Joseph Sylvia State Beach – Our Barrier Beach
The Joseph Sylvia State Beach, approximately 6500 feet long, is one of the 681 barrier beaches
along the coast of Massachusetts. Located on Martha’s Vineyard’s northeastern shore, State
Beach, as islanders refer to it, is part of a littoral drift system extending from the East Chop cliffs
in Oak Bluffs to the Edgartown Light, at the mouth of Edgartown Harbor. Two inlets, stabilized
with stone rip rap, provide for the exchange of water between the Pond and Nantucket Sound.
The beach forms the seaward margin of Sengekontacket Pond, a 745 acre tidal, brackish lagoon.
Located on the backshore of the beach are a bicycle path and Beach Road, a state road. Beach,
pond, sea and sky combine to form one of the loveliest scenic vistas in rural New England, if not
The beach itself is owned by the Commonwealth and managed by the County of Dukes County
by virtue of a 1946 Act of the Massachusetts Legislature. The beach’s aesthetic appeal,
unsurpassed swimming, and easy public access attract throngs of beach goers on a summer
day. Parking, which is free, accommodates about 500 cars. The Joseph Sylvia State Beach
provides recreation, support for the Island’s economy by visitors attracted to the coast, and
refuge for protected rare bird species, particularly the Piping Plover and Least Tern. In addition,
the beach absorbs and dissipates wave energy, thereby providing storm protection to the road,
Sengekontacket Pond and the inland wetlands behind it.
The pond is 745 acres in area and about 2.5 miles in length. Pond water is flushed twice daily
through two inlets in a tidal interchange with Nantucket Sound. Depths range from
approximately 8 feet above mean low water at two inlet bridges to 6-8 feet in the channels in
the interior of the pond.
About one-half of the pond consists of flats and sand bars which are used for commercial and
recreational shell fishing. Salt marshes fringe most of the ponds shoreline, particularly along the
mainland shore and Trapp’s Pond to which is connected to Sengekontacket Pond through a
culvert under Beach Road.
Small islands in the pond are important nesting sites for shorebirds such as terns. People kayak
and canoe in Sengekontacket, picnic on the protected shores, and scallop, clam, and windsurf
its waters. The surrounding landscape includes private residences, a golf course, and
conservation property on the inland side and a heavily traveled scenic roadway and a popular
swimming beach on the Nantucket Sound side.
Friends of Sengekontacket was formed when for the first time in 1988 the pond was closed to
shell fishing due to high coliform counts. Since that time we have assessed the foundations of
Sengekontacket's natural ecosystems, identifying threats to water quality, and initiating long
range planning based on a scientific database.
Trapp's Pond is currently closed to shell fishing by the Massachusetts Division of Marine
Fisheries. There are populations of Soft-Shelled Clams and Quahogs found in the pond.
The Edgartown Shellfish Department is trying to get it opened for at least the winter months,
however more sampling is needed the summer of 2021 and beyond.
The Massachusetts Estuaries Program (2005) viewed the pond as a pollution source for the rest
of Sengekontacket and recommended some sewerage treatment in the Trapps watershed. A
major problem is the restrictive culvert which runs under the road between Trapps and
To replace the culvert a State or other major grant would be needed, Most State grants for this
kind of study / work are for freshwater culverts, so work would have to be done to explore
what grants might become available. A hydrographic study would need to be made before the
full Tide could be introduced into Trapps. A tide range survey may be on file at the MCV.
Another complication is the culvert is owned by the Mass. Highway Department, so they would
have to be on board early in any development process.