It doesn’t look like much: A small strip of land dotted with short grasses and one tiny shrub, surrounded by water and saltmarsh. But Crab Bank and four other islands in South Carolina produce 38 percent of the Brown Pelicans in the Atlantic Flyway, and the islands are some of the most important barriers that protect inland communities from storm surges and sea-level rise.
Unfortunately, Crab Bank is eroding and the recent three year series of intense storms was the last straw. What used to be nesting grounds for thousands of pelicans and terns is now almost completely devoid of birds. In fact, this year was the first time that no birds nested on Crab Bank, says Sharon Richardson, executive director of Audubon South Carolina. This leaves South Carolina’s beach-nesting bird population with just four islands on which to raise their young. Nolan Schillerstrom, coastal coordinator for Audubon South Carolina, expands on why maintaining Crab Bank is so important: “It’s dangerous to have all our eggs in one basket, and with coastal birds losing more habitat every year to coastal development, we have a duty to protect these few strongholds that are left.”
But we don’t have to sit by and wait for Crab Bank to disappear. The Army Corps of Engineers will be dredging parts of Charleston Harbor this winter to make space for post-Panamax ships, and we have the chance to use that dredged-up mud and sand—known in the business as “dredge spoils”—to rebuild Crab Bank and make it a vital protective area for both birds and for the human communities behind it.
Why Islands Like Crab Bank Are Important For South Carolinians and Birds
Low-lying estuarine islands like Crab Bank provide important protection for communities like Shem Creek and the Old Village of Mount Pleasant that sit along coastlines. They absorb a lot of the wave energy coming in off the ocean, even in normal weather. But coastal wetlands and the islands associated with them also provide critical protection during storms by deflecting and absorbing a lot of the storm surge associated with high wind events. Island habitats also provide support for eelgrass and other marsh vegetation, which are important nurseries for economically important fisheries, including the island's namesake, blue crabs.
Dozens of beach-nesting and island-nesting birds, like Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans, need isolated stretches of beach and low shrubs to raise their young. The islands keep predators away and the birds are much less likely to be disturbed by humans and other interventions. According to Schillerstrom, not only do 38 percent of all Brown Pelicans nest in Charleston Bay, but over one-third of all American Oystercatchers spend their winters there. Having these islands is critical to maintaining populations of these birds and others, like Gull-billed Terns, Black Skimmers, and migrating Piping Plovers.
Crab Bank As a Test Bed for Collaboration
One of the best arguments for moving forward with the Crab Bank restoration is its utility as a pilot project for other collaborations along the Eastern Seaboard. Important partnerships have been formed and strengthened between Audubon and other non-profit organizations as well as private businesses and governmental organizations. Four places where this kind of restoration could help the most include Stratford Point in Connecticut, Stratton Island in Maine, and Cape Fear and Currituck Sound in North Carolina.
How Much Will It Cost?
It will cost about $4 million U.S. to divert the dredge spoils to Crab Bank, but Audubon and its partners need only to raise $1.4 million by mid-December 2018 due to a special exception. Because this project was deemed to be “beneficial use” and underwent a rigorous selection process by the Army Corps, most of the cost can be picked up by a federal source. The entire bay dredge project will cost $525 million, so the restoration is only tiny fraction of the overall project cost. And by comparison, if not completed simultaneously to the dredging, the cost to restore Crab Bank would jump to an astronomical $13 million. As such, it’s significantly cheaper—and better for South Carolina—for the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild Crab Bank at the same time as it dredges Charleston Harbor.
The Crab Bank project is a crucial step in making the entire shoreline of South Carolina resilient in the face of rising sea levels and increasing intensity of tropical storms. It will also serve as an anchor for the tens of thousands of birds that depend on South Carolina during some part of their life cycle.
“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save one of South Carolina’s last remaining islands that’s suitable for nesting seabirds—birds that we share with state’s across the flyway. This is to say nothing of the sizeable economic benefits that birding brings to our state, and the increased coastal resiliency the project will provide to a vulnerable Mt. Pleasant community,” Richardson says.
You can help rebuilt Crab Bank and protect the birds of the entire Atlantic Flyway with a gift to Audubon South Carolina.