Friends of Sengekontacket, Inc. The First Twenty Years 1989-2009

By Christina Miller

Sengekontacket Pond has been an Island resource for thousands of years. If we were to write a “Song of Sengekontacket” we would sing of Wampanoag settlements along the shores of what is now Major’s Cove, of a hunting camp on Marinelli’s Point and a Pond still called Anthier’s Pond by some old timers, of the creation of the second opening to the sea at the north end of the Pond in 1932, of extensive eelgrass meadows and eels, bountiful harvests of shellfish, the timeless beautiful vistas across salt marsh to the sea and sunsets that seem almost ethereal. Songs are often composed from memories full of joy and sentiment, and until the late 1980’s what was known about Sengekontacket Pond was primarily anecdotal.

 

Then in the summer of 1988 the 745 acre Pond was closed to shellfishing for the first time by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries due to high levels of bacterial contaminants, causing great concern. Theories abounded about what was wrong with the Pond and how to fix it. Many blamed shoaling in the Pond, preventing the cleansing exchange with ocean waters and advocated for dredging -- “the solution to pollution is dilution.” Others blamed waterfowl and other wildlife, development and houses built in the tidal flood zones at the Pond’s edge, failed septic systems leaching into the Pond, fertilized lawns adding nitrogen and nutrients which promoted algae growth, and runoff that carries contaminants from the road in rainwater draining into the Pond.

 

The following summer, July 1989, a symposium titled “Our Coasts In Danger” featuring nationally prominent speakers in environmental and coastal affairs, was held at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. After the symposium the public was invited to form working groups and it was there that Christina Miller, author, with a background in environmental affairs met Jeanne and Arvin Wells who live on the Pond. Soon many others joined. We held public meetings at the Massachusetts Audubon Society at Felix Neck to discuss Sengekontacket Pond and how to restore it to a healthy estuary. Out of these well-attended meetings a steering committee was formed and from that emerged a Board of Directors for a new organization called the Friends of Sengekontacket. Serving on that first Board of Directors were: Rene Blanc, Gray Bryan, Claude Davis, Mrs. James Doan, Steven Ewing, Christina Miller, Robert Priestley, Charles Sanders, Alan Schweikert, and Arvin Wells. Officers were Christina Miller, President, Arvin Wells VicePresident, Rene Blanc, Treasurer, and Charles Sanders, Secretary. At the same time Friends of Sengekontacket also formed an Advisory Board composed of individuals who were Edgartown and Oak Bluffs Selectmen and shellfish constables, County Commissioners, and the Directors of Felix Neck and the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. The meeting place of the Board of Directors shifted to the Edgartown Yacht Club.

 

Modeled after the Edgartown Harbor Association the Friends of Sengekontacket began the legal process to form a 501-c3 corporation that would allow tax-deductible contributions. Charles Sanders also became Chairman of our first fund raising drive, and an appeal letter was mailed with funds raised from early contributors. The first of many enjoyable clambakes was held on the beach so people could become acquainted. By the end of the year we had raised $42,000 towards a study by the world renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

 

In 1990 Friends of Sengekontacket entered into a $65,000 contractual agreement with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to identify sources of pollution in the Pond and examine how the Pond worked, measuring currents, and rates of flushing. Dr. Arthur Gaines was the principal investigator. At the Friends of Sengekontacket sponsored meeting at the Wakeman Center in 1992, Dr. Gaines and his associate, geologist Dr. Graham Giese, reported on their work and findings. Science was replacing anecdotes! From both individual contributors and successful grant applications, Friends of Sengekontacket has raised thousands of dollars to fund major additional studies: by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, by environmental firms such as Horsley & Witten, Inc., by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Massachusetts Lakes and Ponds Program, the Massachusetts Estuaries Project, ecologists at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and scientists doing DNA ribotyping at the University of New Hampshire. We now know more about Sengekontacket Pond than has ever been known before and we recognize that ultimately the passing of by-laws and zoning articles based on this data rests with the Towns. The work of the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs Joint Committee on Sengekontacket, of which Friends of Sengekontacket is a member, is vitally important in developing new strict regulations and comprehensive strategies to limit nitrogen in the ground water, restore eelgrass beds and the shellfishery, and control development in the watershed.

 

But first there are three more important elements to the Friends of Sengekontacket story.

