Many hands in the sand: Aquinnah tribe, volunteers plant beach grass for climate-resilient coast

Jasmine McNish, 13, took an early ferry to the Vineyard with her mom to help plant beach grass on Lobsterville Road in Aquinnah. Mass.

Jasmine McNish, 13, took an early ferry to the Vineyard with her mom to help plant beach grass on Lobsterville Road in Aquinnah. Mass. (Eve Zuckoff/CAI)

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah is determined to protect its homelands on Martha’s Vineyard from the impacts of climate change. To that end, tribe members and community volunteers are turning to beach grass: planting it one stem at a time to save an eroding sand dune and beach with deep roots in the tribe’s history.

The work picked up on a sunny spring morning on Lobsterville Road, where James Moreis and his 6-year-old daughter Akinah moved in tandem: he used a steel rake to poke holes in the sand, and she stepped on it to make the holes deeper.

“This is how I make holes,” she told her dad.

“Yeah. Then what?” he asked.

“Then you make more holes.”

The holes are spaced about a foot apart at the base of the dune. Into each, the volunteers placed two stiff spears of tan grass that resembled hay.

“You want me to help you?” Moreis asked his daughter.

“OK, let’s do it together, Daddy,” she said.

The pair were among 100-plus volunteers who showed up to hand-plant 20,000 stems of beach grass along an 800-foot stretch.

With sun and time, these plants will grow to become the green blades common on postcard-worthy Cape and Island vistas.

“When you do it now, this time of the year, it’s the wet season,” Moreis explained. “It gives time for the roots to build up.”

James Moreis brought his six-year-old daughter Akinah out to plant beach grass. They live nearby on tribal lands. (Eve Zuckoff/CAI)

Over the last few years, volunteers have planted about 100,000 blades of beach grass to create a mile-long dune in the most remote town on the island.

The Aquinnah tribe has already suffered land loss at the hands of colonialism. Now climate change is compounding the problem. These efforts are shoring up the fragile area against growing coastal threats: erosion, sea level rise, and more frequent and intense storms.

Tribal officials say it’s a race against time.

“It takes just one huge storm to come in and take that all away,” said Andrew Jacobs, laboratory manager for the Aquinnah Tribe.

Without the unsung hero that is beach grass, he said, there’s no dune. That’s because of how this little plant grows.

“The roots — they overlap, they intertwine, they create this beautiful lattice that really just holds in the sand,” he said. “So you’re looking at about, per plant, maybe about three feet of expansion in all directions. That helps it establish and hold.”

Dunes with beach grass are more stable when storms strike. They’re the first, crucial line of defense against powerful waves, protecting homes, businesses, ecosystems, and everything that lies behind them.

Those dunes also provide valuable habitat for migratory shore birds including terns and piping plovers.

After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, much of this dune was eroded — and even part of the road above washed away. Then, four years later, another destructive storm tore through the area.

“So in 2016, where you’re standing right now was about 12 feet lower than it is now, because the ocean had taken it away. There was nothing behind us, between us and the road — there was just rubble,” said Bret Stearns, indirect services administrator for the Aquinnah Tribe.

Sand had to be replaced before the tribe could start replanting. So far, the beach grass campaign has worked. But with climate change, the work keeps getting harder — and more essential.

“I’ve worked in natural resources for the Wampanoag tribe since 1994,” Stearns said. “I think when I started this career, we were planners. Now I think we’re emergency responders. I think that’s the difference. We have to be looking five, 10, 20 years out, all the time. But the 20 comes sooner than we think all the time.”

For the Aquinnah Wampanoag people, making the island more resilient is necessary to maintain their homes and their heritage. For thousands of years, the Lobsterville Beach area was life-giving land for the seasonally migratory people.

“We’ve been here for over 13,000 years, before the island was an island,” said tribal chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais. “From April to October, we would be here on the beaches and near the shore, to do our fishing and gathering for seafood and shellfish. So this would be part of a regular harvesting area, particularly because we had the cranberry bogs right across the street.”

Now – and forever– she said, Aquinnah tribal members are inextricably connected to the land. And climate change is a threat to their culture and traditions.

“Being on an island, we’re almost like a canary in the coal mine, because as we watch storms becoming more severe and more erosion on one side of the island, flooding is coming in and we’re having to move people away from where they used to be able to be. So it’s a concern.”

To this day, the Lobsterville Beach area provides members of the tribe with fish, shellfish, and places to forage.

James Moreis said he’s teaching his daughter Akinah how to swim and collect sea clams near Lobsterville Beach. He wants to instill in her what was instilled in him.

“Being a member of the tribe, Aquinnah is where we come from. It’s who we are,” he said. “We are here to protect the land, and the land kind of takes care of us in return.”

Today, protecting the land means poking one hole after another, planting one stem after another, to make sure the land doesn’t disappear altogether.

The latest effort was so successful that next year, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe plans to be even more ambitious.

They say they’ll double their order to 40,000 stems of beach grass.

See more stories from CAI’s climate reporter Eve Zuckoff.