Scientists Work To Protect Region's Last Coastal Wilderness (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Scientists Work to Protect Region's Last Coastal Wilderness

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:11
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week we're bringing you stories of recuperation, restoration and all around rallying with a show we're calling, "On the Mend." We'll hear how people with spinal cord injuries are getting back in action by whishing down the ski slopes. We'll meet prison inmates whose rehabilitation includes a weekly dose of art. And we'll explore the sewing, weaving, darning type of mending and find out how D.C.'s Textile Museum is gearing up for its big cross-town move.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:41
But we're going to kick off today's show where we kicked off last week's, actually, riding through a bay off of Virginia's eastern shore. A narrow finger of land separating the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.

MR. BARRY TRUITT

00:00:52
We're going to be riding through the start of a channel that's about 20, 30 feet deep. And then we're going to go up on the flat, where if the tide's high it's going to be 8 feet deep for miles. But at low tide there'll only be like 3 feet of water there.

SHEIR

00:01:05
Barry Truitt is a chief conservation with The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit that protects 52 percent of Virginia's eastern shoreline, including 14 of 23 barrier islands. These dynamic shifting land masses buffer the mainland from storms and they provide a unique ecosystem for different sea grasses, more than 250 species of birds.

TRUITT

00:01:27
That's a loon.

SHEIR

00:01:28
And bunches of shellfish, including oysters.

TRUITT

00:01:30
You can't see it, but there's oyster beds all over here, all over here, all over out here.

SHEIR

00:01:36
All of 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. Inside the Virginia Coast Reserve's headquarters on the mainland, Barry Truitt shows me a color coded map of who owns what.

TRUITT

00:01:55
The green is what the Conservancy owns. The purple is what the state owns. This is the federal land.

SHEIR

00:02:02
But the Conservancy doesn't just own islands. It also owns parts of the mainland.

TRUITT

00:02:06
We bought the islands mainly because they were wild and they had tons of birds nesting on them. 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 then of buying farms that had a lot of development potential on the seaside edge. And we bought them, 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.

SHEIR

00:02:32
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.

MS. JILL BIERI

00:02:42
So if you were down on the bottom with a mask and snorkel, you'd look out and it's really like a forest underwater. 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.

SHEIR

00:02:56
Not only that, but eelgrass helps improve water quality.

BIERI

00:03:00
They're not algae. So they have extensive root rhizome systems. So they actually bind the sediment or the dirt in the bottom of the water. So they make the water around them clearer.

SHEIR

00:03:10
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.

TRUITT

00:03:33
Once we started planting seeds out here, we planted 380 acres now and have almost 5,000 acres growing.

SHEIR

00:03:42
Another success story, Truitt says, is the oysters. See, by the mid-1990s, over-harvesting and disease had pretty much driven oysters to commercial extinction.

TRUITT

00:03:50
We had 70-some acres of oyster reefs we used to lease out to watermen, back when the oysters were growing. When they 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. And to date, there's more oysters in this system than there is in the whole lower part of the Chesapeake Bay.

SHEIR

00:04:12
But sustaining the barrier islands' ecosystem isn't just about restoring and protecting wild life. It's about protecting the islands themselves -- which, as we've learned, are constantly changing.

MR. CHRIS HEIN

00:04:23
The beach changes with the tide, with storms, it changes through the seasons. You could go to a barrier early in the week, and then go back later in the week, and they look completely different.

SHEIR

00:04:34
So the problem, says Chris Hein, who teaches in the Department of Physical Sciences at VIMS, is when something messes with this natural change -- like, for example, climate change.

HEIN

00:04:44
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.

SHEIR

00:05:00
Climate change, Hein says, causes the sea level to rise, and that, in turn, affects the barrier islands.

HEIN

00:05:06
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? And 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.

SHEIR

00:05:30
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.

HEIN

00:05:40
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.

SHEIR

00:05:52
And as the Nature Conservancy's Barry Truitt points out, some of the barrier islands…

TRUITT

00:05:56
There's about 20 people that lived on Smith Island at one time.

SHEIR

00:05:59
…have been subject to all those things.

TRUITT

00:06:01
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 about how to keep the parking lot, so the tourists can park 50 feet from where they lie on the beach. You know, it's washed away three times in the last four years.

SHEIR

00:06:22
That's why Truitt is so glad the Conservancy started buying up the islands in the 1960s.

TRUITT

00:06:28
When the Conservancy got involved here, the southern three islands here -- Smith, Myrtle and Ship Shoal -- were proposed for high-density residential development. And the Conservancy bought those three islands and most of the rest of the coast, south from Metompkin Island.

SHEIR

00:06:42
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.

SHEIR

00:07:03
To learn more about The Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve and to see a map of who owns what on Virginia's barrier islands, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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