EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 20, 2012

Battle over the birds

Fence going up to ensure their safety

By Angeljean Chiaramida

---- — SEABROOK BEACH — An 800-foot-long wall of snow fencing is being installed along Seabrook Beach, due in part to clashes with neighbors over piping plovers nests and an effort to create more habitat for the tiny endangered birds.

Selectmen had to agree to allow the installation of the sand fencing behind the dunes in order for the badly needed dredging of Hampton/Seabrook harbor to take place this year, according to Selectman Aboul Khan. The fence will run from Hooksett Street south to roughly Tyngsboro Street, along a stretch of beach where there are numerous beach homes. Town-owned accessways at the end of streets will be left open, but several private access trails will be closed.

The dredging to start in mid-November will be conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, but the protective fencing was mandated by New Hampshire Fish and Game and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service so the town could get a large chunk of the dredge sand to be redeposited on Seabrook Beach, Khan said. The two wildlife agencies had to sign off on the dredge plans, including the sand distribution, before the dredge could take place, he said.

Selectmen found themselves stuck between plover nests and a clogged harbor that is hampering the struggling commercial fishing fleet, Khan said. They felt they had little choice but to go along with the wildlife agencies’ demands. Khan said he was told by state and national wildlife officials that the fencing mandate arose because the town had not done enough to protect the tiny piping plovers who have nested annually on the beach since 1996.

For years there had been a good relationship between the Seabrook community, state and federal wildlife agencies and the plovers, said John Kanter, co-ordinator of the non-game and endangered wildlife bureau for the N.H. Fish and Game Division, but recently there’s been problems.

“That co-operation has eroded over the past couple of years,” Kanter said. “This summer there was a full blown verbal attack on a (plover) monitor by a beach front property owner.”

Kanter said the yelling incident was triggered because the monitor roped off a nest site that was close to the property owner’s private walkway over the dune. Although such walkways aren’t allowed by town ordinance, they’ve been tolerated for decades at the beach by town officials, he added, even though the town has plenty of public access points across its dunes.

More trouble arose this summer, Kanter said, for people continued to bother the nest by not honoring the symbolic fencing. Continued human traffic too close to the nest over the private walkway caused the plover parents to leave the nest, he said.

Susi von Oettingen, endangered species biologist for the New England field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife services, said the verbal abuse of the monitor was what she considered “horrible.” But von Oettingen insists that doesn’t represent the true relationship wildlife agencies have with the entire Seabrook community.

“Seabrook’s public works department, the police department and all other town officials are very, very supportive,” von Oettingen said. “It’s not the town administration or the community in general. It’s some of the beach front land owners, and the people that they rent to, who have basically disrespected the symbolic fencing and the plover protection areas.”

And so, she said, when the harbor dredging was proposed and included a request from town officials to have some of the dredged sand distributed on the beach, a solution to the plover problem seemed at hand. If Seabrook wanted the said, she said, after close consultation with state Fish and Game officials, she insisted the sand be placed in a way that would help plovers.

“We’re going to expand the (plover) habitat,” von Oettingen said.

Further requirements include fencing behind the sand to create a human barrier between private beach front residences and the plover habitat. The fencing will cut off access to what von Oettingen considers the “illegal” private walkways over the dunes. But the fencing will leave open the town’s beach access boardwalks,which she said are adequate for beachgoers.

Plover nests

Seabrook’s town-owned beach is the most plover-productive stretch of sand along New Hampshire’s 17-miles of coastline. Plovers like grassy sand dunes to nest in, and currently, they’ve found that environment on only Seabrook and Hampton beaches. Seabrook Beach is one of the most stable in the region, with healthy dunes that do not suffer from the type of erosion that plagues other communities in the region.

According to figures kept by N.H. Fish and Game, from 1996 to 2011, 179 plover chicks hatched in New Hampshire, although not all make it to maturity.

However, in that 15 year periods, 89 piping plovers survived their vulnerable early days of life, and of those, 75 percent came from the roped-off nests in the dunes along the northern section of Seabrook’s town beach.

Plovers are listed as a threatened species nationally, but are on the endangered species list in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. As a result, the birds breeding cycles are protected by the both state and federal endangered species acts.

In New Hampshire, Fish and Game keeps and eye out for where ever the birds nest. Those areas are then cordoned off with what is called “symbolic fencing,” which amounts to nothing more than stakes and roping. The roped-off area is meant to alert humans to stay away, but it doesn’t keep the parents or chicks in, because they must forage for food. In addition, animals like fisher cats, skunks, raccoon and even feral cats can prey on the nests. Seabrook has had as many as four pairs of nesting plovers during those years, with each pair laying a maximum of four eggs.

State Fish and Game provides plover monitors who watch the nests daily to observe progress of the nest, the parents and the tiny cotton-ball size chicks from when they hatch until they become fledglings and fly off. They also inspect for violations of the laws.

In both Seabrook and Hampton, plover eggs and chicks have been lost to spring and summer storms that wash away the nests, to wild animals who eat them, to accidents and sometimes human vandalism, Kanter. Sometimes when parents lose nests to storms, they nest a second time. To keep the plover population in New Hampshire stable, Kanter said, each nesting pair of plovers needs to produce an average of 1.2 chicks.

The Hampton/Seabrook harbor holds most of New Hampshire’s commercial fishing fleet, and is badly in needed of dredging to ensure fishermen can access the harbor and not run aground of tons of sand that has shoaled along the bottom, making it a threat to navigation. In addition, Seabrook’s Yankee Fisherman’s Cooperative is located in the harbor basin and is where most fishermen off-load their catches for market year-round.

Khan said when presented with the problem, the selectmen felt they had to agree to the fencing to ensure the dredge takes place as soon as possible to help the local fishing industry, which has fallen on hard time due to federal fishing restrictions.

State and federal wildlife, environmental and marine agencies must sign off on Army Corps projects, according to Army Corps Project Manager Richard Heidebrecht. The fencing requirement and placement was dictated by state and federal wildlife agencies specifically in relation to placing on Seabrook Beach about two-thirds of the 172,000 cubic yards of sand expected to be dredged from the harbor, he said.

“If (the selectmen) hadn’t agreed to the fencing, we would have had to find someplace else to put the dredge said,” Heidebrecht said. “It would have held up the project. I think everyone one was a little surprised at the reason for the fencing, but considering that (Hampton) is the number one commercial harbor in New Hampshire, it was important to get the dredge completed.”

The practice of nourishing beaches with dredged sand is common, but when done at Salisbury and Plum Island beaches after the mouth of the Merrimack River was done in years past, the sand was use to nourish the beach for erosion purposes.

The $3.16 million project has been in the works for a couple of years, he said, and is set to begin in mid-November, probably lasting until January, Heidebrecht said. As the sand is loosed by the dredging equipment from the ocean floor, it will be vacuumed up then piped onto approved areas along areas of Seabrook and Hampton’s beaches. In Seabrook, Heidebrecht said, the sand will be placed south of Hooksett Street.

Heidebrecht said the placement of the sand was worked out with representatives from N.H. Fish and Game and its federal counterpart at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service in the lead. Heidebrecht believes the state agency was the driving force behind the federal demand for placing the sand in a way that will enhance Seabrook Beach’s plover habitat, and the use of the fencing to protect that habitat.

Sand to be distributed to Hampton Beach, which is state owned, will also protect plovers, von Oettingen said, but it will not be fenced in.

According to von Oettingen, whenever the Army Corps distributes dredge sand along existing beaches, it must do so in a way that protects endangered species.