New coast Cape Romain managers looking to preserve eroding refuge
CAPE ROMAIN — The barrier islands and marsh — the womb of this place — are slipping away into the seas.
A recent geo-spatial survey found an overall trend of lost land in the islands of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge
1875 — 11,253 acres
1926 — 10,705 acres
1979 — 10,281 acres
1994 — 9,640 acres
2011 — 9,148 acres
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Overwash buries sea turtle nesting beaches, and shorebird and migratory bird roosts.
This is part of an occasional series looking at how the coast and the ocean off the Lowcountry are changing, and what it means for a region where people have made a life and a living for generations in tune with the sea.
Dunes and acres of marsh grass, the nurseries for countless marine creatures, are lost.
The critical habitats of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge seascape are in jeopardy and refuge managers have begun mounting a retreat: They want to buy properties closer to shore along the Intracoastal Waterway and just inland.
The idea is that as the ocean sweeps over the barrier islands, it will create new barrier islands and coastal beaches closer in.
The hope is that the wildlife will follow.
“These habitats are going to be shifting, not just in Cape Romain but on the mainland. (It is) natural progression,” said Sarah Dawsey, refuge manager. “The habitats are going to shift; where the animals go, nobody knows.”
Quality of life
It’s hard to oversell the importance of Cape Romain: 64,000 acres of ocean interspersed with about 10,000 misted acres of islands. The beauty is matchless, the value enormous.
Just a few examples:
The vanishing Cape Island beach has held nests for about one-third of the sea turtles nesting from Georgia to North Carolina each year.
Jacks Creek on Bulls Island alone draws more than 50 species of waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, rails, raptors, songbirds and sparrows, literally thousands of birds per year, including long-distance migrators such as plovers and spectacular birds such as the white pelican and roseate spoonbill. The impoundment there is losing its levee to the surf.
More than 800,000 pounds of shrimp and 24,000 bushels of oyster come out of Cape Romain each year.
A recent refuge study pegged the annual economic impact of commercial and recreational visitors at $12 million.
The vast seascape is elemental to the Lowcountry environs and quality of life.
For more than a century, at least, Cape Romain has lost “fast land,” or ground above the water, in the dynamics of coastal wash.
A geo-spatial study completed for the refuge earlier this year indicated the loss of nearly 20 percent of its fast land acres since 1875 — much of it at the most valuable wildlife sites.
“We think that’s ‘the writing on the wall,’ and we need to take steps to offset that habitat loss,” said Raye Nilius of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, project leader for the complex of Lowcountry refuges.
Refuge managers see evidence that some of the lost sand is moving shoreward, and at least one wildlife species readily following. Lighthouse Island is one of the few remote islands actually gaining fast land. It sits behind Cape Island when viewed from the sea, and it’s suspected that the sand accreting there is coming at least partly from sand that Cape is losing.
After a crippling loss of nesting habitat on Cape from Hurricane Irene in 2011, about 100 more sea turtle nests were laid on Lighthouse this year than in recent years.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is negotiating with property owners to buy a small island along the Intracoastal Waterway on the northern end of the refuge, and two inland tracts on the southern end, a total of a little more than 1,300 acres.
The purchases are by no means sure. Funding is an issue; at least one property owner is also taking steps to set up for development. The purchases would be made with about $7 million now being sought in federal grants from oil and gas leasing revenue.
The new acreage wouldn’t make up the acreage lost, but the purchases are not about just accumulating acreage, Nilius said.
The waterway island is expected to become a barrier island as more remote islands like Cape disappear. The inland tracts “will become the new coast” as seas continue to rise, Nilius said.
In the not-so-distant future, Cape Romain won’t look like the chain of far-off islands it does today.
If it is to continue as a refuge, managers might have to take costlier and not-so-environmentally-conventional steps such as renourishing beaches, piling sand for whole new barrier islands or dispersing dredge spoils in thin layers to replace marsh, said Caitlin Black, a College of Charleston environmental studies graduate student who studied Cape Romain erosion and potential solutions.
“Not just the environmental community, but I think we are all going to pick our poison as far as sea-level rise and the environmental changes,” she said.
The refuge may become more like Deveaux Bank at the mouth of the North Edisto River, suggests Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League. That is, a series of overwashing islands or — worst case — “emergent bars,” essentially migrating sand bars.
“I think whatever form they take on, they’ll provide an invaluable niche for wildlife,” he said. “They’ll never be expendable.”
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