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The Boston Globe

Opinion

LAWRENCE HARMON

Move over, plover; the beach is for people

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Even in their heyday, menacing lines of Hells Angels astride their hogs couldn’t keep people from using Revere Beach. But nine mating pairs of piping plovers — each adult bird weighing about 2 ounces — are tougher customers. No one is allowed to cross into their territory.

Bumper stickers declaring “Piping Plover Tastes Like Chicken” reflect indifference about the fate of these tiny shorebirds, which appear on the threatened species list under both the state and federal Endangered Species Acts. Signs are cropping up in coastal communities in the South that depict a fist with middle finger raised and the message, “Hey! Audubon. Identify This Bird!” It’s not just nitwits, however, who are questioning the extent of the governmental protection efforts for the piping plover nests.

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It required a federal court ruling, $5 billion of public funding, and almost 30 years of ongoing engineering feats to restore Boston Harbor beaches to a state of swimmability. This week, a group of elected officials and civic activists — some of them veterans of the harbor cleanup — released the state Metropolitan Beaches Commission report on the progress and challenges at 15 Boston Harbor beaches. The commission is urging the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the beaches, to minimize the string and post fencing around plover nesting areas and find ways to redirect the birds to less popular sections of the beach. People want their beaches back.

Wildlife advocates argue that the plovers have nowhere else to go. But the people who flock to beaches in Winthrop and Revere aren’t exactly swimming in options, either. Revere Beach is a big draw for modest families who can’t afford summer cottages. For decades, they endured one of the dirtiest harbors in America. It’s clean now. But bathers face fines and possible arrest for coming too close to the nesting plovers. And the restrictions are likely to remain in place at least until July when the chicks are capable of taking flight.

The Massachusetts Audubon Society, which monitors the plovers under a state contract, said that information kiosks and beach educators will be on hand to explain the plover protection efforts later this summer. For now, however, the public makes due with a ratty DCR poster on the wall of a restroom near a large fenced-off area toward the northern end of Revere Beach. The poster plants the idea that anyone who disrupts a nest is inviting another round of egg laying that could drag out through August. It reads like a threat, not public education.

Revere Beach is long, and most users will adjust to the closures. The situation is much worse for people a few miles south in Winthrop, where enormous stretches of the beach across from the “Five Sisters” breakers have been fenced off to protect just five pairs of plovers and some least terns. For beach lovers, it is cold comfort that Winthrop ranks among the highest producers of new piping plover chicks in the state.

A $17 million beach rehabilitation and sand nourishment project is underway next to the plover protection area on Winthrop Beach. But plovers could occupy that space, too. Bruce Berman, program director of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, questions where it will end.

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“We’re making important investments in the harbor beaches, including Winthrop and Revere,” said Berman, whose nonprofit produced the Metropolitan Beaches Commission report. “It’s simply not acceptable if all we end up with is condos for plovers.”

Fish and Game commissioner Mary Griffin wants to restore a sense of balance to the beaches. She is seeking greater “management flexibility” from federal wildlife officials to expand recreational areas while providing adequate protection for the plovers. Griffin hopes to create a conservation plan with coastal communities that includes an “incidental take permit.” That’s wildlife speak for permission to use techniques, such as moving a nest, that could result in the unintended harm or death of an endangered bird.

Massachusetts has earned such flexibility. Protection measures here have resulted in the largest population of piping plovers on the East Coast — about 650 pairs. Now beach-goers deserve some consideration.

Boston Harbor beaches such as Revere and Winthrop need special attention. At great effort and expense, the harbor has been transformed from an open sewer during the 1980s to a well-managed resource today. People should be encouraged to enjoy these beaches with few intrusions. The most important number on Boston Harbor is bacteria-free beach days, not plover eggs.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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