TANGIER, VA – If ever there were an issue that would let us see where the United States is compared to China, let us compare the Virginia island of Tangier, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, and the Spratly Islands, those coral reefs in the middle of the South China Sea.
In the case of Tangier, officials from the state and federal governments are unable to come up with a solution to a simple thing, namely the erosion of a historic island. In the case of the Spratleys, the Red Commies are easily able to create new islands, even while American officials dither, in the middle of an large sea.
Tangier is universally beloved by, well, everyone, for its bucolic frame houses and waterman culture. The Tangier accent, which many say is closer to 18th Century English than England, is an artifact of study from linguists and scholars alike for its relationship to Cornwall and Devon. The island is also beloved and supposedly “protected” by ecologists, biologists, indeed almost every kind of “ologist” save perhaps herpetologists (well we guess there might be some water snakes, but not too many!) and archaeologists. For you see, Tangier is washing away, day by day. And so the archaeology is well, not so big a thing in a place that is slowly disappearing.
Last month, The New York Times featured the island, one of many stories that decry all the ways that the place is dying. The general thesis is that nothing substantial can be done, because it is so expensive, and well, only New York City and Miami and such places can “adapt” to climate change. The rest of us poor sops will have to wait as our jetties are disallowed by bureaucrats, and we just wash away, to be remembered, perhaps only in a documentary (below one from Russia Today) that preserves all the important facets of the disappeared anthropological subculture. This media darling status has been present for years; I fell for Tangier’s charms as editor of Virginia Living magazine; and National Geographic featured it in the fall of 1973, in perhaps the greatest magazine cover ever.
Politicians argue, and numerous proposals have been proposed. If it does indeed disappear, the blame will mostly be with United States Army Corps of Engineers, those federal agents who decide what Virginia can do in its own waters. It will also be the fault of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which has not protected this jewel and asset, and has kept its waterman residents as sort of serfs. Of course each of these institutions is really us, no matter how unresponsive the agencies are to citizens.
A related problem is crony capitalism. Menhaden interests can take millions of pounds of menhaden in giant nets out of the bay, to the tune of 29,313,757 pounds in recent periods. Yet sport fishermen have to throw back fish, and local watermen such as the ones in Tangier face tight limits on what they can remove. They cannot make a living on the water. Menhaden are important to the whole Bay, yet one company is treated to have a right to own this resource which belongs to everyone in Virginia.
To save the island, Tangier Islanders and numerous Virginians have come up with ideas. In this decade, thoughts have included innovative plans such as sinking empty barges as breakwaters, a local plan that was advanced by Rep. Scott Rigell, but apparently went nowhere.
Currently there is a plan to add jetties, but the latest news on this was during the ill-fated McDonell Administration, and that plan has not happened. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration also brought attention to the island in 2015, when two historic markers were dedicated and the donation of the Uppards Island to the township was celebrated. Uppards was privately owned, and it helps protect the island through its marshes.
What to do? The points made here are not an argument for a particular course of action, save one. Officials, who are in charge, need to come up with something, or let the people who have a stake in the decision do what they want to. And if you do, something magical will happen. It is called jobs, economic development and saved lives of young people, who will be able to find things to do in the beautiful place they grew up.
Why this matters:
- Public safety and military importance. Yes military. It is important that our Chesapeake Bay has people on that island, and a goodly amount. It is a respite in storms; there are accidents as it is near to the channel heading to Baltimore. Just last year, Coast Guard helicopters rescued someone from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. While the helicopter didn’t need to stop in Tangier, it is helpful to have such a place in the middle of the Bay, just in case. It should be a must-stop on the Intracoastal Waterway.
- Sport Fishing: Tangier is a stopping point for sport fisherman; if there were a large number of jetties and marshes rebuilt, this would improve the fishing in the area. Fishing related industries are one of the areas were young, local rural men can work and make a good living in boat repair, engines and the like. Sport fishing brings money and helps protect marine resources, and jobs are not only created on Tangier, but in the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore.
- Slave and British Colonial History: During the War of 1812, Tangier was the site of the British Fort Albion, named after England’s nickname, Albion. Thousands of slaves were offered freedom there. It is a key site in understanding the banning of slavery in the British Empire, which was the first Empire to free African slaves.
- Tourism: It is a very undeveloped tourism spot. Tangier is the sort of place people go once, and don’t go back. Yet there is a lot to do, from canoeing to a beach to seafood. The whole place is a throwback, and it could be a place that people go to each year for a time. This not only helps tourism on Tangier, but on the Eastern Shore and in Virginia’s Northern Neck.
- Education: Part of the problem of tourism on the island is that there is no place to stay. One easy way to remedy this would be to construct places for youths to stay on the island for science trips. This is a big business with schools. Perhaps one of the science museums in Virginia could take this on as a joint venture, as an expansion to their summer programs. Or perhaps Sea Camp from the Florida Keys needs a northern outpost?
