OCEAN CITY — A sandy spit in the Isle of Wight Bay that has become a popular recreational boating site will remain so for the remainder of this summer, but it will likely be closed to the public in the future for nesting migratory birds.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the navigation channels around the coastal bays last winter, the resulting 40,000 cubic yards of sand and dredge spoil were used to restore some of the islands in the coastal bays that had not been seen since the 1930s, including the famed Dog and Bitch Island. Approximately 18,000 cubic yards of sand were specifically pumped onto Dog and Bitch Island, essentially accomplishing the dual goals of finding a home for the dredged material and re-creating the historic small island once essential for migratory bird habitat.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to creating a quiet reserve for threatened or endangered migratory birds, such as terns and skimmers. From the beginning, recreational boaters were drawn to the sandy spit in the Isle of Wight Bay and hundreds of boat operators drop anchor and wade ashore creating a weekend retreat for their families and friends.
The weekend recreational boating hub was solidified in late June when Captain Glen Smith of Selbyville waded ashore with a flag pole, an American flag and bags of concrete, and with a help of some new friends raised Old Glory in a spontaneous act of patriotism. In the weeks since, the island’s popularity has grown, but its days as a weekend recreational boating destination are numbered.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which partnered with the Army Corps on the dredging and island creation project, has watched the island’s popularity grow at arm’s length for much of the summer because it is currently not being used for nesting birds. However, when the birds return in the spring, the DNR, under whose purview the island lies, will likely impose time-of-year closures and utilize the enforcement resources at its disposal including potential citations and fines.
Already, a growing grassroots group of recreational boaters operating under the “Keepers of the Flag” Facebook page, which has more than 850 followers, and the www.americanflagisland.org website are petitioning the DNR to continue to allow public access to the popular boating destination. The group maintains the project was funded by taxpayer dollars and should be available to the taxpaying public. While sympathetic to the need of the threatened and endangered birds, the group believes the economic and recreational benefit enjoyed by hundreds outweighs the ecological significance.
“It’s good for Ocean City,” said group spokesman Chuck Idol this week. “We all appreciate the importance of preserving and protecting those birds, but this is a success story. All of the recreational boaters agree they do not want to go under the Route 50 bridge. This is a fabulous asset for the Ocean City community and it should be enjoyed by the public.”
Idol said the group believes there is a solution available and is willing to sit down at the table with the DNR and other organizations to find a compromise.
“The push-back is coming from the non-profit organizations and the DNR, which claim the island should be used for breeding endangered and threatened birds,” he said. “We just feel like there could be an alternative. In places like New York and New Jersey, they are doing creative things with barges to create man-made areas for nesting and breeding birds.”
Rather than nurturing an “us versus them” mentality, the group is hoping for an amicable solution.
“We’re trying to put a positive spin on this,” he said. “It’s a very positive thing that happened from a dredging experience and we just would like to see it remain open for public access. We’re not trying to be adversarial and create this ‘us versus them’ situation. We just think there might be some compromise or solution.”
Official documents appear to send conflicting messages to the parties involved. For example, Maryland law clearly states the creation of Dog and Bitch Island and similar islands in the coastal bays are the state’s natural resources under the purview of the DNR.
“All islands created, made or formed within the confines of Sinepuxent, Isle of Wight and Chincoteague Bays by the dumping or depositing of excavated material from dredging or other artificial means employed by either the state of Maryland or the United States, or by either or both, or by any department or agency thereof during the construction or maintenance of the Ocean City Inlet and the channel in said bays as well was all accretion to such islands past or future are hereby declared to be natural resources of the state of Maryland,” the law reads.
On the other hand, the Army Corps of Engineers’ public notice about the dredging project and the creation of the islands suggests there could be a public benefit.
“The decision whether to accomplish the work proposed in the public notice will be based on an evaluation of the proposed work on the public interest,” the notice reads. “All factors which may be relevant to the proposal will be considered. Among those are economics, recreation and the needs and welfare of the people. Any person who has an interest that may be affected by the placement of this dredged material may request a public hearing.”
However, the DNR is clear in its intent to preserve the island for threatened or endangered bird habitat.
“These islands are already part of the Sinepuxent Bay Wildlife Management Area,” said the DNR’s Jonathan McKnight this week. “It’s not some new world where one can plant a flag and claim it. This island was built specifically for nesting habitat for endangered or threatened migratory birds.”
McKnight said there are times of the year when the migratory birds are not using the island, but they don’t coincide with the recreational boating season in the resort. Essentially, there appears to be no solution under which the birds and boaters can peacefully coexist.
“Sadly, the uses are incompatible,” he said. “There is a reason why these birds no longer nest where Ocean City is today. They can’t adapt to human interaction and they can’t adapt to predators. That’s why they are endangered in the first place. These little islands are taking the place of the barrier islands like Ocean City that are developed and no longer suited for nesting habitat for threatened or endangered birds.”
McKnight said the DNR and its law enforcement arm NRP would allow the status quo for the remainder of the summer season, but closures are imminent in the future.
“Probably not this year unless the party there starts to get out of hand,” he said. “As long as people aren’t damaging the island, we won’t close it this year and the Natural Resources Police will continue to patrol and monitor it. Next year, however, there will be a time-of-year closure when the birds are breeding. Unfortunately, the breeding time coincides in large part with the recreational boating season in Ocean City.”
McKnight agreed the situation does not have to become adversarial and stressed the importance of increased public awareness and education.
“In a perfect world, we could find a way to educate the boating public about the importance of these islands and these birds,” he said. “There are just so few places for wilderness. This is public land created specifically for breeding bird habitat and that’s what we’re going to do with it. If we were to just let this go, it would be extremely irresponsible of us as an agency.”
McKnight said enforcement in the form of citations and fines will be a measure of last resort during the anticipated closure next spring.
“For breeding season, we’re just going to close the area to the public,” he said. “If we have to, we’ll take the appropriate enforcement actions including citations and fines. We hope it won’t come to that and we can educate boaters on the importance of those breeding areas, but we will do what we must to preserve this habitat.”