GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 20, 2013

Plum Island erosion sandbars stretch toward Essex

By John Macone
Staff Writer

---- — PLUM ISLAND — The island’s battle with erosion has dominated the headlines this year.

But as the winter’s ravages recede, another impact of winter storms is becoming visible — enormous new offshore sandbars at the northern and southern end of the island that are bringing changes as far away as in the Essex River and off Gloucester’s Coffin Beach.

The areas off Plum Island have historically been hotspots for sandbars. They grow and recede as sand shifts along the coast.

This summer, as beachgoers and boaters return to the shore, they will find a stunningly altered landscape at the southernmost end of Plum Island, where the offshore sandbar has grown to what some say is unprecedented size.

“It’s enormous,” said Peter Pinciaro, regional manager for the Trustees of Reservations. One of the Trustees’ prime properties, Crane Beach, overlooks the sandbar.

“At low tide, you can really see how much it has expanded,” said Pinciaro, who has been boating in local waters for 25 years and called the size of the sandbars “unprecedented.” Its shape is irregular and its size can only be estimated at perhaps a half mile long.

In the summertime, dozens of boats anchor off the sandbar, and beachgoers spill out onto the sands at low tide. It’s a popular spot — the waters here are warm, and there is usually lots of room to spread out.

For as long as records have been kept, there’s always been a sandbar roughly between Crane Beach and the southern tip of Plum Island. But this year it has become a huge land mass, stretching from the tip of Plum Island into Ipswich Bay, a distance of about a half mile or more. It’s now possible — though not advisable — to wade from the southern tip of Plum Island to the offshore sandbars at low tide.

But it can be a dangerous stretch of water. Currents rip through the shallow waters. Pinciaro said that lifeguards have already had issues with people walking out too far in the shallow waters, and becoming stranded when the tide turns.

Further down the coast, in Essex Bay, the changes are even more dramatic. Essex Bay is deeply choked with sandbars. Pinciaro said there was a report of a person walking all the way across the mouth of the Essex River, from Gloucester’s Coffin Beach to Crane Beach.

“There is definitely a lot of sand down there,” he said.

It’s becoming clear where much of that sand is coming from: It’s Crane Beach.

Studies by the Trustees have shown that the southernmost tip of Crane Beach has eroded northward, and many areas along the seaside beach were significantly eroded during last winter’s storms.

“We’ve definitely lost a lot of sand,” said Pinciaro. “There’s been a lot of erosion without an accretion (the natural process of beach rebuilding).”

Meanwhile, near the northern end of Plum Island, two bars have been growing since winter. They are located roughly off 32nd Street. Shaped like long lozenges, one is connected to the beach and another is just offshore. They have become popular walking and wading spots at low tide.

This area has long seen sandbars come and go. Jerry Klima, a former Salisbury selectman who owns a summer home on the island and has been documenting changes along the coast, said the bars here typically form from winter storms, perhaps due to the collision of currents sweeping down the Merrimack River and into the ocean, and ocean currents.

“During the summer, these bars gradually move south,” he said. “we used to surf off there, and as the summer progressed you would see how they would slowly move south.”

John Macone is editor of the Daily News of Newburyport, sister paper to the Times. He can be reached through jmacone@gloucestertimes.com.