Mighty plovers hatch Island controversy

Debate between protection of birds and recreation continues.

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They're tiny birds with a big impact on the Island's fishing and recreation. - MVTimes file photo

Piping plovers are tiny birds. They weigh one to two ounces, and there aren’t many of them, maybe six pounds’ worth on the entire Island, but they pack considerable clout, especially on recreation and the summer economy, residents argued at a meeting called last Wednesday to discuss management of the spring and summer visitors.

Federal, state, and local naturalists at the meeting in the Edgartown Town Hall told an audience of two dozen residents that 17 piping plover pairs used the Island to breed and fledge 44 chicks this year. Only an estimated 2,000 pairs are left nationally in their natural beachfront habitat from the Carolinas to Canada.

The Island is home to other at-risk birds, including roseate terns, black skimmer, and least terns, but plovers are the poster birds for the controversy.

On the Island, plovers favor Chappaquiddick beachfronts for their nesting spots. The birds can fly, but prefer to walk in order to use their brown coloring as a defense against predators.

Piping plovers nest on the ground along beaches in early spring to breed and to fledge offspring into the summer. State and federal guidelines developed over the past 17 years offer strong protections, including restriction of access and beach closures to oversand vehicles during those summer months, causing public outcries when plovers choose to nest in human high-traffic areas.

Currently, the people vs. plover debate here principally involves nearly eight miles of Chappaquiddick beach owned or maintained by The Trustees of Reservations nonprofit organization, which owns or conserves almost 300 nature preserves across the state. The plover controversy has had particular intensity this year because plover-chosen nesting sites created two “chokepoints” near Leland and East beaches, effectively limiting oversand vehicle access to nearly eight miles of Trustees beaches from Norton Point Beach to the tip of Chappaquiddick near Edgartown Harbor.

Walkers are free to use the beaches, and The Trustees of Reservations employed “guided tours” to ferry visitors past nest sites to the outer reaches of Chappaquiddick this summer.

Chris Kennedy has been the man in the middle for the 17 years of the debate. Mr. Kennedy is the Trustees’ superintendent for Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. He is responsible both for generating revenue from beach users to care for his properties and for observing state endangered species regs, which often limit his customers’ access to the beaches. Norton Beach was closed from July 1 to July 23 to protect nesting plovers.

Wednesday’s public hearing was not Mr. Kennedy’s first rodeo. He assembled a team of state and federal wildlife administrators to address the audience, and he chose Chappaquiddick resident Woody Filley to moderate because “Woody is the fairest man I know,” Mr. Kennedy said in introductory remarks.

Audience members argued that the stringency of current regulations is out of proportion to the need, that regulations prohibiting fencing, for example, lead to erosion of the nesting areas they seek to protect, and that there is evidence in other places that plovers and humans interact happily together.

Wildlife presenters included Jon Regosin, chief of conservation science for the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species program of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife,

Caitlin Borck, Trustees ecology assistant, and Susi von Oettingen, endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency, outlined an environment in which habitat is shrinking because of beach erosion, and perhaps climate change, in addition to natural and human predation in the smaller nesting range.

Reports from all three naturalists indicate that plovers are doing best in Massachusetts and that they like the Island a lot, with highest reproduction productivity rates statewide here. In fact, Martha’s Vineyard was the only location from the Carolinas to Canada to meet its goal for nesting plover pairs over the past decade, they said.

But at what cost, argued Cooper Gilkes III, well known as the proprietor of Coop’s Bait and Tackle Shop in Edgartown and regarded as a straight talker. He said that limited access to beaches is impacting the Island’s recreational and fishing economy.

Beach closings “were a factor in the closing of Nelson’s Bait and Tackle on the Cape last year,” Mr. Gilkes said. Nelson’s Bait and Tackle was a famous stop for fishermen, and the last remaining bait and tackle shop on the Outer Cape until it closed in 2016. Owner Rich Wood said that beach access was a key factor in his decision to close in an interview with the Cape Cod Times at the time.

Mr. Gilkes and fellow waterman Ron Mckee of Oak Bluffs and Buxton, Maine, said that retail business and hospitality also feel the brunt of beach closures. “I know groups of guys who come four or five times a year to fish. That’s hotels, rentals, food, entertainment. They are not coming, they tell me,” Mr. McKee said. “What are the birds worth? How much is it costing, Maine to Carolina?”

Fran and Bob Clay, longtime former Island residents and ongoing benefactors, put the debate between human and avian species in simple terms. ”We appreciate your work, but we and our kids and grandchildren are part of this habitat too,” Ms. Clay said.

“When government is involved with arbitrary protocols, it always ends up hitting them in the rear end. The process is not working,” Mr. Clay said.

Asked by an audience member what the effect of beach closure had on oversand permit sales, Mr. Kennedy said that revenues at Norton Point were off 40 percent this season, a loss which will require the trustees to grant supplementary funds to maintain its Chappaquiddick preserve.

Several residents said that closures at Norton Point produced overcrowding at other Island beaches. “I know people who opted not to go to the beach this year because of it,” one woman said.

Mr. McKee agreed. “One weekend, there had to be 3,000 people on Norton. The next weekend it was empty, closed,” he said.

Each side included veterans of the plover debate, and the conversation was occasionally heated, but civil. “You’re just doing your jobs and we appreciate your work, but you have to take the message back to your bosses and the legislature before the tipping point is reached. Storm clouds are on the horizon. Trouble is coming,” warned one audience member.

The audience and naturalists put their heads together during the 80-minute session to look for answers which fell into three camps: relax unnecessary restrictions, move the nests, or build access roads around them. There seemed to be some room for discussion of moving nests, which has reportedly been done successfully in other places.

Mr. McKee led some discussion of détente he’s observed between people and plovers. “We have them at Old Orchard and Scarborough beaches in Maine. Scarboro put up pens for the plovers with netting to keep seagulls off them and just put up a sign that said the birds were there and be careful of them. People respect it. Birds have no problem with It. It works fine,” he said.

Longtime Chappaquiddick seasonal resident Victor Colantonio is a measured man who has read the statutes and regs. He waved a Post-it-adorned copy of the state requirements. “Everyone should read this,” he said. He described part of the current conundrum as resulting from “a 100-yard thoroughfare” over which plovers and chicks travel twice daily to feed on the bay and ocean sides that affects “15 miles of beach on the bay and ocean sides,” he said.

The naturalists were leery of the nest-moving plan. “It’s been done, but has to be done in short distances over time so the birds will follow the nest,” Mr. Regosin said, noting that plovers have some degree of hardiness, “Pairs have shown up in places like Revere Beach and Nahant,” outside Boston, he said.

Mr. Kennedy and several audience members cautioned residents about planning to build access routes around plover nests. “How much do you want to see your beach stickers increase?” he asked in reference to boardwalk and barrier-building.

“Chris doesn’t have the money for that. How long will the Trustees be willing to pay for that?” an audience speaker asked.

Mr. Kennedy told the audience he called the meeting in order to get feedback and provide maximum time to plan for next summer’s plan to allow people and plovers to coexist.