Currituck Marsh Focus for Resilience Project

Groundsel, a food for wildlife, blooms on the marsh edge. Photo: Audubon

COROLLA – Marshlands surrounding the Currituck Sound have been eroding away. They’ve been invaded by weeds that choke out native plants. They’ve been drowned by floodwaters, marinated in pollutants and withered by saltwater.

Old-timers who remember when the northern Outer Banks waterway was thick with waterfowl have seen the degradation over decades. The Army Corps of Engineers even released a draft report in 2011 about the dire condition of Currituck Sound — since shelved — warning that 3,600 more acres of estuarine marsh could be lost by mid-century if nothing was done.

Little has been done to stop depletion of the marsh. But now, conservation work is getting ready to be done.

Audubon North Carolina announced last month that it has received nearly $200,000 in grant funds to conduct marsh restoration and resilience planning in Currituck Sound.

According to a Nov. 18 press release, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided $95,808 to Audubon through the National Coastal Resilience Fund, and a matching grant of $99,500 was provided by the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund to “complete a comprehensive marsh site assessment … to determine optimal locations, techniques and design for restoring and fortifying existing marsh.” The project will include climate resilience design plans for up to three high-priority locations.

“This is really kick-starting a larger vision,” Cat Bowler, Audubon’s Coastal Resilience program manager, said in an interview. “The habitat these marshes provide is globally significant.”

“Our coastal resilience program is a long-term strategy for us. This is one important piece of that.”

— Cat Bowler, Manager, Audubon Coastal Resilience program

Although the number of waterfowl, including snow goose, tundra swan, American green-winged teal, lesser scaup and northern pintail, that overwinter at the sound has plummeted — from about 300,000 a year in the 1970s to 30,000 today — Currituck is still a vital way station for birds migrating on the Atlantic Flyway, as well as a rare coastal ecosystem.

Since 2010, Audubon North Carolina has owned and managed the 2,600-acre Donal C. O’Brien Jr. Sanctuary & Audubon Center at Pine Island, tucked off N.C. 12 between the villages of Duck and Corolla on the northern Outer Banks.

In addition to marsh, the sanctuary protects bottomland and dry sandy areas and upland maritime forests, which — at last count — provide habitat for about 170 bird species, seven amphibian, 17 reptile, 19 mammal and more than 350 plant species, according to the sanctuary website.

The sanctuary, Audubon’s first nature center in North Carolina, includes a 60-acre education campus with an authentic hunt club built in 1913 that hosts researchers and conservationists. Adult education programs and kayak tours are also offered at the center, and walkers and runners are welcome to enjoy the site’s 2.5-mile nature trail.

Bowler said of the 2,600 acres in the Pine Island sanctuary, the majority is marsh habitat. But that is only a portion of the total 21,400 acres of marsh along Currituck Sound, of which 63% is in conservation.

The grant funds, she said, will allow Audubon and its partners to develop specific marsh restoration that is tailored to Currituck Sound and design restoration solutions.

The project is an initial phase of Audubon’s continuing focus on the restoration of the sound ecosystem, Bowler said.

“Our coastal resilience program is a long-term strategy for us,” she said. “This is one important piece of that.”

The sanctuary campus, situated on the Currituck Outer Banks just north of the Dare County border, is a logical location for restoration team planning and research and perhaps community meetings. Audubon also is already seeking to develop innovative adaptation strategies for shoreline stabilization and habitat protection.

“We’re transforming that place into a hub,” Bowler said.

In a July 2015 article in Coastal Review Online, Robbie Fearn, the Pine Island center’s director, said that an informal steering committee the sanctuary established called the Alliance for Currituck Sound had met the previous year to lay the groundwork for a collaborative partnership with members of the community, scientists, nonprofits and other stakeholders to restore the sound.

At the time, Fearn said that some parts of the sound with once-sandy bottoms had become mucky, and invasive weeds were taking over areas of marshland. Also, the south edge of the Audubon property, he said, was especially vulnerable to erosion because of high wave fetch, boat traffic and the natural shape of the sound.

“The underlying ecosystem has taken a hit,” he said at the time.

For many years, waterfowl hunters, bird watchers and area residents have been worried about what was happening to Currituck Sound. Shallow and brackish, the 36-mile long, 3.8-mile wide, 98,000-acre waterway has over recent decades suffered serious impacts from polluted stormwater runoff and increased salinity and turbidity. The decreased water clarity has depleted submerged aquatic vegetation, which in turn led to diminished numbers of fish and birds.

Increased effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, saltwater intrusion and intensified storms and rains, have made resilience and adaptation efforts for Currituck Sound’s ecosystem and the Pine Island center’s infrastructure even more urgent.

“Audubon is already studying those challenges,” Bowler said.

Discussions, research and collaboration that have started with some partners with be expanded for the marsh assessment and design project.  A coalition of partners will likely include the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, the North Carolina Estuarium, the town of Duck, Currituck County, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Coastal Studies Institute, among others, as well as members of the public.

“Community engagement is very important,” Bowler said.

Potential marsh restoration solutions, she said, could be construction of living shorelines that buffer land from water action or thin-layer sediment applications that can prevent marsh loss from high water.

Ultimately, a healthier and more adaptable ecosystem will benefit not just the Audubon sanctuary, but everyone who lives around and enjoys Currituck Sound.

“In just protecting and restoring these natural places,” Bowler said, “we also help reduce flood risk and storm risk for our community.”

About the Author

Catherine Kozak

Catherine Kozak has been a reporter and writer on the Outer Banks since 1995. She worked for 15 years for The Virginian Pilot. Born and raised in the suburbs outside New York City, Catherine earned her journalism degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz. During her career, she has written about dozens of environmental issues, including oil and gas exploration, wildlife habitat protection, sea level rise, wind energy production, shoreline erosion and beach nourishment. She lives in Nags Head.