 

Joseph Sylvia State Beach

The Joseph Sylvia State Beach is the barrier beach to Sengekontacket Pond. Without the beach, Beach Road would be inundated and Sengekontacket Pond would be part of Nantucket Sound. State Beach is owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and by an Act of the Legislature in 1946, managed by the County of Dukes County. In 1989 beach erosion was so severe that during heavy storms Beach Road was closed due to flooding. To prevent the road from washing away concrete Jersey barriers were placed along the road in Oak Bluffs. Storm surges from Hurricane Bob and the so-called “Halloween Storm” left the newly paved Road covered with sand and chunks of asphalt. State officials approved placement of 45,000 plastic sand bags to form a 1500 ft. long wall along the most vulnerable stretch at a cost of $370,000.

 

The process of obtaining permits to renourish the beach with 40,000 cubic yards of sand dredged from the Pond at an estimated cost of a half million dollars had encountered delays when State and Federal officials could not agree on the construction of two additional stone jetties on State Beach. Meantime in December 1992 another coastal storm with extreme high tides battered the sand bag fortifications leaving Beach Road impassable. Unfortunately once dredging began, dredge spoils were put over the deteriorating sand bags, which continued to migrate into Sengekontacket Pond, Nantucket Sound, and along the beach. It was evident once most of these bags were removed from the beach and fished out of the Pond that even with renourishment the problem of an eroding beach remained.

 

Recognizing this, Friends of Sengekontacket established the Barrier Beach Task Force with Christina Miller as Chair. The Friends of Sengekontacket mission statement was rewritten to include preservation of the Beach. The Barrier Beach Task Force, now in its 16th year, for much of the time has also been Co-Chaired by the Dukes County Manager. In initial meetings members of the Task Force agreed that the work of this group was to formulate a practical, affordable, environmentally sound management plan that balanced the need to maintain Beach Road with the need to preserve as healthy ecosystems the Joseph Sylvia State Beach and Sengekontacket Pond. The Task Force includes some Friends of Sengekontacket Directors, four state environmental agencies (Coastal Zone Management, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, National Heritage and Endangered Species), the Massachusetts Highway Department, two federal agencies (the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, under the US Department of Agriculture), the Conservation Commissions, highway departments, and shellfish constables of the Towns of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, the County Commissioners, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and others. The plan that all the stakeholders formulated of constructing three timber groins in place of the originally proposed stone jetties, as well as periodic renourishment and re-vegetation of the beach is working. A healthy dune system now functions as an effective storm barrier, absorbing and dissipating wave energy thereby protecting the road, coastal pond and inlands behind it. In recent years with state grant monies, the Barrier Beach Task Force hired the Woods Hole Group to develop a long-term beach management plan. The initial phase of the Plan was completed in April 2008 and is now being implemented.

 

Environmental Education

Through the years Friends of Sengekontacket has been a leader in environmental education, supported in part by the Farm Neck Foundation, the Edey Foundation, the Permanent Endowment Fund, the Vineyard Open Land Foundation, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Lakes and Ponds grants, ExxonMobil Corporation, the Martha’s Vineyard Oar and Paddle Association, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

 

Watershed protection and education is central to the mission of the Friends of Sengekontacket. With state grant funding, berms constructed near the Little Bridge and Trapps Pond inlet diverted road runoff away from the Pond. Beds of buffer plantings at the Sengekontacket shoreline bordering the golf course were created to absorb runoff containing fertilizer and other landscaping chemicals used to manage the turf. In 2005 in cooperation with the Polly Hill Arboretum and the Nature Conservancy the Friends of Sengekontacket co-sponsored “Planting with a Purpose.” This program held at the Oak Bluffs School auditorium educated gardeners about the value of landscaping with native plants, which are naturally adapted to the Vineyard’s soil conditions and climate. Friends of Sengekontacket also recently wrote a fact sheet titled: "The Friends of Sengekontacket Would Like You to Know About the Sengekontacket Pond Watershed.” It includes good water practices to post in the home as well as a map of the watershed. When the sheet was hand delivered to every household, many people were surprised that the Sengekontacket watershed extends from a point near West Tisbury Town Center and that one does not have to live on the Pond to impact its watershed.

 

In 1992 Friends of Sengekontacket donated a fleet of ten canoes, paddles and life preservers to the Massachusetts Audubon Society at Felix Neck to enable naturalists to conduct on the water environmental education. In subsequent years the program grew and Friends of Sengekontacket contributed a fleet of kayaks and related equipment which became an integral part of the Fern and Feather summer camp. Kayaks donated by Friends of Sengekontacket are also available for the Sengekontacket Stories Kayak Quest. Written by Felix Neck’s community partners including the Friends of Sengekontacket the quest is an on the water treasure hunt. By following clues in the rhymed quest book and reading a hand drawn map, paddlers find six locations on the Pond. At the end of the adventure is the quest box. It just so happens in 2008 the Martha’s Vineyard Magazine congratulated Sengekontacket Pond on being voted the best place to kayak on Martha’s Vineyard.

