Saving Mordecai

Written by emily warne

From the dock of the Little Egg Harbor Yacht Club in Beach Haven, Linda Colgan is gesturing out onto Barnegat Bay at the coastal wetlands in front of her—45 acres of rapidly eroding salt marsh called Mordecai Island.

Colgan is President of the Mordecai Island Land Trust, a Long Beach Island-based nonprofit that has devoted itself to bringing awareness to the marsh and raising funds to lead restoration efforts designed to stymie the effects of erosion.

And they have their work cut out for them—the Army Corps of Engineers, which works closely with the Mordecai Land Trust on a number of projects, estimates that nearly half of the island has been lost to erosion over the past 100 years.

That’s a problem for the indigenous species that call Mordecai Island home: shorebirds and waders like herons and oystercatchers, and commercially important fish such as sea bass and flounder. And for one avian species in particular, the situation is even more serious—the island houses the largest nesting colony of endangered black skimmers in all of Barnegat Bay.

But erosion doesn’t just have an effect on the habitat of various fish and seabirds—it has an affect on the habitats of Beach Haven residents, as well. Spanning nearly one-third of the township, Mordecai Island has served to project Beach Haven from flooding during heavy storms and hurricanes, most notably Hurricane Sandy.

“Because of the way (the island) stretches along lengthwise, it acted almost as a sponge so that it softened the effect of the storm,” Colgan explains. “And what we found out is that the houses who were in front of the island actually had less damage than the houses that were not.”

Businesses and homeowners whose property is protected by Mordecai will find comfort in knowing that the land trust has kept itself busy since it’s inception in 2001, leading and participating in several restoration efforts designed to ensure that future generations will benefit from this natural barrier.

These include partnerships with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, and ReClam the Bay, and have spanned from placing geotubes around the south end of the island to act as a breakwater to using shellfish to stabilize the sea floor and eventually create a natural reef.

“Everything we’ve done is experimental and hasn’t been tried before,” Colgan says. And while many of these experiments can boast great returns on their investment, she is also not overly concerned with restoration efforts that have not succeeded in achieving their original goals.

“Anything that gets done on this island, can help a hundred other islands,” Colgan explains. “What we do here can make a difference someplace else. We’re much better and bigger than our little tiny island, and I think that’s something that always keeps us going.”

But money doesn’t grow on trees, or islands, and Colgan acknowledges that the future of Mordecai Island partially rests on individual donors and businesses that are committed to Long Beach Island’s environment.

Families can become members of the Mordecai Land Trust with a $40 donation, and the organization also hosts several events to raise additional funding. These include the “Miles for Mordecai” family fun walk and their annual house tour and cocktail party, featuring open houses of several Beach Haven homes followed by cocktails overlooking the Island from the Little Egg Harbor Yacht Club.

And while raising funds is one thing, raising awareness is also paramount to the Land Trust’s mission. Colgan and her fellow trustees regularly speak at community events to educate residents of Long Beach Island on the importance of preserving Mordecai Island and similar marshes throughout the bay.

“We’ve gone to schools, we’ve gone out to the LBI Foundation—we’ve taken our show on the road many times,” she says. “If you can get people interested…(they) don’t forget it. Next time you’re out on the water you won’t look at those islands the same way.”

You can learn more about Mordecai Island and the Mordecai Land Trust by visiting

www.mordecaimatters.org.

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