Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary: A Landmark Legacy
BY GLENN JEFFRIES, CHARLESTON DISTRICT
A dredge, appropriately named Dredge Charleston, a daily crew of 53 workers, and heavy earth-moving equipment worked 24 hours a day for seven weeks constructing a landmark legacy of the Charleston Harbor Post 45 Deepening project: the restoration of Crab Bank. Crab Bank is a bird sanctuary located in the Charleston Harbor near the shoreline of the Old Village in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
The project is a landmark legacy of Post 45 because the rest of the $550 million deepening project is underwater and that massive investment is not visible to the public. In the case of Crab Bank, it has now become a feature of the Charleston Harbor that can easily be seen and noticed from as far as the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. Beneficially using material from the deepened channel restored 32 acres of prime nesting grounds, giving shorebirds and seabirds much-needed habitat for increasing their populations this spring and those to follow.
Because placing the dredged material on Crab Bank was not the least cost-placement method, a non-federal sponsor was needed to make the concept a reality. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) stepped up to fill that role and share in the costs of the project. If not for its commitment and our partnership together, this sandy material would have wound up sequestered in the ocean placement site and this seabird sanctuary lost for good.
An aerial photo of Crab Bank, taken on Sept. 14, 2021.
PHOTO BY ADAM BOOZER
Although the actual construction only took a few weeks, the idea came about years ago when the Post 45 project delivery team was trying to identify potential projects to maximize the beneficial use of the available sandy dredged material from the harbor deepening. Crab Bank rose to the top.
“Nine years ago, Crab Bank was just a concept; three years ago SCDNR stepped up to make it a reality, and this spring it becomes vital habitat and nesting grounds for shorebirds. It is rare in an engineer’s career to see a project from concept to completion. Seeing this to completion is very rewarding,” said Brian Williams, one of the project managers.
Approximately 660,000 cubic yards, or 66,000 dump truck loads (one dump truck carries about 10 cubic yards), of material created the crescent-shaped footprint, which can be seen from the Ravenel Bridge, Alhambra Hall, or other waterfront spots on the harbor side of Mount Pleasant.
“The work is fascinating to see,” said Jeff Livasy, project manager. “The hydraulic cutterhead suction dredge sucks up the material from the channel floor, similar to a vacuum cleaner, and it is pumped onto the island through various types of pipe. Once the material is on the island, bulldozers begin shaping the material.”
“This is a little different than a beach renourishment project,” said Chip Forbes, the field engineer for Norfolk Dredging Company, the contractor working for the district. “We usually have our guys smooth out the sand perfectly, so it is flat and even terrain, but in this case, the birds do not want that. Different birds like different terrain so this has been fun creating something with lumps, bumps, and some flat surfaces.”
The natural isolation of the island keeps the birds and nests safe from predators. Over 15 different species of bird have been spotted nesting on the island in previous years. The number of shorebirds and seabirds’ nests are declining each year,” said Janet Thibault, a wildlife biologist for SCDNR. “Having places for them to have refuge is really important. Around March or April, the birds will come back, find mates, and build nests. So, I’m just really excited to see this project happening.”
This one-time placement of material could have as much as a 50-year life span, but in such a dynamic environment, we know the footprint will be reduced and change each year. Mother Nature will play a large role in the life of Crab Bank. SCDNR will monitor the island each season with special cameras. This live webcam will also allow the public to view the island’s inhabitants in real time.
On April 5, as the shorebird nesting season was underway, organizations who had worked tirelessly to re-establish the depleted island gathered at Alhambra Hall to celebrate a return of threatened birds to the island’s ideal nesting ground.
Representatives from South Carolina’s government, USACE’s Charleston District, and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources prepare to cut the ribbon marking the completion of the Crab Bank restoration project.
PHOTO BY JACKIE PENNOYER
Gov. Henry McMaster was in attendance for the ceremony. He spoke about how Crab Bank is a great example of how multiple agencies can work together for a common goal.
“This really is a great thing,” said McMaster. “It could not have been done without a lot of people cooperating with each other and understanding how important the environment is to us.”
Dredged material from the Charleston Harbor deepening project is added to Crab Bank, a 32-acre site of prime nesting habitat for many coastal birds. Prior to 2017, nearly 4,000 nests could be found in a single summer along with thousands of offspring. The island also provided rest and nourishment for hundreds of migrating shorebirds. But wind and waves took a toll on this unique resource, and Crab Bank was reduced to a tiny fraction of its original size. In 2017, Hurricane Irma washed away most of the remaining high ground, removing any opportunity for nesting birds.
PHOTO BY JACKIE PENNOYER
Some refer to the many coastal islands of South Carolina as our own “Galápagos,” and the re-establishment of Crab Bank adds one more island for thousands of shorebirds to use as safe place to rest, lay, and hatch their young. Prior to it being washed away by coastal storms over the last decade, the island was where thousands hatch, are nurtured, and spread their wings as they learn to fly. At night, species from as far away as the tip of South America stop for the night to rest before they continue to points as far north as the Arctic Circle.
“Crab Bank has now become a feature of the Charleston Harbor that can easily be seen and noticed from as far as the Ravenel Bridge,” said Lisa Metheney, senior civilian with USACE’s Charleston District. “Every time I drive over the bridge, I beam with pride, thinking about the fantastic work my team did to get here.”