Tag Archives: Chesapeake Bay

An island rises from the Bay

Today we are hearing from Peter McGowan, environmental contaminants biologist at Chesapeake Bay Field Office.

In the 1600s Poplar Island measured about 2,000 acres. In 1874, roughly 1,140 acres remained. When I visited in 1994, less than 10 acres had lasted.

1847 map of Poplar Island (right) that was used as the design footprint for the restoration’s project construction outline.

Poplar Island was a rapidly eroding island complex in Chesapeake Bay, a few miles south of Annapolis, Maryland. The island lost substantial land (13 feet/year) due to erosion, subsidence, and sea level rise over the past 400 years. This is a common theme for Bay islands to this day. I found myself on one of the few remnants of the island as part of a team with USFWS, U.S. Geological Survey, and The University of Maryland working to identify possible stations to monitor the upcoming Poplar Island restoration project – still years away from starting.

The Poplar islets were free from human disturbances and provided excellent nesting habitat for waterbirds, including snowy and cattle egrets, little blue heron, and American black duck. It was also my first encounter with an osprey nest located on the ground, indicating a lack of mammalian predators. Little did I know that ospreys would later become a focus of my career from 2000 to present…

Ospreys, AKA ‘fish hawks’ are an iconic Chesapeake Bay species.

Ospreys are an iconic Chesapeake Bay species that were once in trouble along with other fish eating bird species. Their populations were severely impacted by the pesticide DDT and its resulting harmful effects on reproductive success. Banning of the chemical and conservation efforts have brought these birds back to the Bay. An estimated 10,000 pairs of ospreys currently nest in Chesapeake Bay, a far cry from the 1,450 pairs in the 1970s.

Poplar Island is now an international model for island restoration. Over 1,140 acres of remote island habitat have been restored, thanks to a dredged material project funded by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland Port Administration. The island will feature more than 1,700 acres of tidal wetland and uplands, benefitting fish and wildlife with an emphasis on nesting waterbirds when completed in 2043.

Comparison of Poplar Island before restoration construction vs. construction stage in 2011

I am the lead wildlife biologist for the Poplar Island project and my team is responsible for the all wildlife management activities on the island, including installing and repairing osprey nest platforms before the spring arrival of the first ospreys.

To date we have installed more than 24 osprey platforms on the island, a number of which enlisted the help of volunteers including the Boy Scouts of America. In fact, during the past 5 years, two Eagle Scout projects involved osprey platform construction for Poplar Island.  This February our team installed seven new platforms on Poplar Island and are anticipating when the “fish hawks” will first arrive, which will mark the beginning of our 2017 monitoring season. Stay tuned for updates including a webcam link overlooking an active nest!

 

 

monitoring tides at Prime Hook Delaware

Four Years After Hurricane Sandy

This week marks the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, an event that lives on in the minds and hearts of many of us who call the East Coast home.

In the wake of Sandy’s destruction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received $167 million in federal funding to strengthen natural defenses and protect communities and wildlife along the Atlantic Coast from future storms.

Four years later, here’s a by-the-numbers look at what we’ve done to build a stronger coast as of October 2016:

  • 3,500 tons of hurricane debris removed from refuges;
  • 5 badly eroded beaches restored on Delaware Bay;
  • 7 refuges installed with solar and back-up power;
  • 20 refuges repaired for visitor and staff safety;
  • 6 dams removed to improve river flow and reduce flood risk;
  • 4,000 acres of invasive species treated;
  • 30,000 feet of living shoreline developed;
  • 1000s of native plants planted to restore wetlands, rivers and marshes;
  • 4 breaches fixed, 9,000 feet of shoreline restored, 500,000 plugs of beach grass planted, 1,000 acres of marsh seeded, and 25 miles of channels dredged at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge – one of the largest coastal restoration projects on the East Coast.

Some highlights of our 2016 work:

Removal of the 150-foot-long Hughesville Dam on the Musconetcong River in New Jersey to restore fish passage and reduce flooding risks for the local community – a project that caught the eye of Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who toured the site in September.

Sally Jewell at Hughesville

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visits Hughesville Dam removal in New Jersey. Pictured with Beth Styler Barry (left) and Eric Schrading (right). Credit: USFWS

 

Completion of a 21,000-foot living shoreline  at Glenn L. Martin National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland’s Eastern Shore to protect tidal wetlands that support a crab fishery essential to Smith Islanders – and that help buffer this island community from storms and sea-level rise.

living shoreline work

At work creating the living shoreline at Fog Point in Glenn L. Martin NWR on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Credit: USFWS

 

Removal of the Pond Lily Dam in New Haven, CT, where local community members and politicians mobilized to bring attention to the flood risks of this dam. In April 2016, volunteers planted native vegetation at the dam site to help stabilize the riverbanks and create an urban nature park for the community.

volunteer planting day at Pond Lily dam

Volunteers planting native vegetation along the river banks following removal of Pond Lily dam in New Haven, CT. Credit: USFWS

 

Completion of a $38 million marsh and beach restoration and resilience project at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. The work is already showing signs of success — including helping to absorb impacts of storms and heavy rains to attracting record numbers of wildlife such as horseshoe crabs and migratory birds.

beach grass plantings Prime Hook

Recently planted beach grass at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Citizen Racecar

 

Engagement of dozens of student volunteers to help build oyster reefs – along Delaware Bay in southern New Jersey and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia – that will filter water and buffer the shore from wave energy.

