Partners Start Skimmer Island Restoration Work

OCEAN CITY — In what could turn out to be a test case of sorts, the dredging of the navigation channel at the entrance to a West Ocean City marina began this week with the sand deposited 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 Coastal Bays Program, in conjunction with multiple public and private entities including Worcester County, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the Ocean City Fishing Center and Hi-Tide Marine, this week embarked on an ambitious project to dredge the silted in entrance to the marina just south of the Route 50 bridge and deposit the dredged material on Skimmer Island just north of the span.

The project essentially serves two purposes — the first being clearing the navigation channel at the entrance to the Ocean City Fishing Center, which fills in somewhat each year because of natural processes. The second, and perhaps most important, element of the project is pumping the dredged sand onto Skimmer Island, a sandy crescent-shaped spit of land just to the north, which has eroded over several 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. 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 places in 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 areas of coastal Maryland, but in recent years the number has dropped to as few as 25 pairs with dismal or no reproductive success. Similar figures bear out for other species.

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.

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. After a complex approval process was worked out, moving the dredged material from the fishing center channel and depositing it on Skimmer Island is presenting a practical, economical and ecological solution.

“This project may very well be solely responsible for us not losing black skimmers and royal terns from the state of Maryland,” said Maryland Coastal Bays Program Executive Director Dave Wilson this week.

The success of the project could open the door for similar partnerships in other areas of the coastal bays in the future. Boating channels are in constant need of dredging almost every year because of the natural migration of sand in and around the barrier island and finding an appropriate place to deposit the dredged material often presents challenges. Placing it in areas in critical need of habitat restoration and remediation is a logical solution, according to Coastal Bays Program Science Officer Dr. Roman Jessien.

“We’ve lost about 300 acres of island since 1989 and this is a good method to restore some of that,” he said. “As long as the proper approvals are in place and the material is compatible, we’d like to continue with this approach. It’s a recurring problem and this offers a practical solution.”

The Skimmer Island project began earlier this week and was expected to be completed today, depending on a variety of factors.

The completion of the project was expedited to protect young summer flounder and spawning horseshoe crabs that will soon enter the coastal bays, but some work may continue on the island until mid-April.