OCEAN CITY — Staging work began this week for the dredging of the navigation channel at the entrance to a West Ocean City marina in a plan that includes depositing the dredged sand on Skimmer Island just north of the Route 50 Bridge.
In a continuation of a plan that began around this time last year, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP), in conjunction with several private and public entities including Worcester County, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the federal Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the Ocean City Fishing Center and Hi-Tide Marine, this week began work on a continuing project started last year to restore and replenish the large, low-lying island north of the Route 50 Bridge known as Skimmer Island, or Bird Island.
The project includes dredging the silted-in entrance to the Ocean City Fishing Center just south of the bridge and depositing the dredged material on Skimmer Island just north of the span. The project essentially serves two main purposes — the first being clearing the entrance to the marina, which fills in somewhat each year because of natural processes. The second element of the project is pumping the dredged sand onto Skimmer Island, a sandy, crescent-shaped spit of land just to the north of the bridge, which has eroded over the years to become a fraction of its former self.
Skimmer Island serves as a temporary home and nesting place for several species of colonial nesting birds, most notably the Black Skimmer and the Royal Tern, both of which are considered endangered in Maryland.
Black skimmers are short, stubby black and white birds that skim the surface of the water with the lower mandible of their orange and black razor-like beaks as they search for fish near the surface. The royal terns, also black and white, are similar but have a forked tail.
Both species are bare ground nesting birds that require a sandy area free of predators to lay eggs and raise their young. Nesting is perilous as the birds lay their eggs just above the high tide line and must hatch and raise their young before high tides and storms wash away their temporary nesting areas.
However, the two species have seen their traditional nesting areas in coastal areas of Maryland decline rapidly in recent years to the point they are in danger of disappearing from the state’s ecological landscape. For example, in 1985, as many as 300 pairs of Black Skimmers nested and reproduced in various coastal areas of Maryland, but in recent years, the figure has dropped to as few as 25 pairs with dismal or no reproductive success. Similar figures bear out for other species such as the royal terns.
Part of the problem locally is the decline of natural islands and spits of land in the coastal bays suitable for bird nesting. Most of the small islands in the bays naturally migrate from year to year as sand is washed away from one side and deposited on the other. However, a variety of natural and man-made factors have changed the equation.
For example, when Skimmer Island was surveyed in 1998, it measured 7.1 acres. In 2003, it had been reduced to 5.6 acres, and in 2007, it was down to 3.9 acres, or roughly half the size it was a decade earlier. In the most recent survey, Skimmer Island had been reduced to just 2.7 acres.
To that end, the MCBP and its private and public partners last year began efforts to replenish the island. On the one hand, a site is needed to deposit material dredged from the channel at the entrance to the Ocean City Fishing Center, while nearby is a critical bird nesting habit starving for new sand. Moving the dredged material from the fishing center channel and depositing it on Skimmer Island presents a practical, economic and ecological solution to the problem.
“This project may very well be solely responsible for us not losing black skimmers and royal terns from the state of Maryland,” said MCBP Executive Director Dave Wilson this week.
Wilson also praised the private sector partners for their important role in the success of the project.
“Special recognition goes to the Ocean City Fishing Center for their unwavering commitment to this project,” he said. “This is a great example of a business working with the community to protect the treasures of our bays.”
Staging work began this week with a large boom set up to pump sand from the channel on the south side of the bridge to the island on the north side. The dredging is expected to be completed by April 1 in order to protect young summer flounder and spawning horseshoe crabs that will soon enter the coastal bays, but site work might continue on the island until mid-April. Although the area is popular for clamming, the public is urged to keep off the island while the birds are nesting so that they are not disturbed during the critical time in their life cycle.