CHATHAM – Setting its western boundary at mean low water could cut the area of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in half, a refuge official said, as well as remove existing protections for horseshoe crabs.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has “strong concerns” about any change in the western boundary, said Libby Herland, project manager at the Eastern Massachusetts Wildlife Complex, which includes the Monomoy Refuge.
“Changing the refuge's western boundary to mean low water would remove approximately 50 percent of the refuge, effectively removing the assurances that these resources will be conserved and managed for wildlife and the American people in perpetuity,” she said this week.
In response to requests from town and state officials, Rep. William Keating is planning to submit legislation to set the western boundary of the refuge at the low tide line. The move is in response to the refuge's Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), approved in March, which claims jurisdiction over fisheries and other activities within a nearly 4,000-acre area between the island and an earlier declaration of taking boundary in Nantucket Sound. Town officials have called the claim an “overreach” and an “illegal taking.”
Last week, Gov. Charles Baker threw his support behind the effort. In a July 6 letter to Keating, Rep. Niki Tsongas and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, Baker backed the request for legislation, saying that the Fish and Wildlife Service “overreached” in the plan by claiming that open waters and seabed west of Monomoy are part of the refuge.
“In truth, this area is owned by the Commonwealth and for centuries the town of Chatham and Commonwealth have jointly managed the fisheries and other activities in the area,” the letter states. There is no question about this past environmental stewardship, Baker wrote. “Unfortunately, the position of the service ignored this committee to the stewardship and sustainable use of all the area's natural resources.”
Clarifying the boundary through federal legislation would avoid the “substantial cost” of litigation, the Republican governor wrote, adding that his administration “stands ready to assist you in this legislative effort and to provide whatever help may be needed to secure success.”
Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said Baker's endorsement of the town's position “will be very compelling and helpful in the Republican controlled Congress, and we thank him and lieutenant governor very much.” So far, 18 towns – including New Bedford and, Monday, Harwich – and public service organizations have written letters in support of the boundary clarification legislation.
Herland, however, pointed out that an assertion in the governor's letter that claims that prior to the CCP the agency never claimed the waters west of Monomoy is inaccurate. Historically that area has been included in the refuge declaration on of taking, and was most recently validated after the harvesting of horseshoe crabs from the refuge waters was found to be not compatible and was prohibited in 2000. A previous use permit had been issued in 1994 allowing harvesting for biomedical purposes, but the decline in horseshoe crab populations and a determination that many of the shorebirds that the refuge protects feed on horseshoe crab eggs resulted in the permit being revoked.
The Fish and Wildlife Service was sued over the revocation but its decision was upheld. Herland said part of that case involved the boundary of the refuge and the area where horseshoe crabs could not be harvested, which included that 3,000-acre section of water west of the island.
In the CCP, the harvesting of horseshoe crabs was determined to be incompatible with the refuge. If the western boundary is set at the low water mark, it would potentially open that entire area up to horseshoe crab harvesting, which could theoretically happen just below mean low water, Herland said.
“That's a huge concern that we have,” she said.
Horseshoe crab populations have been declining along the east coast and in Massachusetts, according to the CCP, including in Stage Harbor. But the population around Monomoy appears stable or on the increase, Herland said. Many shorebirds that use Monomoy during migration feed on horseshoe crab eggs.
The same concern holds for mussels, Herland said. The CCP bans mussel harvesting in the refuge, and although there isn't a large set of the shellfish now, Herland said there could be in the future, and eiders and some shorebirds have been documented as feeding on mussels.
Setting the western boundary at low water would also open up large areas to kiteboarding, which is now banned within refuge waters. There have been “a few problems, but not many” with kiteboarding this summer, she said.
The refuge's eastern boundary is also set at low water, but a separate memorandum of agreement between the service and the town governs the boundary at the point where South Beach and South Monomoy Island join. That memo was an outcome of local opposition to the draft CCP, which claimed some 717 acres of South Beach as part of the refuge.
Based on the final CCP, the Fish and Wildlife Service's realty section set the total acreage of the refuge at 7,921, Herland said. Of that, 3,900 acres, or nearly half the total acreage of the refuge, is subtidal or open water.
Changing the boundary would divest the refuge of an area that the agency's “rigorous legal analysis” confirmed are part of the National Wildlife Refuge system, Herland said. The CCP, she added, went through an extensive public review process that balanced historic uses with the refuge's wilderness character, wildlife needs and competing public interests.
“A boundary change would undermine that public process,” she said.
Refuge and town representatives met June 27 to review the CCP and its implementation. The memorandum regarding the South Beach-Monomoy boundary includes an agreement to coordinate management in that area, Herland said.
“Wildlife doesn't understand a boundary,” she noted, adding that the town is supportive of the refuge's management efforts and goals.