At Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Mother Knows Best

A new video from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers an overview of the coastline and salt marsh restoration at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Delaware Bay. “Building a Stronger Coast: Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge” is a behind-the-scenes look at how engaged partners and visionary science came together to improve conditions for wildlife and the local community.

After Hurricane Sandy breached the beach at Prime Hook, spilling salt water into an area long managed as a freshwater marsh, refuge staff decided to work with Mother Nature to build a stronger coast.

“We know that we’re going to see more-frequent intense storms,” said Refuge Manager Al Rizzo, “so we didn’t want to put it back into a situation that was vulnerable to the next storm.” Credit: Citizen Racecar

The $38-million project, supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, rebuilt 4,000 acres of marsh and one mile of dune and barrier beach over 18 months. The restoration, one of the largest and most complex of its kind on the Atlantic Coast, enhances habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. It also makes the coast more resilient to future storms and sea-level rise.

A suction-cutterhead dredge expands the width and depth of one of the primary channels in the marsh. Credit: USFWS

The refuge is an important stopover site for migratory shorebirds, including federally threatened rufa red knots, which rest and refuel there during their long migrations along the Atlantic Coast. Delaware Bay also has the world’s largest population of horseshoe crabs, which spawn in the spring. The birds can eat their fill of the crab eggs, then be on their way north.

For decades, refuge staff managed the marsh as freshwater habitat for ducks and geese by blocking tidal flow from the bay. Hurricane Sandy flooded the marsh with sea water, killing the freshwater plants.

After closely studying state-of-the-art computer models, managers decided restoring the marsh to its natural state was the way to go. It is open once again to the ebb and flow of the tides, which will let salt-marsh plants and wildlife return.

“The project is an investment that is already paying off,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), who is featured in the film. “The dunes are holding up, the marsh is rebounding, and wildlife is thriving. I hope other areas of our country — and the world — can learn from this success.” Credit: Citizen Racecar

The restored marsh will buffer the effects of storms and sea-level rise, protecting private property and public infrastructure, such as roads. Acting like a giant sponge, the marsh will absorb water to reduce flooding. It will also offer recreation, such as fishing, hiking, and wildlife watching. A new low, wide dune and barrier beach offer a natural defense against rising water.

Managers will use storm-tide sensors, placed in the marsh, to gauge the project’s success. The sensors measure wave height, speed, force, and extent during storms. The information will help scientists create better models for storm surge and flood forecasting, as well as understand how restored marshes spread out storm-tide and wave energy.

“Federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery has provided us with a window of opportunity to protect this fragile marsh, while also helping protect our coastal bay-front communities from flooding,“ said Delaware Sen. Gary Simpson (R-Milford), who is interviewed in the video. Credit: Citizen Racecar

Returning the coastline to a more natural state makes it a healthier place for both wildlife and people to live — proving that sometimes, Mother really does know best.

View the video here.

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