August 6, 2008

Dispatches from the Beachfront:
South Point reopens, then closes again;
A mile of South Beach is open at Ramp 45

South Point on Ocracoke reopened to pedestrians and ORVs about mid-afternoon on Monday, and the National Park Service issued a press release with the good news this morning.

However, even with the immediacy of Internet publishing, I couldn’t get the news posted online before South Point closed again.

An individual found an unfledged, week-old least tern chick on the beach.  Park rangers and biologists confirmed the presence of the chick with adults, and South Point was closed again this afternoon.

Meanwhile, a mile of the South Beach on Hatteras was reopened to ORVs and pedestrians this afternoon.  The area is at Ramp 45 at the back of the Cape Point Campground.  The actual ramp is closed but there is access to the Ramp 45 area from Ramp 44 to Cape Point.  Make a right on the interdunal road just over Ramp 44 and the road will take you onto South Beach, where one mile is open -- .8 of a mile to the west toward Frisco and .2 mile to the east toward Cape Point.

South Point on Ocracoke had a short, two-day run as the hottest place to fish on the seashore.

“The fishing has been phenomenal,” said Melinda Sutton, who with her husband Alan, owns Tradewinds Tackle on Ocracoke. “Everyone was catching puppy drum.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Melinda Sutton said she was “distraught.”  That was the only word she could think of.

“I’ve paid my dues,” she said.  “I’ve done three months.”

She was referring to the three months that South Point, the most popular area for fishing on Ocracoke, has been closed under the terms of a consent decree that settled a lawsuit by environmental groups.

Sutton added that their business has been down about 15 percent for the past three months. A lot of their summer business, she said, is from families who want to fish but don’t care that much about where they do it.  That has helped. And, she says, the business survived on increased traffic from boaters.

While she said she is grateful for the added business from boaters, she worries about “hard-working people who can’t afford a boat who are being stepped on.”

Many of their regular customers who come to the island to camp and fish have not been there this summer, she said. And, she added, they can’t afford to buy a boat.

“We should be having a banner year after winning ‘best beach’ last year, but we’re not” she said, referring to the fact that the Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach was named No. 1 in the U.S. by “Dr. Beach, Dr. Stephen Leatherman.

Sutton says South Point has been busy with park rangers, biologists, fishermen, and folks just shelling and walking their dogs, and she can’t believe no one saw the chick before a private individual affiliated with North Carolina Audubon spotted it on Wednesday morning.

Wednesday was her birthday, and instead of celebrating, she was putting the news of the new closure out on her Web site and e-mailing friends and supporters.

She said she is grateful to the supportive local park staff and to seashore Superintendent Mike Murray, who talked with the Suttons for more than an hour about the situation after the closure.

Sutton said Murray told her the fledging time for a least tern is 21 to 26 days, which means is should be gone before Labor Day weekend.  If the chick does not survive, the consent decree calls for a two-week closure to see if the parents nest again.

“It’s just totally unfair,” she said.  “I hate it. I am truly an animal lover and I am sitting here hating these little birds.”

The beach at Ramp 72 is open 1.5 miles to the west, toward South Point.  But Sutton says the best fishing has been right on the inlet.

To see photos of the puppy drum you won’t be catching in the next few weeks, go to

July 29, 2008

Dispatches from the Beachfront:
Cape Point and Hatteras Inlet are now open to ORVs,
but turtle nest closures coming on all beaches

There was more good news this week on beach access.

Last week, Cape Point opened to pedestrians who wanted to hike out, and today it opened to off-road vehicles.

Also last week, the spit at Hatteras Inlet was opened to ORVs and pedestrians.

However, more beaches have started closing because turtle nests are reaching their hatch window.

Ramp 44 near Cape Point was reopened on Tuesday, July 22, and pedestrian access from the ramp all the way out to Cape Point was restored.  Also, about a mile of beach from Ramp 44 to an area known as the “narrows” or the “bypass” around the Salt Pond was opened to ORVs.

Today, there is ORV access all the way to the Point.  Only the east side of the Point is open to pedestrians and vehicles. Colonial waterbirds and their nests and chicks are still in the area to the west of the Point.  That area is still posted with signs and symbolic fencing and is closed to people on foot and to vehicles.

On Thursday, July 24, Hatteras spit reopened to ORV and pedestrian access south from the end of the Pole Road on the ocean shoreline and around the tip of the spit to the area known as “the Rip” and along the sound shoreline.  The Park Service says this area is experiencing a high rate of shoreline erosion and will be monitored daily.  It is “highly probable,” the Park Service says, that at mid-tide, sections of the shoreline will be impassable and may be closed for safety reasons.

