2007-07-13 / Community

On The Peninsula It's A Battle For The Beaches

By Michelle Romano

The sounds of referee whistles, waves crashing and volleyballs in play filled the air at the Rockaway Beach Volleyball League's weekly tournament on July 3rd.

What was missing were the familiar chirps of piping plover colonies that make their home on Riis Park's sandy shores.

"I thought [Gateway] was joking when they said the birds were gone," RBVL director Joe McGivney said.

McGivney, who has been involved with the league for 17 years, said for the past four, the bird colonies have caused fencing issues, which block off beach areas where RBVL nets have been for years.

Pointing to a marker-board display of net locations, he explained how each week, depending on where the endangered birds are nesting, RBVL officials must rearrange the nets' locations to avoid the fenced-in colonies. Many times, teams must carry heavy equipment far from the main playing area (on the beach in front of the Riis Park bathrooms) to accommodate the nests.

"We have 600 people that have to come down and set up nets every week," McGivney said, "and every week the fencing is changed and we have to change at the last minute."

Luckily for the RBVL, the plovers' eggs have hatched and the colonies have "flown the coop," as they only come to the Rockaways, and other Atlantic beaches, to mate. Last year, McGivney said, the endangered birds did not depart until late August. Now that Riis Park is colony-free, the League can place their nets, which gather approximately 50 teams, plus their families and onlookers, in the main playing area.

The weekly conflict of man versus nature at Riis Park is evident throughout the peninsula during the summer months, when the Rockaways see a heavy influx of visitors - both bird and human. Besides drawing beach-bound vacationers, the peninsula's shores are a haven for seagulls, the endangered piping plovers, common and least terns, skimmers and oystercatchers - species of concern in New York State.

"The birds are threatened," Gateway acting assistant superintendent Dave Taft said. "There are not a lot of them around and their habitat is limited. The law requires us to protect them, and I'm grateful."

Beach restrictions vary. They range from lax at Gateway's tip of Breezy Point, where sunbathing and fishing are permitted, to strict in Arverne, where Parks and Recreation closed the shore between Beach 38 and Beach 58 Streets for plover preservation. Restrictions are designed to prevent destruction to the birds' natural habitat, which recently occurred in the Riis Park area.

"There are several miles of beach in Rockaway alone, and a 20-block radius is a small area to delegate to the birds," Parks citywide ranger captain Richard Simon said. "I guess it can be viewed as an inconvenience [to beachgoers], but the big picture is this is a very large beach, and [the birds' area is a small] space we're limiting access to."

Activities such as jogging and ball playing are prohibited on some nesting beaches because they may endanger the birds by disrupting their feeding cycles. Operating motorized vehicles is out of the question, as a chick on its way to the shore may get stuck in a tire track, where it could eventually die.

However, Taft said that in the event of an emergency "all bets are off" as vehicular access is granted to emergency and rescue vehicles.

Allowing emergency vehicles is one of the steps taken by conservationists to mediate conflicting human and animal interests. Taft said achieving a balance between providing a recreation area for beachgoers and protecting endangered species in a national park is no easy feat.

The RBVL-plover conflict is an example of how difficult it can be to achieve the desired equilibrium. Taft said Gateway is often inconsistent with indicating nesting boundaries for the RBVL because they "cannot govern where the birds decide to nest."

"Rangers can almost always find a volleyball track [in the nesting area]," Taft said. 'The birds can survive it, but it's better if they don't [have to]. Surely it's frustrating for [the RBVL to adhere to restrictions] and it's frustrating for us… and for the plover."

Despite tension between residents and birds underlying the battle for the beaches, conservationists seek to educate the beach-going community as a means of achieving the crucial balance between man and nature.

"Our goal is to explain to people the significance of what they have here," Taft said. "Not everyone gets to see a piping plover."

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