Planned Event Could Be Bay Island’s Last Rec Use

Planned Event Could Be Bay Island’s Last Rec Use
Planned Event

OCEAN CITY — A manmade Isle of Wight Bay island, a focal point in a skirmish between public access and habitat protection, is expected to be the scene of a patriotic Labor Day celebration on Sunday, but the party could be a swan song of sorts for those who have enjoyed the island all summer.

When the federal Army Corps of Engineers dredged the navigation channels around the coastal bays last winter, roughly 400,000 cubic yards of sand and dredged material was dedicated to restoring and recreating some of the islands in the coastal bays that hadn’t been seen since the 1930s. As a result, roughly 18,000 cubic yards of sand were pumped onto the old Dog and Bitch Island site, essentially accomplishing the dual goals of finding a home for the dredged material and restoring the historic small island essential for migratory bird habitat.

However, a conflict of interest quickly arose for the newly created island. From the beginning, recreational boaters were drawn to the sandy spit in the Isle of Wight Bay and hundreds of boat operators have been dropping anchor and wading ashore all summer, creating a weekend retreat for families and friends.

The island’s legacy as a weekend recreational boating hub was solidified in June when Captain Glen Smith of Selbyville waded ashore with a flag pole, an American flag and bags of concrete and with help of some new friends raised Old Glory in a spontaneous act of patriotism. In the months since, the island’s popularity has grown, but its days as a weekend recreational boating destination could be 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.

Undaunted, hundreds of recreational boaters have utilized the sandy island as a weekend retreat and their numbers have swelled all summer. A growing grassroots group of recreational boaters operating under the website and the “Keepers of the Flag” Facebook page continue to petition the DNR to continue to allow public access to the popular boating destination.

Smith said this week the plan for Sunday is to gather as many recreational boaters as possible to the island, which supporters are now calling American Flag Island, to enjoy the last vestiges of summer and send a message to anyone who will listen about the importance of preserving it for recreational use.

“We’re trying to bring as many people out there as we can,” he said. “All of the boats will be flying American flags and it will be American Flag Day on the island.”

Smith said he anticipates over 1,000 supporters to show up for the Labor Day Sunday celebration in a show of patriotism and solidarity. He also expects a drone to fly overhead and capture images and video of hundreds enjoying the weekend boating retreat. Smith said the “Keepers of the Flag” page now has around 1,100 supporters, which should illustrate to the powers that be there is considerable value in the continued recreational use of the island.

“We’re around 1,100 strong right now and that is probably just a fraction of the number of people who regularly visit the island,” he said. “We’ve run into some opposition in our efforts to keep it open to the public, but I believe if we reach 2,000, we might start a petition and get some people’s attention.”

The group has pointed out the project was paid for with taxpayer dollars and should be available to the taxpaying public. While sympathetic to the needs of the threatened and endangered birds, the group believes the economic and recreational benefit enjoyed by thousands outweighs the ecological significance.

Thus far, however, the effort has gained much traction. Last month, the DNR’s Jonathan McKnight said the intent from the beginning was to preserve the island to create nesting habitat for threatened and endangered migratory birds. Thus far, the DNR, under whose purview the island lies, has looked the other way as recreational boaters have enjoyed the island all summer, but will likely change heading into next spring and another summer season.

“These islands are already part of the Sinepuxent Bay Wildlife Management Area,” said McKnight in an interview last month. “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.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.