Beyond the economic forces and aesthetic values that will drive interest in restoring eroding beaches at any cost, there is also a serious environmental argument in favor of beach nourishment via the addition of sand taken from elsewhere.

The Vineyard Conservation Society has long believed that the preferences among the three broad approaches to adapting to sea level rise and coastal erosion could be roughly characterized as: managed retreat where possible, soft stabilization where it’s not, and hard armoring only as a last resort. But since economic and cultural realities make managed retreat impossible in many locations, soft stabilization is a necessary focus. A lot can be done through coir (coconut fiber) logs and other biodegradable materials placed on beaches, encouraging native plantings on exposed dunes, and even the construction of natural reefs through shellfish aquaculture, but in many places a comprehensive beach stabilization plan is going to require nourishment with sand.

And this is where the recently released draft of the Ocean Management Plan from the state office of Coastal Zone Management comes in. Recognizing that sand from inland sources and nearby dredge spoils (for example from maintenance of channels and flushing of coastal ponds) is insufficient due to supply or cost (or both) to meet beach restoration needs, CZM has spent the past five years updating the Ocean Plan with improved data and mapping. While excluding areas with incompatible features, such as rare species habitats, commercially important fisheries, recreational boating hot spots, utility cables and pipelines, and many others, they identified 12 sites for further study, two of which are off the coast of the Vineyard. The plan is still preliminary; for example, data regarding fish resources were incomplete at the time of the draft release, so further input from the state Division of Marine Fisheries could very possibly alter the suggestions. More broadly, CZM is only planning to undertake small-scale pilot projects at this point, and is seeking community comment from citizens and local officials before moving forward.

However, despite its preliminary (and draft) nature, the new report’s identification of sites close to the Vineyard as potential sand mining sources has touched off some local controversy. Chilmark selectmen have strongly objected to the proposed site located between their town and the Elizabeth Islands, citing impacts on commercial and recreational fishing.

Because the need for sand is real, we do not necessarily oppose offshore sand mining, but do want to make sure that all environmental concerns are given their full due. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has prepared a thoughtful set of comments on the new Ocean Plan, which raises concerns about the data collection and analysis used to determine areas suitable for offshore wind development and/or sand mining. Opposition in this case should come not from Nimby-ism (we are, after all, the ones who want the sand), but from the expertise of our local residents and community representatives who best understand the environmental issues particular to the proposed development areas.

Fortunately, CZM’s process to this point has been deliberate, scientifically rigorous and transparent. But the end of the public comment period for this draft is next week, and they have indicated to us that they have received surprisingly few letters. Comments can be sent via mail or email, so please submit your thoughts today!

Jeremy Houser is a biologist and staff member of the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS). Reprinted from the VCS Conservation Almanac.