Kevin Sloan, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project manager for the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, stands on a proposed site for a new recreation beach on Assateague Island. (Ian Shapira/The Washington Post)

— Less than 200 miles from the nation’s capital, in a place so remote that ponies run wild, the tug of the tide is rivaled only by the pull of the federal government.

Commercial shellfish farmers still inhabit the waters of the adjacent Assateague Island National Seashore, harvesting millions of clams and oysters annually before shipping them off to wholesalers and restaurants. And vacationers still bask in the tranquillity of Assateague Island’s beach, home to panoramic sunset views, a forest full of warblers and horned owls, and — perhaps most important — up to 1,000 parking spots right by the shoreline.

But now two powerful federal agencies want to change — or, obliterate, depending on which “Teaguer” is talking — the delicate arrangement. The National Park Service wants to wind down commercial fishing in Assateague’s waters for an unspecified period that could be, in the agency’s words, “as long as a generation.” And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to relocate Assateague’s popular-yet-eroding beach to higher ground about 1 1/2 miles north, depriving swimmers of gorgeous views of the Atlantic Ocean and, to the west, Tom’s Cove.

Jack Tarr, Chincoteague Island’s mayor for the past 17 years, said both proposals are frustrating many of the 4,000 residents of the town, which swells to 15,000 people during the summer. He worries that the beach’s move north on Assateague Island could turn off summer vacationers, and that the closing of commercial fishing, even if it takes place 20 or so years from now, could eradicate a key part of the area’s heritage and economic prowess.


“We don’t even understand why they want to end fishing. We’re not creating harm to anyone. Oysters actually clean up the water,” Tarr said. “And the major problem with the beach proposal is that we don’t know if we’ll have the same beach experience. It’s spread out and really nice right now.”

Since the pre-Civil War days, commercial oyster and shellfish fishermen have been allowed to operate in the waters around Assateague Island, where all the land is now federally owned. But Debbie Darden, the National Park Service’s superintendent of the Assateague Island National Seashore, said the federal government considers this type of farming “agricultural,” making it prohibited in any national park, unless Congress grants special approval.

In an interview, Darden acknowledged that the National Park Service has never enforced the policy but wants to now.

“Basically we’re just trying to bring everyone into compliance with the federal law. The National Park Service is set up to preserve the environment and keep it unimpaired for future generations,” Darden said. “It’ll probably take a generation or longer to do that. We don’t want anyone making a living off these activities to be harmed.”

Asked by The Washington Post to specify how oyster and clam fishing might damage the environment, Darden said the agency is still trying to make those assessments. “We don’t have a lot of specific information about what’s happening in our park waters.”

The soonest the commercial fishing ban could be approved would be by the fall of 2016, and even then, it wouldn’t take effect for decades.

Tommy Clark, owner of Tom's Cove Aquafarms, rides his fiberglass skiff out into Tom's Cove next to Assateague Island. He is surveying his water and checking in on his oyster and clam farmers. (Ian Shapira/The Washington Post)

That’s little solace to Tommy Clark, 58, owner of Tom’s Cove Aquafarms, which sells millions of oysters and clams every year to wholesalers such as Sysco and restaurants including Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City. Clark, who launched his business in the early 1980s, employs more than a dozen farmers who grow oysters and clams in a hatchery and then plant and tend to them in the Assateague waters.

Even though the proposed ban wouldn’t take effect for some time, Clark says the mere prospect saps the value of his business if he did ever want to sell it. Who’d want to buy a business that would be considered illegal in the future?

“Most business people here, they don’t have big retirement and padded IRA accounts. They have a business and that’s their retirement,” Clark said. “So, if the government passes the ordinance, they’d wipe the whole thing out.”

Out on the water last week, Clark motored his fiberglass skiff out into Tom’s Cove, where he met up with oyster farmers dressed in waders, tending their crop. He emphasized that he doesn’t dredge for wild oysters, which could be harmful to the seafloor.

“These aren’t public oysters, they’re private oysters. We’re not taking anything from the water that wasn’t ours,” Clark said, as he met up with another company’s farmers, Jacob Lucas, 24, and Brad Micholson, 25, cleaning out mud and other sediment from oyster bags buried on the bottomland.

The men, mystified by the National Park Service’s proposed ban, emphasized how oysters remove oxygen-sucking algae and nitrogen pollution. They noted that oysters are being used to prevent pollution in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.

“This is helping the water,” Lucas said.

“We don’t use chemicals, no antibiotics. It’s all natural,” Clark said.

Clark is so invested in the oyster business that he owns his own eatery, Don’s Seafood Restaurant on Main Street, home to the end product of his food operation: $13 for a dozen of his oysters. (By contrast, a dozen oysters at Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington costs $30.)

The other draw to Chincoteague isn’t just the seafood. It’s the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, the adjacent one-mile recreational beach and the 961-space parking lot built on clay and crushed seashells. The fragile barrier island attracts 1.3 million visitors a year, many drawn by its famous herd of wild ponies, memorialized in the children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague.”

But Kevin Sloan, the refuge’s project leader, said storms, high tides and northeast winds constantly flood and erode the beach and parking lot, which are on the most dynamic, southernmost part of Assateague Island. The influx of water moves that section of Assateague Island westward, forcing the National Park Service to frequently rebuild or repair the beach’s parking lot at considerable taxpayer expense. He says that a new beach about a mile and a half north of the current location would be built on more stable ground, wouldn’t be as vulnerable to high seas, and therefore wouldn’t require the multiple, costly repairs.

“We respect the fact the recreational beach is largely the driver of the economy, and we want to preserve that, but to preserve it, we need to move the beach because that provides a more resilient location,” Sloan said. “Now, when a storm comes and takes the beach out, there’s always several days when the beach is closed.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could approve the new beach plan as soon as mid-October, Sloan said.

For David Johnson, 72, a Chincoteague Island resident for the past five years, the original beach carries memories, and he wants it to stay put. He remembers visiting the beach in 1978 on his honeymoon. He and his wife liked the area so much they bought a Chincoteague home about a decade ago and moved there permanently about five years ago.

If it costs too much money to constantly move and fix the beach parking lot, Johnson offered up a solution: “They could raise the park admissions fee,” he said.