More than 100 volunteers gathered to help plant beachgrass at Lobsterville Beach in Aquinnah on Saturday. The annual event, part of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)’s Lobsterville Restoration and Coastal Resiliency program, which was initially created in 2016, aims to stabilize the dunes along approximately 10,000 square feet of beach. Since the first year of the project, about a mile of coastline has been restored, due to the collaborative efforts of various organizations and, especially, local volunteers.
The beach had experienced major erosion, particularly after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, said Beckie Finn, environmental programs coordinator for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). In 2016, after losing much of the beach, the Army Corps of Engineers “very generously” agreed to have the dredging company pipe the removed Menemsha Channel sand to the areas of Lobsterville that needed to be built back up. After the sand was moved, the Natural Resources Department was able to begin the restoration, starting with 19,000 stems in 2016. The beachgrass comes locally sourced from Cape Coastal Nursery, which is vital in maintaining the beach’s natural and structural integrity.
“It’s always very important to acknowledge the folks who have supported us, be it funding or direct help and research,” said Finn, noting support the program has received from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Department of the Interior. Finn said she was “humbled” by the ways in which the project has been supported, especially the immense volunteer turnout. If the volunteers had not planted all of the grass that they have, much of the beach wouldn’t exist, said Finn.
“The volunteers have been amazing,” said Andrew Jacobs, natural resources laboratory manager and environmental technician for the Wampanoag Tribe. “A lot of people that are here today have come to past plantings,” he said, adding that new volunteers are alongside people who have done it before, which in turn allows for knowledge to be shared and passed down year to year.
The grass planting works by inserting two stems per hole, approximately 6 to 8 inches into the sand, with each hole being about a foot apart, said Finn. This method creates a grid which allows for the plant to “reproduce itself and spread out,” creating a matlike structure underneath the sand, which is what helps stabilize the beach and its dunes.
Flip Scipio, guitar maker and two-decade-long Vineyarder, laughed when he was asked how many stems he thinks he planted, and said he isn’t keeping count. “I’m just in the moment,” he said. “I live here, I hang out here.” The planting has become a local custom, he said, highlighting the importance of community involvement in the restoration.
Mike Stimola, retired photographer and avid fisherman, has spent more than 40 years fishing the up-Island beaches on the Vineyard. If there’s no beach, he said, there’s no fishing. He added that it also wouldn’t be possible for his wife to take her brave October swims here.
“The severity of the storms is continuously increasing,” tribal council chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais explained. Climate change–related storms and weather events have impacted the beach’s stability, and it has experienced “devastating effects all over” the coastline. “The superstorms and the impacts that they have are more frequent. It’s not allowing Mother Earth to heal herself. How many 100-year storms can we have over a decade that aren’t going to dramatically impact the structure that sustains these areas?” she said. Inevitably, “the storm surges will continue.”
Historically, Wampanoag values cite that the people of the Island “didn’t own the land, [they] were stewards of the lands,” said Andrews-Matlais, further emphasizing the need for the project.
“The plantings are important, because if we don’t have these barriers, [inundation] is going to continue” increasing.
But for Andrew-Maltais, there is hope. “Here, as you can see, we’re gaining a little bit more beach,” she said, pointing to the volunteers intricately planting stem by stem. “It’s amazing what is able to take place, with the restoration of the dunes.” The project is “really a labor of love.”