OCEAN CITY -- The state's plans to protect threatened birds in Sinepuxent Bay have ruffled the feathers of town officials, who are concerned about the loss of a recreational area for boaters.
To protect the nesting and feeding areas of birds like the piping plover, royal tern and black skimmer, the Natural Resources Department will ban boating near 'skimmer' islands near the Route 50 bridge in the bay and along Assateague's northern bay shoreline beginning July 1.
The "emergency" ban, which will remain in effect until September, also will prohibit human intrusion in those areas, DNR officials said. The department will eventually seek a permanent ban on boating near the islands. "This is a critical time of the year," said Jim Peck, assistant secretary for DNR. "These birds are nesting."
Over the years, the birds have come under pressure from boaters, who motor near their habitats and beach their craft on mud flats to walk and picnic on the small, sandy islands and picnic.
"They scare birds from the nest, exposing eggs and allowing predators to come in," Mr. Peck said. "Secondly, when people walk along the mud flats they disturb adult birds and chicks when they're feeding."
To keep boaters at bay, DNR will post signs on buoys within the next two weeks. Boaters will not be allowed within 25 yards on the eastern end to 100 yards on the western side of the islands.
"It's not a very large area being denied to boaters," Mr. Peck said. "Frankly, it's not restricting boating at all."
Town officials agree Assateague is an area that should be protected, but they argue that the so-called "skimmer" islands are far from a natural sanctuary for birds.
"They're bounded by the [Route 50] bridge, downtown Ocean City and bay development," said City Manager Dennis Dare. "It doesn't appear to be a natural preserve."
Town officials also are upset because the state failed to inform Ocean City of its plans for the islands, which are owned by the state and are believed to lie -- at least partially -- within town limits.
Ocean City Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell said that he opposes the state's plan to restrict what has become a popular retreat for pleasure boaters and fishermen.
"These are not vast sand islands," Mr. Powell said. "I don't think they're as big as City Hall. Tourists and the native people go there for picnics and clamming."
Mr. Peck and other DNR officials plan to discuss the plan with town officials next Tuesday. Mr. Peck said that the emergency regulations, which were advertised last month in the Maryland Register, could be modified after that meeting.
DNR officials say that the ban should come as no surprise. Signs asking boaters not to beach at the "skimmer" islands have been posted for several years.
Although all the birds are scarce in Maryland, only the piping plover is on state and federal endangered species lists.
The sand-colored bird, which stands only 6 inches high, has been in decline for years, according to Laurie MacIvor, an endangered species biologist for DNR. Only about 20 pairs are known to exist in Maryland, all on Assateague, she said. When disturbed by boaters or hikers, the birds leave their eggs, allowing them to be exposed to the sun and predators, such as crows and gulls. Once the adults are gone, Ms. MacIvor said, the eggs can fry quickly in the hot sun.
The other birds, including the least tern, are considered in need of protection, she said. Those birds are larger than the piping plover and more visible to the public. The terns, which are black nTC and white with orange coloring on their bills and legs, nest in groups.
A combination of factors has led to their decline, including development along the Atlantic's barrier islands and coastal areas and human disturbance, including intrusion by off-road vehicles.
The birds use the mud flats on the west side of Assateague and on the small bay islands to feed on worms and invertebrates.
At least one boater, Brian Steele, who works at Barnacle Bill's Marina Inc., had no qualms about DNR's plans.
"It's not that big of a deal," he said. "I think it's a little more important to have the birds than to let people use the islands."