Tunnel Project Could Displace 25,000 Sea Birds

Jun 28, 2019

Royal terns resting on South Island in 2018.
Credit Matthew Fossum

As a regional transportation authority prepares to expand the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel complex, scientists are warning that failing to deal with thousands of sea birds in the area could be disastrous. 

Many sea birds nest in colonies.  To avoid predators which could eat their eggs and babies, they choose islands.   But the biggest colony in Virginia, home to as many as 25,000 birds, faces a new danger.  It’s on an island that will soon serve as the staging area for expansion of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel complex.

“The South Island is also in a very food rich area” according to Sarah Karpanty, a professor of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech.  She says there are few safe places left for terns, and  their populations are already falling. “The gull billed tern is actually listed as threatened under the state endangered species act.  Also there is a species called the royal tern. Virginia is the northernmost part of its nesting range. ”

Matt Strickler, Virginia's Secretary of  Natural Resources, admits there may be no place for the birds to go. “Migratory bird habitat on the East Coast in general has been declining for years.”

Chicks on South Island in 2018
Credit Kelsi Hunt

And without suitable habitat, the birds won’t breed. So when the state approached Karpanty and fellow Virginia Tech Professor Jim Fraser asking what could be done, those two experts were happy to help.  They launched a study of the colony and concluded there was only one solution. Build the birds their own island. “North Carolina has been building islands for birds for decades," Fraser notes. "It only needs to be a couple of acres. We’re expanding our Port of Virginia, and as part of that expansion there will be a tremendous amount of dredging, so and some of that sand could be used to build a new island.”

Fraser figures it would cost maybe two million dollars to do the job, but that’s peanuts compared to the cost of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion -- $3.8 billion.  This, he adds, would be an important safety feature for people who could be slamming on their brakes and causing pile-ups when birds start landing on roadways, unable to find their former nesting grounds.  “There are going to be consequences likely from these birds dispersing that we can’t really predict at this point,” Fraser warns.

Karpanty says we need to start soon. “The best time to build is going to be over winter when they are down in Central and South America so that when they come back in March and April they will find that island.”

A flock of black skimmers above South Island in 2018.
Credit Matthew Fossum

Strickler, the Secretary of Natural Resources, dismisses the idea.  He says the Trump Administration is no longer enforcing federal protections that might apply here, and Virginia has no legal right to demand the builder, the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission, create new habitat.  “For projects like this we are hung out to dry," Strickler says.  "We are not getting any help from our federal regulatory partners, and they’re the ones who have the power to compel mitigation for environmental damage.” 

He adds that the U. S. Navy might object to construction of an island, but Professor Fraser says he’s already thought of that.  “There’s a great place, it’s called Hampton Flats. It’s not far away. It’s out of the main air traffic corridors, there’s no shipping through there because it’s too shallow.”

Then there’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which might refuse a permit to dump large amounts of sand, burying marine life on the ocean floor. “Worms, crustaceans, mollusks and shellfish that are a key part of the Chesapeake ecosystem,” Strickler notes.

So what will the state do about its largest colony of sea birds? It will, Strickler says, discourage them from nesting next spring, while he works with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries on a policy that would address environmental damage caused by construction of roads, highways, bridges and tunnels the next time around. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.