the Gullah Geechee people.

Today, these coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia remain some of the most pristine salt-marsh ecosystems in the world, but they face major threats from a growing population encroaching on marshlands and disrupting the fragile fabric of the entire system. This coastal intertidal strata of biomes have migrated inland and outward with the rise and fall of sea levels for millennia. These regions are far from fixed and have evolved to move in order to survive. However, human development and fortifications impede the renourishing flow of sediments to the barrier islands and inhibit the natural migration of marshlands and these islands as sea levels resume their rise.

The survival of marine life, estuarine flora, and dozens of species of sea birds, shorebirds, and wading birds, demand that we save our marshes and protect the essential hub of life for our region.

SOA Charleston would be a network of networks uniting a community of foundations, scientists, policymakers, advocates, citizen scientists, educators, and residents who tirelessly work in their specific niches to fight for a future for our surrounding community of life. The passion is there, the science is there, but public engagement and effectiveness of action have not yet reached their potential. That is the need that SOA Charleston attempts to address.

Our Vision

Sustainable Ocean Alliance - Charleston will be a forum for collaboration and empowerment of the young, environmentally-minded communities of coastal South Carolina. This hub will be a conduit for young professionals, scientists, teachers, students, community leaders, activists, storytellers, and dreamers to harness their collective knowledge and connections to create a resilient future for the marine environments near Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry. Through a diversity of thought, expertise, and culture, our hub will work towards climate solutions and climate justice in an inclusive and responsible grassroots effort to tackle both local and regional threats to our communities and the natural systems that define our identity.

Our Mission

To promote a resilient future for the community of coastal South Carolina, SOA Charleston seeks to develop a new generation of community leaders while empowering new voices from underserved communities throughout our region. We will promote collaboration between our members and their networks to cultivate bold new ideas and accelerate solutions to our community’s most pressing challenges.

The Road Ahead

To make lasting change in our community, we need a passionate and invested community of activists. Luckily, there is already a wealth of conservation initiatives in the Charleston area and a long history of stewardship in our region. We will build a collaborative network of young representatives of regional nonprofits, universities, government agencies, and community groups to network, exchange ideas, and create effective avenues for collaboration.

We will address the lack of diversity among the active conservation network in the region and attempt to resolve the disconnect between that conservation network and many of the coastal communities they seek to serve. We will ensure that these communities are represented so that their connections to the natural world can be respected and protected.

Our hub will harness the power of its extensive network-of-networks to activate local communities, develop relationships with stakeholders, and address core issues facing each community.

Education will be a vital tool to empower and inspire grassroots action and citizen science in our community. In collaboration with Enduring Curiosity, we will host a series of lectures and breakout conversations (first virtually, and later in person once appropriate) to bring in new perspectives, foster ideas, and facilitate collaboration between our members.

The founding of a Mission Blue Hope Spot in coastal South Carolina, in collaboration with Enduring Curiosity and various local stakeholders and organizations, will be an important milestone for SOA Charleston. Mission Blue defines Hope Spots as, “special places that are scientifically identified as critical to the health of the ocean.” Hope Spots also have:

“A special abundance or diversity of species, unusual or representative species, habitats or ecosystems, particular populations of rare, threatened or endemic species, a site with potential to reverse damage from negative human impacts, the presence of natural processes such as major migration corridors or spawning grounds, significant historical, cultural or spiritual values, and particular economic importance to the community.”

The coastal watershed and litoral waters of South Carolina meet all of those criteria and we seek to use the inspirational and aspirational concept of the Hope Spot to inspire greater community engagement and outreach. Through the Hope Spot, we will sponsor initiatives to protect, restore, and promote the responsible use of our coastal waters.

We envision our environmental effort as one that is built on systems. Eventually, we will expand our reach through the entire hydrology network of South Carolina from the headwaters in the mountains to the extent of our exclusive economic zone where the Gulf Stream facilitates migrations of rare species like the Atlantic Right Whale and provides the building blocks of life for the ancient deep-water coral reefs below. To do this, we will need the help of local activists, scientists, riverkeepers, teachers, and stewards who we can collaborate with to protect the entire ecological web that we rely on.

To ensure a just, equitable, and regenerative future, we will embrace local solutions led by local leaders working in collaboration with our neighbors and fellow species to mitigate the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss, while healing our human and natural communities.

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