Conservation Groups Paddle to Victory for a Disappearing Nesting Site

South Carolina’s Crab Bank gets a second chance, thanks to quick work by a flotilla of activists.

Kayaking up to the receding shore of Crab Bank, a once-thriving seabird sanctuary in Charleston Harbor, Nolan Schillerstrom spotted a lone Brown Pelican perched on the sand.

“I felt like it was telling us, ‘We still want to use this place, but we can’t,’ ” Schillerstrom, Audubon South Carolina’s coastal program coordinator, says.

His was among a rainbow of kayaks and paddleboards visiting Crab Bank last September. Together, they formed a flotilla of about 200 activists (and some dogs) who circled the sandbar to call attention to a vital rookery that was eroding away.

Over recent years, intense storms and heavy ship traffic had whittled down the site’s 23 acres to just one. Thousands of low-flying Black Skimmers, balletic Sandwich Terns, foraging American Oystercatchers, and other birds had once flocked to Crab Bank’s shores. But by last summer, there was so little land left that, for the first time in decades, not a single individual nested on the isle.

Audubon South Carolina and other conservation groups realized that if the island was going to be saved, it had to be now. And because of their quick action, a restoration process is now being finalized to get the sandbar back to its former breadth.

Crab Bank sits just outside the mouth of Shem Creek, a waterway that runs through the town of Mount Pleasant, which neighbors the city of Charleston. By night, the creekside hums with activity from waterfront bars and restaurants. By day, it’s a working waterway, where locals dock their shrimping boats and families come to fish.

But in the early hours, Shem Creek is for the birds (and the dolphins). On a recent morning, Chris Crolley, a local nature guide and environmentalist who organized the Crab Bank rally, pointed out the avifauna as he slowly steered his boat toward the harbor. Pelicans perched under an overpass, terns flew by, and shorebirds of all kinds lined up along the wooden boardwalk. A Greater Black-backed Gull—a likely migrant from Maine, he explained—perched near the water’s edge.

“I don’t think people understand that this is not just about a local rookery,” Crolley says. For example, the Royal Terns that nest on the Southeast shoreline may travel as far south as Ecuador and Argentina for winter.

As someone who has witnessed Crab Bank shrink year after year, the effort to restore the island became all-consuming for Chris Crolley.

Ultimately, it’s hard to predict the impact of losing Crab Bank permanently, Crolley adds. The island carries a vital layer of protections for wildlife: Public access to sand bar is limited for the greater part of the year. And while some birds did relocate to nearby areas last year, it’s unclear whether their nests were successful.

As someone who has witnessed Crab Bank shrink year after year, the effort to restore the island became all-consuming for Crolley. So, he was delighted when, early in the process of brainstorming, his 5-year-old daughter Olivia said she had the solution. Gather all the local shrimp boats, she said, and have them cast their nests to collect enough sand to rebuild Crab Bank. In the end, her idea wasn’t far off from the real solution.

Since the beginning of 2018, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging Charleston Harbor to allow larger ships to access the city’s busy port. Crab Bank had originally been formed from dredged materials in the 1950s and ’60s, and conservationists realized that the new deepening project could provide boatloads of sediment to do that again. After much discussion, the agency drew up a plan to fix Crab Bank with some of the sediment collected from the project.

But they had one major hurtle: fundraising. The Corps and supporting groups like Audubon South Carolina would have to raise about $1.4 million—and time was limited since the dredging had already begun.

That’s where the rally came in. Shortly after the kayaktivists made their demonstration, support started rolling in from multiple sources. Boeing Co, which builds its Dreamliner jets in the Charleston area, helped kick things off with a $100,000 contribution. Students at local middle schools even launched their own fundraisers, some donating hundreds to the effort.

Thanks to a combination of corporate and private donations, the organizations closed the gap in their goal. Then, in December, the South Carolina Department of Resources was notified that the Crab Bank project was selected for a federal grant that would cover 100 percent of the Corps' construction costs.

Now coalition partners say there’s enough money to not only fix Crab Bank, but to also increase monitoring and maintenance at all five of the state’s protected coastal rookeries. The awareness brought by the campaign has been invaluable, too.

Caroline Bradner, a land, water, and wildlife project manager for South Carolina’s Coastal Conservation League, says that the question was never whether Crab Bank should be restored, but how. After spending several years guiding field trips out to the sandbank, she saw what a powerful educational tool it could be.

“Students had a really visceral reaction to the fact that it was gone,” Bradner says. “We saw it go from being thriving and loud to almost lifeless.”

With the funding currently in place, Crolley says the work at Crab Bank will be a “springboard” to restoring the state’s breeding-bird legacy. The plan is to add 28 acres of habitat on Crab Bank—five more than the island's original size. The Corps hasn't set a launch date but is working on the details of the dredging contract, according to the district office.

Wildlife officials hope construction will be done by early 2020, prior to the spring nesting season. In the meantime, Crolley wants to lead another flotilla out to the island. This one, he says, will be a victory lap.

This story originally ran in the Spring 2019 issue as “Rallying to Save a Rookery.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.