On Sunday, a day before a dead whale crashed the party, hundreds of holiday revelers crowded into a small strip of Norton Point Beach, the popular barrier beach that separates Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
It was a Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce beach day, with American flags waving on a southwest breeze that carried the smells of barbecue, salt air, and sunscreen, and the mostly millennial crowd soaked in the sun and cold suds.
But not everyone was happy.
Only four-tenths of a mile of beach was open to off-road vehicles sporting a beach permit, due to state and federal regulations that protect nesting piping plovers and terns. Atlantic coast piping plovers are a threatened species, according to the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW). Threatened species are animals and plants that are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
According to Massachusetts state law, there can be no vehicle activity within 100 yards of the closest piping plover nest or chick. Plovers don’t like to nest close to one another, so a few nests can take up a lot of beach.
Last year on the Fourth of July, a mile of beach was open, which allowed for 350 permitted vehicles. But because the plovers nested farther west than last year, the party area on Norton Point Beach was reduced by more than half. Only 120 vehicles were allowed on the beach on Sunday, and The Trustees of the Reservation (TTOR), which manages the county-owned beach, closed Norton Point to vehicles at 9:15 am.
“It’s ridiculous,” beachgoer Brian Patrick Hall of Oak Bluffs said, while playing a hotly contested game of cornhole. “I got here a little after nine, and they said the beach was full. People spend good money on these stickers. There’s plenty of room for more cars.”
A Dukes County beach sticker for Norton Point costs $140 for vehicles not registered on Martha’s Vineyard, and $90 for vehicles registered on Martha’s Vineyard.
Mr. Hall had to park a considerable distance away and then hoof it to join friends who had beaten the cutoff time. He was not alone. Cars and trucks were parked along Katama Avenue and Atlantic Drive as far as the eye could see.
“There were people here before 7 am this morning,” TTOR chief ranger Rick Dwyer said as he watched a steady flow of vehicles slowly pass the Katama gatehouse in search of a parking spot.
On Saturday the beach closed around 10:45 am, and there were reports of discord between rebuffed beachgoers and TTOR staff. However, on Sunday afternoon, TTOR staff said that for the most part, people cooperated.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people are understanding,” TTOR Martha’s Vineyard superintendent Chris Kennedy told The Times. “We’re in the business of protecting the environment. At the same time, these are not our rules. People aren’t as angry when they find out it’s not a [TTOR] decision. We advise them to try Cape Poge or Long Point, to look at it as a time to explore. There are a lot of beautiful beaches on Martha’s Vineyard. Islanders tend to be more flexible about the whole thing. I think visitors can take a page from their book.”
“I think we had more problems last year,” Mr. Dwyer said. “I can understand how it makes things difficult, especially for families with small children. But for the most part, people take it pretty well.”
Mr. Kennedy said Mr. Dwyer makes the decision on how many cars to let in on any given day. “It’s more of an art than a science,” he said. “Rick’s been doing this for for a lot of years. He knows what he’s doing.”
For the birds
Piping plovers were deemed threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. At the time, it was estimated there were just 139 breeding pairs in Massachusetts.
Since then, state officials have required fencing around nests, leashes for dogs, and warning signs to alert people to plover presence.
The wire screen exclosures for nesting plovers are about six feet long and three feet high.The mesh is big enough to let fledgeling plovers get out and forage for food. “That’s the most dangerous time, after they’ve hatched and before they can fly,” Mr. Kennedy said.
The TTOR staff checks on the chicks at least three times a day. Mr. Kennedy said the piping plover conservation efforts appear to be paying off. “We had four pair nesting on this beach last year, and this year we have eight pairs,” he said.
The plovers now exceed the goal of 625 pairs in Massachusetts. The DFW estimated 689 pairs nested in Massachusetts last year.
Plovers are not the only protected bird species on Chappy. About halfway between Norton Point Beach and Wasque is a densely populated rookery where hundreds, if not thousands, of terns, and a smaller number of rare black skimmers, have nested on the entire width of the beach. The least tern and common tern and are designated “species of special concern” by the DFW. The roseate tern is considered “endangered.”
Mr. Kennedy expects the restrictions on Chappaquiddick will be lifted by the end of the month. “We’re probably just past the halfway point,” he said.
However, Norton Point Beach might get smaller before it gets bigger.
“It’s a very fluid boundary,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Now the chicks can get out of the exclosures to look for food. The law doesn’t say ‘100 yards from the nest,’ it’s ‘100 yards from the closest chick.’” If the fledgelings wander further west, TTOR may need to close more of the beach. “It’s more likely they’ll move east,” Mr. Kennedy said. “They don’t like to be around people.”
Beachgoers can check the closures by calling TTOR beach hotline at 774-310-1110, or checking the TTOR Facebook page. “We update our Facebook page immediately when something changes,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Adam Darack [Edgartown IT manager] also does a good job of posting the updates on [Facebook group] Islanders Talk.”