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Maryland Port Administration talks Bay island restoration

Once dwindled to less than 10 acres due to erosion, Poplar Island has been rebuilt it to its original 1,150-acre footprint.

Posted on March 8, 2023

Representatives from the Maryland Port Administration provided project updates on two Chesapeake Bay island restoration efforts to the Eastern Shore Delegation Friday morning.

Nestled under the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Maryland Port Administration is responsible for stimulating the flow of waterborne commerce through the state, said Holly Miller, MPA’s director of harbor development.

MPA Executive Director William Doyle noted that in 2022, the Port of Baltimore saw its best year since 2014 for importing forest products, and its best year since 2012 for importing roll on/roll off farm machinery cargo. The cruise business is also “back and booming,” he said, adding that there were 100 ship calls and nearly 350,000 passengers embarking and debarking in 2022.

However, the overall success of the port in the current competitive trade environment is dependent on providing safe and reliable access for vessels via deep, well-maintained channels, Miller said.

A 50-foot channel system in the Chesapeake Bay leads into the Port of Baltimore and is considered to be the state’s “marine highway,” she said.

MPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintain the channel through regular dredging, and the dredged material can be used to restore and rebuild lost island habitats in the Bay. One successful example is Talbot County’s Poplar Island.

In the mid-1800s, Poplar Island had over 1,100 acres of land. The island supported a small community of about 100 residents in the early 1900s, but residents moved away as erosion increased. The island was reduced to about four acres in the 90s.

Since 2001, Poplar Island has been a main recipient of dredged materials and will continue to receive materials until 2032, Miller said. The island is now up to just over 1,700 acres of diverse habitat. It’s also home to hundreds of species of wildlife and waterfowl, including diamondback terrapins and common terns, which are endangered in Maryland.

As for enhancing other wildlife on Poplar Island, the agency conducted an oyster larvae deployment study through placing larvae on rock reefs in the open water last summer. Initial findings show that oysters are attaching to the rock reefs and growing — which is “very encouraging” for a pilot project, Miller said, adding that the agency hopes to expand the study into other open water areas.

A barn owl was also found nesting in construction equipment last year, prompting the agency to install nesting boxes. The owls returned and successfully nested in the new location, Miller said.

To provide further habitat for wildlife and waterfowl, the agency has partnered with the Town of Easton to collect and transport used Christmas trees to the island. Over 3,000 used trees have been transported, she said.

Looking forward, the agency is focusing on efforts to grade and plan another wetland cell that’s being developed, along with upland cell habitat development. The project team is working on soil compaction and chemistry tests to help support upland vegetation, such as trees, shrubs and meadow habitat, Miller said.

Miller added that Poplar Island is open for tours for the 2023 season. The island welcomed over 2,000 visitors last year, including elected officials, student groups and birders.

Another project that utilizes dredged material from the shipping channel is the Mid-Bay Island Ecosystem Restoration Project. The project, another partnership between MPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is located in Dorchester County near what remains of James and Barren islands.

The Mid-Bay Island Project kicked off in October when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded its first construction contract of $43 million to a Virginia-based company. The project will accept between 90 million to 95 million cubic yards of dredged material from the shipping channel over the next 30 years.

Restoration of Barren Island, which will be composed of 100% wetland habitat, is the first part of the Mid-Bay project. Construction is expected to begin this month with the installation of sills and breakwaters to protect the existing island. The next phases of restoration are slated to begin in 2025 and will include the completion of sills, creation of bird islands, placement of dredged materials and wetland development.

The James Island portion of the project is set as over 2,000 acres of remote island habitat restoration. About 55% of the island will be wetlands and 45% will be uplands, Miller said.

“Without Mid-Bay to accept the annual maintenance dredging, the Port of Baltimore’s 50-foot marine highway would shoal into a controlling depth of about 45 feet within two to three years, which makes maintaining the deep and reliable access into the Port of Baltimore especially important so that we can maintain our competitive position for waterborne commerce,” she said.

Other islands and coastal communities are threatened by sea level rise, including Smith Island and Crisfield in Somerset County. In Dorchester County, Hoopers Island is at risk, prompting Del. Tom Hutchinson, R-37B, to ask why efforts aren’t put forth to preserve existing islands before they do disappear into the Bay.

In response, Miller said that the Mid-Bay Project was authorized by Congress, noting a “long and lengthy” approval and screening process for selection of projects. In theory, Hoopers Island could be restored, but there are “a lot of authorizations that have to occur for that to happen,” she said.


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