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Scientists Work to Protect Region's Last Coastal Wilderness

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Virginia's barrier islands shelter more than 250 species of raptors, songbirds and shorebirds.
Photo courtesy of Lindsay Renick Mayer
Virginia's barrier islands shelter more than 250 species of raptors, songbirds and shorebirds.

The longest expanse of coastal wilderness left on the Eastern seaboard is right here in our region: along Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

The 23 barrier islands buffer the mainland from storms, all the while providing a unique ecosystem for different sea grasses, more than 250 species of birds, and bunches of shellfish, including oysters. And all these things have been threatened by encroaching development, climate change, and overfishing. Which is why various public and private agencies — like The Nature Conservancy’s “Virginia Coast Reserve” — own so much of the barrier islands.

But the Conservancy doesn’t just own islands; it also owns parts of the mainland.

A map of lands owned by The Nature Conservancy

“We bought the islands mainly because they were wild and they had tons of birds nesting on them,” says Barry Truitt, a chief conservation scientist with the Conservancy.

“Once we bought the islands we realized the birds were tied in to the health of the coastal bays and the food and the fish and all. So we started a program of buying farms that had a lot of development potential on the seaside edge. And we bought and put easements on them and resold them and got our money back out of them, and limit the amount of houses that could be built on them.”

Indeed, says Jill Bieri, the Virginia Coast Reserve’s director, everything is connected. Take, for instance, eelgrass: a flowering plant that spreads out in shallow parts of the bay.

“If you were down on the bottom with a mask and snorkel, you’d look out and it’s really like a forest underwater,” she explains. “So almost every species of fin fish spends some part of its life cycle, either for protection, or a nursery, coming in to spawn or breed.”

Not only that, but eelgrass helps improve water quality, thanks to its extensive root rhizome system.

“They actually bind the sediment or the dirt in the bottom of the water. So they make the water around them clear,” Bieri says.

Eelgrass once thrived in this area, but by the 1930s, much of it had been wiped out by a deadly slime mold, coupled with the giant Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933. As a result, marine animals became homeless, and waterfowl went away.

But Barry Truitt is happy to report that, decades later, The Nature Conservancy teamed up with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, or VIMS, to reseed.

“Once we started planting seeds out here, we planted 380 acres now and have almost 5,000 acres growing,” he says.

Another success story, Truitt says, is the oysters. By the mid-1990s, over-harvesting and disease had pretty much driven them to commercial extinction.

“We had 70-some acres of oyster reef we used to lease out to watermen, back when the oysters were growing,” Truitt explains. “When [the oysters] all died, the watermen gave all the leases up and we made sanctuaries out of them. And in 2002 we started planting oyster shells out here to see if we could create reefs.”

To date, he says, there are more oysters in this system than in the whole lower part of the Chesapeake Bay.

But sustaining the barrier islands’ ecosystem isn’t just about restoring and protecting wild life. It’s about protecting the islands themselves — which are constantly changing.

“The beach changes with the tide, with storms, it changes through the seasons,” says Chris Hein, who teaches in the Department of Physical Sciences at VIMS. “You could go to a barrier early in the week, and then go back later in the week, and they look completely different.”

So the problem is when something messes with this natural change — like, for example, climate change.

“There’s broad scientific consensus that climate change that we’re seeing today and that we expect to see in the next 5 to 20 to 50 to 100 years is largely driven by humans,” Hein says.

Climate change causes the sea level to rise, and that, in turn, affects the barrier islands.

“One of the big questions that I’m interested in is: what’s the threshold rate at which sea level can rise and a barrier island can remain stable? What happens when we exceed that rate? Does the barrier just get washed away?” Hein says. “We’ve seen that happen with some barriers in the Louisiana coast. That’s in part because of storms and part because those are some of the highest sea-level rise rates in the world!”

Then, Hein says, there’s another way humans can mess with the barrier islands: by constructing all sorts of jetties and rock walls and whatnot to hold these land masses in place.

“They take away some of that dynamism and just try to stay this static barrier with this beautiful beach that people can go and sit on, and have their houses on, and boardwalks, lining those beaches,” he says.

And as the Nature Conservancy’s Barry Truitt points out, some of the barrier islands have been subject to all those things.

“There’s about 20 people that lived on Smith Island at one time,” he says. “There was a resort on Cobb Island; the Cobbs were some New Englanders that moved down here. There were probably 20, 30 people who lived there. There was 110 people on Hog Island. Chincoteague had 500 people!

“Now they’re wondering how to keep the parking lot, so the tourists can park 50 feet away from where they’re lying on the beach,” he continues. “It’s washed away three times in the last four years.”

That’s why Truitt’s so glad the Conservancy started buying up the islands in the 1960s.

“When the Conservancy got involved here, the southern three islands here – Smith, Myrtle and Ship Shoal – were proposed for high-density residential development,” he recalls. “And the Conservancy bought those three islands and most of the rest of the coast, south from Metompkin Island.”

Now, Virginia’s Eastern Shore is the longest expanse of coastal wilderness left on the eastern seaboard. And, the hope is, it’ll stay that way.

Music: "Island Dreams" by Niklas Aman from Train

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