Acquisition of a pilot town protects prime coastal habitat

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Prime Coastal Habitat, Sea Turtles, Marine Mammals, Birds and Oysters in Alabama to Benefit from Recent Approval of Nearly $ 100 Million in Resource Damage Assessment Process Funding Natural Resources (NRDA) which distributes funds to restore the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement.

The $ 99.6 million award 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 expanse, known as Pilot Town, will be purchased by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and then transferred to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to become part of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (NWR ).

The Pilot Town colony, which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1906, was named after the bar pilots who guided seagoing ships past the sandbanks of Mobile Bay. At present, the habitat is relatively intact with the exception of a small area where the public uses the road to access a kayak / canoe launch pad. The habitat includes sandy shrub brush, coastal marshes and several inland brackish lagoons and provides an excellent colony and staging area for migratory birds.

Bon Secour NWR, 8 miles west of the town of Gulf Shores, was established to protect the habitat of neotropical migratory songbirds and threatened and endangered species. The refuge, which is divided into five different management units, provides the best remaining staging and staging habitat for Neotropical migratory songbirds during fall and spring migration along the Alabama coastline. Habitats at the refuge include a sandy beach and dunes, sandy shrub brush, coastal marshes, maritime forests and estuarine habitats.

“We are excited about acquiring the Pilot Town habitat,” said Amy Hunter, Deepwater Horizon Restoration Coordinator for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). “Pilot Town is an important habitat for birds. As invasive species, primarily Chinese tallow trees (known locally as popcorn trees) and previously installed infrastructure, are removed, we should see an improvement in habitat quality.

Kelly Swindle, coastal restoration specialist at ADCNR, said a variety of birds will benefit from the Pilot Town acquisition, including the great blue heron.

“A colony of blue herons is located not too far east of the property,” Swindle said. “With the property being managed as a habitat for birds, 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 the last stopover for migrating birds as they pass through the Gulf of Mexico.”

Hunter said the sale of the property is expected to close by the end of the year and will be managed under Bon Secour NWR. She said the catering business is expected to start in early spring.

“We had great partners to make it happen,” said Hunter. “The Nature Conservancy was instrumental in securing the option for the property by working with the landowner. We also appreciate the work the Home Office has done to help make the acquisition a reality. “

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship was instrumental in defending this acquisition and in raising awareness among other NRDA administrators of the importance of the project.

Commissioner Blankenship added: “If you look at the Pilot Town project, as well as the acquisition of the west end of Dauphin Island, as well as the previous acquisitions in Oyster Bay, Gulf Highlands and two large plots on the east side of Little Point Clear, this 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 habitat under development pressure in perpetuity. “

In addition to the Pilot Town project, Swindle said Alabama will receive a portion of the funding that will benefit sea turtles and marine mammals throughout the Gulf. Marine mammal funding will be used to work with fisheries, including shrimp fishing communities, to reduce dolphin entanglements in gear and line fisheries to reduce dolphin injuries and deaths.

“For the marine mammal portion, Alabama will be part of the larger effort to streamline the capabilities and education of the stranding network,” Swindle said. “This will streamline the data collection process, which will be led by NOAA Fisheries. The sea turtle portion will be basically the same.

Hunter said another facet of the funding will also benefit sea turtles and birds through the removal of marine debris.

“This project will identify marine debris hot spots that impact sea turtles and birds in the northern Gulf of Mexico,” Hunter said. “The goal is to reduce the number of these hot spots and the amount of debris there. He will also conduct public outreach to encourage people to keep our waters clean. “

Hunter said the oyster project will not be implemented right away. Going forward, the intention of the project is for each state to identify areas to deploy mineable well reefs and unexploited brood reefs in Mobile Bay and the Mississippi Strait.

“When this project is launched, we hope it will increase the abundance of oysters by increasing the number of spat released and improving the reproductive success of the oysters,” she said.

Of the recently approved funding, Hunter said the biggest impact would come from the purchase of Pilot Town.

“Anytime you can get a patch of nearly 100 acres of beach habitat and keep it for birds and other native animals, it has a huge impact,” she said. “It’s not just a stand-alone plot. It will become part of the larger wildlife refuge. At a time when habitat is shrinking, this has an extremely large impact. “

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered the great outdoors of Alabama for 25 years. The former outside editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.


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