From the SandPaper.net
The group boarding a handful of boats in Beach Haven on the last day of June included members of, and other stakeholders connected to, the New Jersey Bay Islands Initiative. Established just a few years ago, the NJBII aims to protect and promote the bay islands’ critical functions: providing habitat for migratory birds, shellfish and terrapins; slowing wave action across large swaths of open water; reducing marsh erosion; and mitigating storm impact on developed areas, such as Long Beach Island.
That day’s objective, as Virginia Rettig, refuge manager for the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, stated, was to “visit a few islands in the bay system to see firsthand the challenges the habitat faces,” and scope out the sites of future projects.
From the boat ramp the vessels headed first to West Marshelder Island, which is owned partly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Long Beach Township and partly by USFWS and the Spray Beach Yacht Club. As Angela Andersen, sustainability director for the township, explained, some of the bay islands off LBI are federally owned, some are privately owned, and some have joint ownership.
Over the past years, particularly after Superstorm Sandy, the local science community’s call became louder, said Andersen, to “look west!” The NJBII, then, began when Long Beach Township partnered with ecologically minded entities including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, Stockton University Coastal Research Center, the Mordecai Land Trust, Ocean County, The Nature Conservancy and others.
Rettig, who keeps a log of the working group’s history, said LBT Mayor Joseph Mancini, along with resident Peter Trainor, had been spearheading the development of priorities for improving the Island’s resilience. Both men, the log states, were “concerned with the future of Long Beach Island as sea level rise continues to accelerate and storm impacts increase. The mayor believes that the marsh islands are as much a part of our past as they need to be for our future, and without them, storms will be much worse.”
Soon, Rettig was strategizing with Andersen, Stockton’s Kim McKenna, Barnegat Bay Partnership Project Coordinator Martha Maxwell-Doyle and others.
According to the NJBII, it’s estimated nearly 7%, or 3,000 acres, of bay island landmass in Ocean County and Atlantic County waters has been lost since 1977.
“While much attention has been given to the plight and resilience of large marshes and ocean beaches,” the group explained, “no coordinated effort has been initiated to address the loss of bay island habitat, until now.”
To determine the number and health of remaining bay islands, the NJBII launched several projects. In 2020, for example, BBP and Forsythe biologists conducted habitat assessments on more than 50 of the islands to ascertain rates of edge erosion, bird nesting information and additional data.
Then, last year, USFWS, Stockton and The Nature Conservancy created an online decision-support tool – the New Jersey Bay Islands Restoration Planner – to “empower users with data to evaluate bay islands based on habitat type, island size, shoreline erosion and tidal inundation to assess potential restoration needs and actions,” the NJBII notes.
Patricia Doerr, TNC’s director of Coastal and Marine Programs, remarked, “We can use the planner to prioritize critical bay island restorations, like, for example, beneficially reusing dredged sediment in the marshes near Long Beach Township. Insights from the tool will help us identify a marsh island’s attributes and pair it up with local partners and dredging projects. The efficiency is attractive, both for safeguarding communities near the marshes and for procuring funding to roll out the technique more widely.”
Every island was mapped, and a first-ever count of the number of islands was made. The current total, said Rettig, is 164 islands.
After disembarking on West Marshelder for just a few minutes, the field trip participants reboarded the boats to then motor past Mordecai Island – where the group could not go ashore due to bird and terrapin nests in the spartina. Earlier in the day, Jim Dugan, vice president and restoration coordinator for the Mordecai Land Trust, spoke about breakwater design, geotubes, oyster castles and other past and current protective efforts related to the bay island.
The vessels then cruised by Clam Cove, the 22 acres of which are owned and maintained by Long Beach Township, and which sits to the south of the LBT Field Station – a facility for marine education and research – on West Osborn Avenue in Holgate. The area was previously classified as wetlands, prohibiting development. However, following Sandy, during which sand was washed onto the area, the DEP revised coastal wetlands maps to exclude the parcel. The property was then identified for its potential as six buildable lots.
However, the township decided to utilize its open space tax fund – approved in a 2017 referendum – to preserve the land, along with assistance from the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund.
“Increasing and enhancing public access to Barnegat Bay continues to be a priority for the township,” Mancini said at the time of the purchase.
“Mayor Mancini was an original visionary for preserving green space” as well as for thinking ahead in terms of flood mitigation, Andersen pointed out.
She added of the NJBII, “The team we’ve assembled is really unique. I think we’ve got every base covered” as the collective continues this “dynamic, interactive, long-term process,” which includes not only restoration work, but also educating citizens about the importance of these islands in the bay.
On the recent outing, the boats headed from Clam Cove back to the waters off Beach Haven, to Lower Little Island and the residence of Lori and Mark Morton. The gracious hosts opened their bay island home to the field trip participants, and showed the group around the island. As Lori explained, the couple is eager to work alongside the NJBII to protect their bay island and the others that still remain.
Harvey Cedars native and West Creek resident Kristin Adams, erosion control specialist for the Ocean County Soil Conservation District, is a fairly new member of the Bay Islands Initiative, but she’s spent a lot of time on the bay throughout her life. “I knew from an early age that working to conserve this unique ecosystem is what I wanted to do as a career,” she noted.
Adams ended up at the Ocean County Soil Conservation District in 2017, after a number of different field research positions in wildlife management and conservation. Beyond the soil erosion and sediment control work the district oversees, she has been training to become a certified conservation planner with a focus on aquaculture and coastal conservation.
As part of the NJBII, Adams remarked, “I’m inspired by the current and future partnerships among member organizations and the vital restoration projects they will undertake. The NJBII field trip last week was a fantastic opportunity to visit township-, federal- and privately owned bay islands to see the coastal erosion of our valuable marshes that has occurred.
“In addition to visiting these islands on such a beautiful day, the field trip provided a great chance to meet other group members I had only met previously in virtual meetings, and to discuss future collaborations such as living shoreline projects with other partners.”
Lizzy Beyer, program and outreach coordinator at the LBT Field Station, also joined the late-June outing. The group, she said, “is a successful example of stakeholder engagement that I think could serve as a model for other initiatives. You have representatives from all levels of government, private homeowners, businesses and nonprofits that have come together with a shared vision and mission to restore the bay islands.
“While each partner has their own reason for showing up, everyone is able to put aside differences in support of the shared goal. What I think makes the partnership successful is that the initiative has social, ecological and economic benefits with a dual purpose of increasing wildlife habitat and community resiliency.”
To learn more about the N.J. Bay Islands Initiative, including a full list of NJBII member organizations, visit barnegatbaypartnership.org/protect/restoration/islands.
— Juliet Kaszas-Hoch