- Seafood: Having more wetlands and breeding grounds will help this industry grow. As technology for seafood farming improves, including oysters, we will need more places to farm, and more “bases” to reach these farms.
- Seafood processing: There is no reason why Tangier cannot be a place where larger numbers of seafood is processed. It is close to Hampton Roads and Baltimore, and an even one or two more small seafood houses would provide jobs and seafood; this was true 100 years ago, and with advances in water quality, this can be a hub. Perhaps as low lying marshes are rebuilt, processing houses can take advantage of the newly created lands.
- A Lab for Adaptation: Discussions about global warming and climate change always have a dire cast. By 2050 all of the East Coast will be submerged! Miami and Tampa are sinking! But the reality is that the Netherlands has large areas that exist below sea level, and somehow manage to survive. However much the sea level rises, it is helpful to have a place like Tangier where experts can experiment with different methods. Give the islanders some room to try, and we might learn something.
- Dangerous Stuff: In the middle of the bay there are numerous areas where Navy planes have pummeled all sorts of sunk vessels. These items will be there until Revelation. The problem is that they are also good fishing areas, and people often stumble upon them. Improved artificial fishing reefs will help not only the ecology, but direct people to places that are designed for fishing.
The issue of Tangier involves many excuses. Currently, the thinking on beaches, at least if you look on the internet, is that the only thing sane environmentalists can do is let the waterfront erode, and let “nature” take its course. This inane thinking is accepted because of cost. If you have limited resources, you can’t afford to rebuild a beach each year, and so when you protect one place, the places downstream are affected. So you need to be careful when you do these things.
That may be the thinking in many heads, but it is not reality. In Florida, officials who are in charge of protecting tourist economies, jobs, and indeed peoples lives figure out ways to protect beaches and indeed enhance them. Yes, it is expensive, but it makes for cities and places that are worthwhile. As a society, we can’t just let Miami Beach wash away; we need jobs and places for real people to live and be human.
Of course, if we go anywhere else in the world, we see jetties that do just fine, thank you. Even in the Middle ages, they were building dykes in The Netherlands. In Florida, perhaps as early as 800 A.D., the Calusa were building canals and waterways for their empire. Some of those canals survive today.
These solutions are quite simple but officials seem to be missing that. So lets make a list of the obvious:
- Individual solutions: Everyday Americans build wooden bulkheads that are relatively inexpensive, and last for two decades or so. While wooden bulkheads might not be the answer for a whole island, encouraging pre-approved individual solutions from individual homeowners and local leaders would help the situation. A major part of the cost of protecting your own shoreline is permitting and government.
- Organic solutions: When people live in an area, it gets built up from everything from household waste to organic matter to the growth of plants. As the island’s economic fortunes improve, there will be additional living matter added to the island, through plant matter. While this is not a solution for today, oyster shell middens will help rebuild the shoreline.
- Traditional Bulkheads: The Army Corps builds metal and concrete bulkheads that stand up against large currents. In Virginia, the bulkhead at Jamestown Island is both protective and decorative. If it had not been built, American history would have washed away.
- Rip Rap: The most basic solution to erosion is to throw rocks into the water. This works; in an ideal situation the rocks are placed into the water slightly away from the shore, to help break the wave action. The problem comes when you have smaller rocks, and land right behind the rocks. Then the shoreline erodes right behind the rocks. There are areas where rip rap has been used; see video below.
- Nature assisted solutions: The water around the island is relatively shallow; the channel is far enough away to benefit from breakwaters. Breakwaters not only slow erosion, they provide for a place for marine life to grow. The reality is that land will actually grow where natural conditions encourage it, in everything from barnacles to oysters to sponges to clams. Providing something for them to cling to will add to the organic matter on the island not only for now, but for generations ahead.
- Reef Balls: These little $450 domes are used to promote fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. They encourage marine life to grow inside, and help to break waves to combat erosion. They are genius for attracting fish.
- New Technology: There are all sorts of solutions for breaking the force of waves and providing a place for wave energy. The plastic Wavebrake is used in marinas; it is sort of a floating jetty that creates a calm area behind the water. On shorelines, the concrete Xbloc, a sort of concrete block shaped like a toy jack, is used in even third world countries like Nigeria. The shape absorbs wave energy and uses less concrete than straight jettys. Most interesting is the giant Eco Xbloc, which are large X shaped concrete protectors that encourage marine life.
There is no reason why good things cannot happen in Tangier. Many of the men on the island work tugs if they aren’t watermen; there are skills and untapped resources. These people know the water.
Below, watch a video from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is the think-tank that has been monitoring the construction binge in China. They have a project called Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, which is trying to be good cop in the region. There are no international law issues with Tangier, however, just American incompetence. Perhaps we might invite the Reds? No, just kidding.
What an opportunity waiting to be executed.
Russia Today also reported on the island.