East Windsor Middle School students and families helped build oyster reefs

East Windsor Middle School students and families helped build oyster reefs at Gandy’s Beach, NJ. Credit: Project PORTS

 

The staff, community and partners collaborating with us across the region from Virginia to Maine, people who are dedicated to making their communities #StrongAfterSandy – people like FWS staff Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons who are working at the front lines of climate change in the Chesapeake Bay.

When coming up with habitat management solutions, it is vital to think of a holistic approach. Credit: Steve Droter

“We spent a lot of time thinking about what management actions we can employ that will increase the resiliency of the salt-marsh community to sea-level rise, to storm impacts and how can we do that in a way that really maximizes the benefit to the wildlife that depend on it,” says Whitbeck. Credit: Steve Droter

 

Science tells us that the future will include more intense hurricanes and storms like Sandy, causing more damage to coastal ecosystems and communities. In fact, a recent study predicts disastrous floods like those seen during Hurricane Sandy may hit New York City 17 times more often in the next century.

With anticipated rising sea levels, more frequent and intense storms, shifting seasons and higher temperatures, we need to continue to work together to better understand and adapt to changing conditions. Strong natural defenses will help all of us better weather future storms.

When coming up with habitat management solutions, it is vital to think of a holistic approach. Credit: Steve Droter

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons

Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons are on the front lines of dealing with climate change. Where they work along the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay, scientists say sea levels are rising at rates three to four times faster than the global average. The cause is a combination of rising waters due to global climate change and sinking land, also known as subsidence.

As the supervisory wildlife biologist at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Whitbeck oversees the diverse habitats of Blackwater, Glenn L. Martin, Eastern Neck and Susquehanna National Wildlife Refuges.

While many may see the impacts of climate change as a looming event in the future, Whitbeck disagrees, saying, “It’s very real here.” Sea-level rise has continually shaped the landscape, turning marshes into lakes and forests into marsh grass. At the predicted rate of sea-level rise, nearly all of Blackwater’s marshes could be permanently inundated by 2100.

That could be disastrous for the refuge’s habitats, plant and animal species. Many of the species found here are uniquely adapted to survive in the refuge’s forests, marshes and shallow water habitats. “All the major taxonomic groups have a species or two that has found a way to exist in a saline environment,” says Whitbeck, such as the salt marsh skipper and the Diamondback terrapin.

“In the spirit of maintaining biological diversity, it is important to conserve salt marshes. So strictly from a conservation biology standpoint, a fish and wildlife conservation standpoint – maintaining all the parts is really the first order of business. Ensuring all these species have all the habitat they need to exist is critical,” says Whitbeck.

Yet the community benefits are equally important, especially as the threats of climate change become more evident. Salt marshes provide huge benefits as nurseries for fish, sponges for soaking up flood waters and reducing coastal erosion, and buffers from storm surge and strong waves.

Miles Simmons, a biological technician at the refuge, grew up on the Eastern Shore and has experienced the effects that storms can have on the environment, but also what kinds of effects a healthy marsh can have.

“Marshes – wetlands in particular – are critical in mitigating the effects of large storms,” he says.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the Atlantic coast in 2012, there was a lot of infrastructure that was damaged, but it could’ve been worse – specifically for the communities around Smith Island, located just south of Blackwater.

Having the healthy intact marsh systems of the Glenn L. Martin NWR along the northern part of Smith Island helped to stop shoreline erosion that was taking place on the western and northwestern shorelines. This “really helps maintain that buffer and give the community a small measure of protection,” says Whitbeck.

In June 2016, Whitbeck and team completed construction on a 21,000-foot living shoreline at Martin NWR that will dynamically benefit the surrounding local area and the environment into the future.

Following Hurricane Sandy, efforts to repair and build resiliency around these coastal communities were aided with the help of federal funding from the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013. Refuges and communities all throughout Maryland received over $13,096,841 to put towards recovery and resiliency.

At Blackwater, as the shoreline elevation begins to shift, biological technicians like Simmons are conducting vegetation surveys to monitor the changing landscape. This is some of the first opportunities that Blackwater has had to examine the ecological changes that result from elevated water levels.

By continuing to work on the Chesapeake Bay coastline, Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons are not only ensuring that Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is #StrongAfterSandy, but continue to make it resilient in the face of climate change.

This is the first in a five part series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to  defend their coastal ecosystems against storms as we approach the four year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website.