Wetlands experts weigh in on Prime Hook refuge

Scientists say filling breaches won't solve problems
This is the widest breach opened along the duneline at Fowler's Beach. The inlet allows for flow of saltwater from the Delaware Bay into Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge marshes. The area was a dune and beach before a series of storms breached the duneline and washed away the sand. BY RON MACARTHUR
June 4, 2012

Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge officials recently toured the refuge with top regional wetlands restoration scientists to get new eyes on the pressing environmental problems at the refuge. What the visiting group saw surprised them.


“It was manifestation of what people worry about in the future. For us, it's just hit harder and faster,” said Susan Guiteras, supervising wildlife biologist.

Environmental officials met at the St. Jone's Reserve Coastal training center near Dover after taking a tour to get a firsthand look at the refuge.

“It's important to note that this was not a group of the same people sitting around having the same conversation,” Guiteras said. “It was scientists and academics telling us what they know about wetlands facing these types of problems. We learned a lot and also had a lot of validating.”

Over the past four years, Prime Hook's wetlands have been hit by to an onslaught of environmental pressures resulting in the loss of hundreds of acres of freshwater marsh when saltwater from Delaware Bay flowed through storm-related breaches in the duneline that once protected the refuge's freshwater marshes.

With the loss of protective marshes, especially in Unit 2, one of four refuge impoundments, any storm or extreme high tide threatens the small coastal bay towns that share their borders with the refuge.

The bottom line, Guiteras said, is the touring scientists agreed with refuge officials that plugging the holes would not solve the problems because the marsh is so degraded. “We could fill the breaches and still not solve the problem because the coastline would still be vulnerable from the marsh side because it's suffering from such an elevation deficit. It's a Band-Aid solution for a gaping wound.”

Total salt marsh cited as preferred alternative

The preferred alternative included within the draft plan is to manage the refuge to mimic natural processes and discontinue management practices such as maintaining extensive, artificial freshwater ponds that are vulnerable to sea-level rise. Under the plan, the four refuge impoundments would be restored to salt marsh to help the marshland become more resilient to climate change.

In addition, all previous farmland areas within the refuge would be restored to native forest habitat. The plan includes methods – including lethal ones if necessary – to manage resident Canada geese, mute swans and snow geese.

New hiking trails, more hunting areas and hunting days, expansion of fishing opportunities and educational programs are also included within the preferred alternative.


Refuge officials have stated the preferred alternative in the soon-to-be released conservation plan involves restoration of Unit 2 to a salt marsh. Guiteras said to begin restoring the marsh, the system requires an influx of sediment or dredge material, either in large quantities or in small sections. The new material would boost the natural accretion of sediment in the marsh.

The elevation deficit can be tied to a dramatic loss of peat, past alterations of the marsh and the water-control devices, the biologist said.

Guiteras said some people don't understand why filling in the breaches would not solve the problem. “We only wish it was that simple, but it's not. And there are others who say we should do nothing. We also wish that was the case,” she said, adding allowing nature to takes its course will not restore the marsh.

Prime Hook biologist Annabella Costa Larsen, who led one of the tours, pointed to the dramatic changes that have occurred to the Prime Hook marshes, which make up most of the refuge. She pointed to Unit 2 and said six years ago the area was a thriving freshwater marsh. Today, because of saltwater intrusion, most of the marsh is now open water. “The collapse of the perennial and annual plants has created what I call Prime Hook Sound,” Larsen said.

Several breaches in the nearby dunes at Fowler Beach allow for the free-flow of saltwater into Unit 2.

Larsen said the most important step to take is to reestablish a salt marsh in Unit 2. But that's only one of three options to be included in the refuge conservation plan, which will also propose letting nature takes its course and restoring the freshwater impoundments.

Larsen said the original concept of the refuge was that federal protected lands would include all of the beach areas within its borders with no communities along the beachfront. “But that never materialized, and in the 1960s and 1970s, small communities started to develop,” she said.

It's those communities – Broadkill Beach, Primehook Beach and Slaughter Beach – that are in peril and are now active stakeholders in the Prime Hook Refuge debate.

Guiteras said comments and suggestions from the wetlands experts will be incorporated during the public comment sessions of upcoming conservation plan hearings.

The biologist said she is optimistic about the future of Prime Hook refuge. “It's not going to be easy and hopefully things will not get worse before they start to get better. Over the next five years we could start to see some solutions,” she said.

Issues abound at Prime Hook refuge

Issues outlined to participants in the workshop included the following:

Large areas throughout Unit 2 impoundment that were vegetated wetlands last year have converted to open water because of several breaches in the duneline allowing the free flow of saltwater from the Delaware Bay.

In recent months, saltwater intrusion has produced dramatic vegetation loss in Unit 3.

The rate of accretion of sediment over the past 50 years in Units 2 and 3 is the lowest in the state, estimated to have been half the current rate of sea-level rise – the marsh is sinking.

In some places, the roads that serve as dike infrastructure for water management are more than a foot below mean high water in elevation, exacerbating flooding.

The water control structures installed more than 20 years ago are in need of repair or replacement and are situated at a lower elevation than was prescribed during engineering.

Prime Hook Road, which divides Unit 2 – where the breaches are – and Unit 3, serves as the lone access to Primehook Beach. Flooding over the road is more frequent because of the breaches.

Public hearings scheduled on Prime Hook conservation plan

The long-awaited 1,200-page Prime Hook refuge draft comprehensive conservation plan was released May 31. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has scheduled six hearings to solicit public comments.


The formal public hearing is from 6-9 p.m. Tuesday, June 19, at Cape Henlopen High School, 1250 Kings Highway, Lewes, with another five meetings geared toward specific topics.


Those hearings are as follows:


6-9 p.m. Tuesday, June 5, Milford Senior Center, 111 Park Ave., Milford, habitat management.


6-9 p.m. Thursday, June 7, Milford Senior Center, hunting.


1-4 p.m. Saturday, June 9, Milton Fire Hall, 116 Front St., Milton, habitat management.


6-9 p.m. Tuesday, June 12, Cape Henlopen High School, hunting.


6-9 p.m. Thursday, June 11, Milton Fire Hall, wildlife observation and photography, fishing, environmental education and interpretation.


The refuge will also have open houses on three Sundays from 1-4 p.m. on June 3, 10 and 17 to answer questions regarding the plan. The refuge is located on Turkle Pond Road east of Route 1 outside Milton.


Comments on the plan can be made at the hearings or by mail, fax and e-mail with a deadline of Monday, Aug. 6. Addresses and numbers are:; 413-253-8468; Thomas Bonetti, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 300 Westgate Center Dr., Hadly, MA 01035.


Copies of the plan can be downloaded at or ask for a copy on CD-ROM from refuge staff at 302-684-8419 or email





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