Protecting the Coast
FORT MORGAN, Ala. (WBRC) - Prime coastal habitat, sea turtles, marine mammals, birds, and oysters in Alabama will benefit from the recent approval of almost $100 million in funding from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process that distributes restoration funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. The allotment will be used in all five Gulf of Mexico states, and Alabama will receive funding to purchase key coastal habitat on the Fort Morgan peninsula.
A 99-acre tract, known as Pilot Town, will be purchased by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and then transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become part of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). The Pilot Town settlement, which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1906, was named for the bar pilots who guided sea-going vessels past the sand bars of Mobile Bay. Currently the habitat is relatively undisturbed except for one small area where the public uses the road to access a kayak/canoe launch. The habitat includes sandy shrub scrub, coastal marsh and several brackish inland lagoons and is a great rookery and resting area for migrating birds.
“We are excited about the habitat acquisition of Pilot Town,” said Amy Hunter, Deepwater Horizon Restoration Coordinator for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). “Pilot Town is an important bird habitat. As invasive species, mainly Chinese tallow trees and previously installed infrastructure is removed, we should see an uplift in the quality of the habitat.”
Kelly Swindle, Coastal Restoration Specialist with the ADCNR, said a variety of birds will benefit from the Pilot Town acquisition, including the great blue heron. “A blue heron rookery is located not too far east of the property,” Swindle said. “Having the property managed as bird habitat, we hope to see continued or increased nesting activity in the area for the foreseeable future.”
Hunter added, “This is a valuable property because it is an area that is either the first or last stopover for migrating birds as they cross the Gulf of Mexico. We had great partners to get this done. The Nature Conservancy was instrumental in securing the option for the property by working with the landowner. We also appreciate the work the Department of Interior has done to help make the acquisition a reality.”
Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship was instrumental in advocating for this acquisition. “If you look at the Pilot Town project, along with the acquisition of the west end of Dauphin Island, as well as previous acquisitions in Oyster Bay, Gulf Highlands and two large parcels on the east side of Little Point Clear, it shows that our barrier islands and Gulf-facing beaches are very important to ADCNR and our federal and local partners. We have worked very hard to conserve this critical, development-pressured habitat for perpetuity.”
In addition to the Pilot Town project, Alabama will receive a portion of the funding to benefit sea turtles and marine mammals Gulf-wide. The marine mammal funding will be used to work with fisheries, including shrimp-fishing communities to reduce dolphin entanglements in gear and hook-and-line fisheries to reduce dolphin injuries and deaths.
Hunter said funding will also benefit sea turtles and birds through marine debris removal. “That project will identify marine debris hotspots that impact sea turtles and birds throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico. We will also conduct public outreach to encourage people to keep our waters clean. A related project will hopefully also increase oyster abundance by increasing the number of spat released and improving oyster reproductive success. The Pilot Town Acquisition is significant for several reasons. Culturally it’s part of the rich history of Mobile Bay and the bar pilots and their families that lived there.”
“Ecologically it is important stop over habitat for migratory birds and roosting habitat for colonial nesting waders that live on the northern Gulf of Mexico year-round. Additionally, it is contiguous with existing protected maritime forest habitat at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a win for conservation!”
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