 

Held every year since 1995, the Carry In/Carry Out poster contest in the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs Schools is one of the most familiar to the community. Students in Grades 5 through 8 are invited to submit posters illustrating the Carry In/Carry Out theme. This is widely used in wilderness areas -- “Take only pictures and leave only footprints”. As part of the science curriculum students learn that a plastic six-pack ring can interfere with sea birds feeding if it encircle their necks, and small pieces of Styrofoam can be mistaken for fish eggs. Marine mammals can ingest plastic bags floating in the water mistaking them for jellyfish, normally part of their diet. Students learn not only about the environmental impact of litter but also that they can be leaders in environmental education. The 44 winning posters are chosen from several hundred entries. In June an awards ceremony is held at the schools at which winners receive their original poster laminated, a certificate from the Friends of Sengekontacket and $10. The winning posters are color copied, laminated and displayed on stanchions on pathways to State Beach until Labor Day and in framed display cases on Steamship Authority vessels throughout the year.

 

Canoes, row boats and kayaks (anything that floats and is people powered) compete the last Sunday in August in the Oar and Paddle Regatta on Sengekontacket Pond, now in its seventeenth year. Dogs are sometimes crew members, properly outfitted in their canine life preservers, aboard the motley collection of vessels. Proceeds from registration fees, after expenses, are donated to the Friends of Sengekontacket and recently also to the YMCA. The Regatta has a festival atmosphere and promotes passive recreational use of the Pond. Following the races and awards ceremony participants enjoy a barbecue on State Beach.

 

Friends of Sengekontacket is a sponsor of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Science Fair held each year in February. Not only do our Board and Advisory Board provide many of the judges, but also a special “Friends of Sengekontacket Award” is given to the student whose project focuses on an aspect of water quality or salt marsh ecology.

 

With grant support Friends of Sengekontacket has developed major environmental and educational initiatives related to eelgrass, the submerged aquatic vegetation that is so important in maintaining the health of Sengekontacket Pond. Illustrated trifold exhibits were displayed at Island libraries. A public forum was held at Felix Neck with speakers from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and local agencies. A similar education program focused on American beachgrass, the plant that builds and stabilizes dunes by trapping sand, with colorfully illustrated handouts. Both the eelgrass and beachgrass exhibits received ribbons including a Blue Ribbon at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair; and a play “The Dunes Day Scenario” was written and produced on the Agricultural Fair stage by a talented Friends of Sengekontacket Board member, Kate Hancock.

 

Friends of Sengekontacket Volunteers

Non-profit organizations are frequently formed in the passion of the moment—in the case of Friends of Sengekontacket when the Pond was first closed to shellfishing in 1989. But the real long-term challenge is can they grow and be sustainable. Is there enough volunteer commitment and energy that allows the organization to mature, and do the hard daily work, and meet new challenges? Friends of Sengekontacket have been extremely fortunate. Members of the Board of Directors have devoted their time and talents over the twenty years of our existence. Past Presidents not only from Oak Bluffs and Edgartown but also from Chilmark broadened our Island-wide appeal. Leaders from corporate backgrounds with organizational and interpersonal skills, conservationists, educators, engineers, scientists, business people, authors, administrators, and lawyers to name just a few have served on the Board of Directors and continue to do so.

 

Community support, be it in contributions or time, is the backbone of Friends of Sengekontacket. When we have a need for volunteers, people respond and get involved. They have been willing to learn the process and team up with scientists to perform water quality testing in boats, to walk through the often mucky Sengekontacket shoreline with clipboards and cameras to assist with the shoreline survey, to identify sources of pollution, to be out on a windy March day to plant beachgrass, to carry our banner and design a float in the 4th of July parade in Edgartown, to participate in the Earth Day clean up of State Beach, and to construct a kayak rack for public use with memorial contributions for that purpose.

 

Sengekontacket Pond and the Joseph Sylvia State Beach are vital natural and increasingly threatened natural resources. The Beach’s easy public access and free parking attracts visitors and residents alike and is an important part of the local economy. The Pond supports a commercial as well as recreational shellfishery. Both Beach and Pond provide habitat for protected rare nesting shorebirds. The Friends of Sengekontacket look forward to working in partnership with the Towns of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs and all other stakeholders as we enter a critical time for the Pond. We welcome new members and particularly people who may be interested in becoming Board members. Verses of the “Song of Sengekontacket” are still being written. With ongoing financial and community support, the Friends of Sengekontacket, Inc. will continue to educate and advocate for Sengekontacket Pond.