Tag Archives: Chincoteague

As waves from storm events go over the reef they will attenuate, or become less intense – saving the salt marshes from damage. Credit: Steve Droter

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Kevin Holcomb and Amy Ferguson

More frequent storms surges have continued to sculpt habitat and public access along the Virginia coastline. At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge — one of the country’s most visited refuges — supervisory biologist Kevin Holcomb is using oysters to face the challenges of sea-level rise and climate change.

This past spring, Holcomb and partners installed a living shoreline totaling over 3,650 linear feet of oyster reef at the refuge. The oyster reef protects the refuge’s shoreline and access roads by slowing down the speed and intensity of incoming waves. Amy Ferguson, a graduate student from the University of Virginia, is measuring this slowing down process — called attenuation — as part of a partnership with The Nature Conservancy.

“Anything that can help nature help itself — like artificial oyster reefs or marsh enhancements — I think is a great thing to consider when looking at shoreline protection methods,” says Ferguson.

What makes a shoreline come alive? Coasts are often protected by grey, hardened infrastructure such as bulkheads and sea walls that don’t provide habitat for estuarine wildlife and can lead to even more damage to the ecosystem over time. In contrast, a living shoreline such as an oyster reef creates habitat and buffers wave energy — instead of the wave hitting a wall at full force, its energy is dampened by the breakwater reef.

Overseeing the refuge’s oyster restoration project is The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. This past spring, volunteers, community members and partners gathered to move 13,800 cement “oyster castle” blocks to help lay the foundations at Tom’s Cove and Assateague Bay.

The oyster castle blocks act as substrate for oyster spat to cling on to. The blocks are stacked so that as oyster colonies grow, they increase in size until a reef forms. It takes around three years for the reef to form, but Holcomb says that the benefits can last decades — benefits such as filtration of nutrients and water, food for shorebirds and biodiversity.

These oyster reefs will enhance Chincoteauge’s rich coastal environment and natural treasures. And the refuge’s popularity with visitors — whether for wildlife observation, nature photography, hunting or fishing — is also a valuable asset for the local community. A 2006 economic study by the USFWS estimates that tourism from the refuge contributes $315 million in annual spending and 3,766 jobs.

“Chincoteague has a wonderful array of wildlife for easy observation by the public,” says Holcomb. “Our visitors come to see the birds, beach and the Chincoteague ponies which make the refuge and the town famous.”

When Hurricane Sandy made landfall four years ago in October 2012, most of the damage to the refuge was downed trees and road washouts, which threatened tourism areas. To prepare for the next big storm event, refuge managers and biologists like Holcomb wanted to use natural methods like a living shoreline. Chincoteague NWR received more than $500,000 in federal funding from the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Act to work with their partners to enhance, restore, and build a more resilient natural defense system to make their community #StrongerAfterSandy.

This is the third in a five part series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In previous weeks we have looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons, combating climate change in the Chesapeake Bay and Julie Devers, assessing fish barriers and culverts in Maryland.  You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website.



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.

Repairing What Jonas Has Washed Away

When winter storm Jonas barreled up the eastern coast last weekend, it wasn’t just the snow that left a path of destruction behind; it also caused serious coastal flooding along the mid Atlantic shoreline. The storm happened to coincide with a full moon, which in itself leads to extreme high tides. Add 80 mph hurricane force winds blowing water toward the coast, and freezing cold floodwaters move ashore.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located on the coastline of Virginia and Maryland, was one location affected by the wind-driven tides. Their beach parking lot, consisting of sand and crushed oyster shells over a clay base and managed and maintained through a special agreement with the National Park Service’s (NPS) Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, was mostly washed away.


A view of the eroded beach parking lot at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. What remains of the clay base layer is visible on the right side of the image. Credit: USFWS

This damage, though expensive and unsettling, has become a frequent occurrence due to the vulnerability of the extreme southern end of Assateague Island. The parking lot was built on unconsolidated sand deposited by the Atlantic Ocean since the 1850s. Because there is no supporting landmass to anchor this ​portion of the island ​in place, ​it ​​has slowly been moving west into Tom’s Cove (see image below). This dynamic movement of sand ​on a barrier island is natural but ​makes the parking lot vulnerable to erosion, especially during storms.

When there are storm surges or extreme high tides, seawater over-tops the beach and flows into the parking lot, sometimes causing damage as it did with this storm. Although the USFWS and NPS have tried various resiliency techniques (sand fence placement, dune construction, etc.) at this site over the past 50 years, at great cost to taxpayers, all attempts have failed because the site is constantly shifting.


Pictures of the current beach parking lot, before and after the storm.

In recent years, global climate change has led to an increase in the number and intensity of major storms affecting the shoreline at Chincoteague NWR, making the location of the current parking lot even more worrisome. For this reason, the refuge has approved a plan to move the parking lot to a more stable area one and a half miles north of the current location. The supporting land mass to the west of the new recreational beach and parking lot site and large man-made dunes  on the ocean front, add to its resiliency to storm damage.


The new recreational beach and parking lot location was virtually unaffected by the storm, further supporting the need to relocate. Unfortunately, winter storm Jonas hit before this new lot was in place.  Although uncertainties exist with regard to the severity of future storms, the amount of resulting damage, and the availability of federal funding, the FWS and the National Park Service have committed to maintaining the current lot until the new beach and parking lot is open and ready for use.  Therefore it seems likely that the parking lot at the current site will be rebuilt, a project that could cost taxpayers as much as $800,000.

“What this really comes down to is economic and environmental sustainability,” says Kevin Sloan, Project Leader of Chincoteague NWR Complex. “Over the past 50 years, taxpayers have been burdened with repetitive beach parking lot repair costs – an estimated $6-8 million since 2003 and now another $800,000.  And, another storm could be just around the corner.”

Sloan says continuing on that course and in the face of climate change and sea-level rise would be “fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable.”  Once the beach recreation infrastructure is relocated to the resilient site, he says, natural processes will continue to reshape the beach, providing tremendous habitat for migrating and nesting shorebirds.