Driving is still prohibited on all beaches between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Access to Cape Point and most of Hatteras Inlet has been closed since the first week of May, just days after a federal judge approved a consent decree that settled a lawsuit filed against the National Park Service by environmental groups over ORV access to the beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

For a while, there was some pedestrian access and people who wanted to get to Cape Point could wade in the water around beaches that were closed to protect colonies of nesting colonial waterbirds.

But early in June, the first piping plover nest hatched, and all access to the Point was shut down to protect the chicks of this shorebird, which is listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Ramp 44 was closed.

All of the piping plover nests at Cape Point are now gone.  Four chicks fledged this year from seven nests at the Point. One nest at the Point was lost in a storm and another was lost to predation.  Chicks from three other nests were also lost to predation. On the seashore this year, there have been 11 breeding pairs of piping plovers with seven chicks fledged. The other three were on Ocracoke.

While pedestrians could walk all the way to the Point, ORVs were prohibited from going past the “bypass” area because of an American oystercatcher chick. That chick is now fledged.

Meanwhile, other beaches have started to close because the first sea turtle nests are approaching their 50-day hatch window.

In general, sea turtles have been nesting at higher rates than last year on the seashore and other areas in the state, including Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Cyndy Holda, community liaison for the seashore and assistant to Supt. Mike Murray, said that as of July 23, there were 92 nests on Cape Hatteras seashore beaches, roughly twice the number of nests at this time last year.

Michelle Baker, the lead sea turtle biologist for the seashore, said it’s too early to tell whether this will be a record year for sea turtles or if the turtles are just nesting earlier than usual.

“Every year is different, and every season is different,” she said.

Two full closures went up on the South Beach in Frisco in the past few days that will affect access at Ramp 49.

Before July 28, 1.7 miles of beach were open to the east of the ramp, toward the Point, and another 1.2 miles were open to the west toward Frisco Pier.

On Saturday, July 26, a nest about halfway down the open beach toward the Point, in an area where the rest of South Beach is closed for nesting least terns and their chicks, reached its 50-day hatch window and the beach was closed from dunes to the water.

And on Monday, July 28, a full beach closure became effective immediately to the east of Ramp 49, where a loggerhead nested on the side of the dune. 

There is no pedestrian or ORV access around the two nests, so the South Beach is closed from Ramp 49 to the Point.

For now, the beach will still be open to ORVs for the 1.2 miles to the west of Ramp 49.  A turtle nest to the west of the ramp reaches its 50-day hatch window on Aug. 17, and Baker said she is hopeful that the nest right at the ramp will have hatched by then, so access to the east can be reopened.

In the past, there has sometimes been access to the South Beach via the interdunal road, behind the dunes, from Ramp 44 at the Point. However, that will not be possible for some time because of the nesting least terns and their chicks. There are still chicks on the ground and some nests that have not hatched.  So that area could be closed for some weeks.

In addition, a turtle nest could be affecting the newly opened access to Cape Point in another 50 days.

Currently, there are three turtle nests between Ramp 44 and the Point, but they are in front of the “bypass” around the narrow area, so the Park Service can maintain an access route behind the nests.

However, on July 21, a turtle nested on the north side of the bypass area, between the bypass and Ramp 44.  When that nest reaches its 50-day window, there will be a full beach closure, prohibiting access to the Point again until the nest hatches.

Park officials are hopeful that the turtle nests will hatch quickly after the 50-day window.  Nests laid in the warm summer months tend to hatch more quickly than nests that are laid in May or in the fall. The average for a nest hatch on the seashore last year was 55 days, Baker said.

It is interesting that between now and Sept. 15, the terms of the consent decree allow the Park Service to operate under its interim plan for ORV access.  That means that, where possible, the park can allow a route behind the turtle nests.

However, beginning on Sept. 16, the terms of the consent decree dictate a total beach closure – dune to the ocean.  That will mean the Park Service will have less discretion in allowing ORV access behind the nests.

Larry Hardham, president of the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club, said the increased access to the Point is good news, even though he thinks it is “unfortunate” that the area was closed as long as it has been.

He also noted that the upcoming closures for turtle nesting were going to be a problem, especially at Ramp 49.

“That has been a popular beach this summer,” he said.  “I don’t know where all those people are going to go.”

Hardham says he thinks the South Beach situation is a good reason to establish, or re-establish, an interdunal road that goes from Cape Point down to Frisco with more frequent access points to the ocean beach.  The part of the interdunal road that is still maintained comes out into the least tern colony, so is not helpful for ORV access.  However, at one point, the road continued on toward Frisco with more beach access points.

Bryan Perry, owner of Frisco Rod and Gun and Frisco Supermarket, said he isn’t looking forward to the upcoming turtle closures that are sure to affect his business as the closest tackle shop and store with gas pumps to Ramp 49.

“I’ve been the lucky one up until this point,” Perry said.  And he noted that he thinks the same turtle nests at the same spot next to the ramp every three years and “every year she goes way high on the dune.”

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