Md. Officials Get Close-Up Look At Island Restoration

OCEAN CITY – Maryland elected officials visited Skimmer Island this week to get an update on the efforts being made to replenish the eroding island that is a breeding ground for endangered wildlife.

Gov. Martin O’Malley visited Skimmer Island on Wednesday morning by kayak and was informed by Maryland Coastal Bays Program representatives, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff, and Coastal Stewards, members of a summer youth employment program, on the efforts that have been made to replenish the eroding island to ensure the existence of the important nesting habitat for Black Skimmers, Royal Terns, and other endangered wildlife.

“Maryland’s Coastal Bays are extraordinary natural, cultural and economic resources,” O’Malley said. “Replenishing areas such as Skimmer Island not only restores important wildlife habitat for endangered species, but also retains our state’s unique heritage for future generations.”

O’Malley was joined by Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, Maryland DNR Secretary John Griffin, Coastal Bays Program Executive Director Dave Wilson and others on his kayak trip east to Skimmer Island from West Ocean City.

“Lesser known than the Chesapeake, Maryland’s Coastal Bays — Assawoman, Chincoteague, Isle of Wight, Newport, Sinepuxent and the St. Martin River — are extraordinary natural, cultural and economic resources.  They provide vital nursery and feeding grounds for fish and wildlife.  They are a haven for recreational fishing, boating and swimming.  And they support Maryland’s aquaculture industry, which is expanding under Governor O’Malley’s aquaculture development plan,” Griffin wrote in his blog on Wednesday.

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, chairman of the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee, visited Skimmer Island on Monday morning by boat. In 2010, Cardin helped coordinate efforts among the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Maryland Department of Natural resources to restore the island to its natural size using dredge material.

“Skimmer Island is a success story. It illustrates how government action can restore an important wildlife habitat, helping to support the nesting habitat of the black skimmer and royal tern,” Cardin said.  “This effort has been a real partnership and I commend everyone who has made it a reality.”

Cardin viewed the sandy land through binoculars and a telescope observing the variety of birds that live among the habitat. He said to be able to visit the island was a “real treat” and felt the habitat is an important asset to Ocean City. He was impressed with the fact that the island sat in the middle of such a busy residential and commercial area.

“To be able to have something like this around this population is special, the fact that it can do such a natural thing … you don’t see that very often,” Cardin said.

Dave Brinker, regional ecologist with the DNR, replied, “If you build it, they will come.”

Skimmer Island is located just north of the Route 50 Bridge and provides a critical nesting habitat for black skimmers and royal terns. Both species are endangered in Maryland.

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 a survey conducted last year, Skimmer Island was down to just 2.7 acres.

In the beginning of April, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program partnered up with the Ocean City Fishing Center, Hi-Tide Marine, Worcester County, the Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the Maryland Department of the Environment to take on a dredging project to replenish Skimmers Island’s surface. The island was nourished with 675 cubic yards of clean sand.

“Skimmer Island is the single most important and valuable piece of barren sand nesting habitat for colonial nesting water birds such as the Black Skimmer and Royal Tern in Maryland,” Brinker said. “The partnership … to restore Skimmer Island seeks to maintain this important area.”

According to Griffin, the Coastal Stewards is an award-winning summer youth employment program through which minority students connect with nature, learn about their environment and develop green jobs skills. Both Assateague State Park and Assateague National Seashore are partners in this program. Coastal Stewards will assist with monitoring nesting activity of herons, egrets, and ibis on Skimmer Island during the summer.

Wilson said projects such as Skimmer Island’s replenishment are badly needed both by the conservation and business communities.

“The economic benefit provided by eco-tourism makes this private-public partnership a win-win for taxpayers,” he said.

After viewing the project himself, O’Malley said, “I really enjoyed myself. I wish I could stay out here all day.”