Friday, Jan 29–Bay Island Could Get Boost From Channel Dredging Work

OCEAN CITY – In what could be a win-win situation for all involved, a plan is in place to dredge a navigational channel at the entrance to a West Ocean City marina and deposit the sand on nearby Skimmer Island, just north of the Route 50 bridge, in an effort to restore critical nesting habitat for a handful of threatened bird species.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently seeking public comment on various aspects of the proposal to dredge the entry channel to Homer’s Hideaway Marina, also widely known as the Ocean City Fishing Center, near the Inlet just south of the bridge, and deposit the dredged material on Skimmer Island. The marina’s channel needs to be dredged annually and for years, the material has been deposited at Homer Gudelsky Park, also known as Stinky Beach, but the park cannot accept any more sand at this time, causing DNR officials to seek another spoil site to deposit the dredged material.

Meanwhile, just to the north of the Harry Kelley Bridge, is Skimmer Island, a narrow, crescent-shaped spit of land that serves as a temporary home and nesting place for several species of colonial nesting birds over the decades. Two species in particular, Black Skimmers and Royal Terns, have seen their traditional nesting places in the coastal areas of Maryland decline rapidly in recent years and 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 locations in coastal Maryland, but for the past few years, the number is down to less than 25 pairs with dismal to no reproductive success. Similar figures bear out for other species including Royal Terns and Common Terns, among others.

Part of the problem locally is the decline of natural islands and spits of lands in the coastal bays suitable for bird nesting. Most of the islands in the bay naturally migrate from year to year with sand removed from one side and deposited on the other, but a variety of natural and man-made factors have changed the equation.

For example, when Skimmer Island was first 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 just 3.9 acres, or roughly half the size it was a decade earlier. In the most recent survey last year, Skimmer Island was down to just 2.7 acres and the coastal storms in October and November reduced it further.

On the one hand, a new site is needed to deposit dredged material from the channel at the entrance to the Ocean City Fishing Center, while nearby is a critical bird nesting habitat starving for new sand. If the complex approval process can be worked out, moving the dredged material from the fishing center channel and depositing it on Skimmer Island could present a practical, economical and ecological solution.

“It should be a win-win situation for everybody, but it has to go through a tough permit process,” said Dr. Roman Jesien, science coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, which is working with the DNR on approval for the project. “So far, we haven’t heard any good reason not to do it, but like everything else, there is an exhaustive approval process with several hoops to get through.”

Jesien said the window for gaining approval for the project is closing rapidly. In Maryland, dredging projects in coastal areas have to be completed by April 1 because of the migratory patterns of fish and other species that share the habitat. In addition, the April 1 dredging deadline loosely corresponds with the traditional time the nesting birds return to the area.

“We have a pretty tight window to get this done,” he said. “We all want to get it done, and there really is no reason why it won’t happen, but there are steps in the protocol we have to adhere to.”

The approval process is proceeding on two parallel tracks. The DNR has to gain approval from state and federal agencies to deposit the material on Skimmer Island, which it owns and manages, while the dredging permit for Homer’s Hideaway Marina has to be amended to include the new site to deposit the dredged material. The marina is permitted to dredge 10,000 cubic yards of material annually and deposit it at Gudelsky Park, but in recent years, the total amount of material dredged has come in at around 2,000-3,000 cubic yards.

Dredging the material from the navigation channel and depositing it on sand-starved Skimmer Island appears to be a perfect solution for all parties involved and could serve as a catalyst for future dredge spoil solutions. Various navigation channels throughout the coastal bays silt in and have to be dredged routinely, while other areas are always eroding and need sand and other material. Jesien advocates creating a sand management and the Skimmer Island project could be a test case of sorts.

“Maybe this hatches a new idea,” he said. “Hopefully, this is just the tip of the iceberg. When the dust settles after this project, maybe we can take a broader look at how we manage the sand the moves around from one place to the other as part of the natural process in the coastal bays