Habitat Focus AreasLandscape Scale Conservation

Monitoring Island Health in the Chesapeake Bay

A team uses technology to track the effects of climate change on the Goodwin Islands, located in the Middle Peninsula Habitat Focus Area.

Lush underwater grasses in the foreground with a small grassy shoreline at the rear
Submerged aquatic vegetation —underwater grasses—are healthy in this location just off a Goodwin Islands shoreline. Their success can vary from year to year; early summer 2023 was a good time for SAV at Goodwin Islands. (All photos by Tricia Hooper, NOAA Office for Coastal Management)

The Goodwin Islands are a collection of primarily salt marsh islands surrounded by intertidal flats and extensive beds of submerged aquatic vegetation. They are located on the south side of Virginia’s York River, where it meets the Chesapeake Bay. They are part of NOAA’s Middle Peninsula Habitat Focus Area. Habitat Focus Areas are places where NOAA addresses a high-priority habitat issue by working with partners and communities. 

In the Goodwin Islands, climate change threatens habitat and the species that depend on it. Waves caused by intense storms chip away at the shoreline, especially on the islands’ more exposed east and south shorelines. Rising waters bring saltwater intrusion that affects plant life. These changes can mean that areas that were formerly upland forests become marshes, and former marshy areas become open water.

The Goodwin Islands are owned by the College of William and Mary. They are part of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Virginia, which is in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Several of our partners in the Middle Peninsula Habitat Focus Area play important roles at the Reserve. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science manages the Reserve. NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management provides funding, guidance, and technical assistance. 

At the Goodwin Islands, scientists study how submerged aquatic vegetation and coastal marshes respond to environmental change. A recent visit to Goodwin Islands, captured in these photos, highlights the beauty of the area and showcases some of the science happening in the Reserve. 

Left: A woman, wearing a khaki baseball cap, orange lifejacket, striped purple shirt, and tall white fishing boots leans sits in a small boat. She is leaning against the side of the boat and smiles as she holds and looks at a clump of underwater grass. Right: A hand holds a small clump of green underwater grasses. A few worm tubes are attached to several strands of grass.
Left: NOAA Hollings Scholar Tochi Iwuji examines an SAV sample that was collected as part of the effort to track the health and extent of SAV beds near Goodwin Islands. Right: SAV provides a refuge for some species including fish and crabs, and can serve as food for waterfowl. And if you look closely, you’ll see that some species attach themselves to strands of underwater grass (like these polychaete worm tubes), so the SAV is their home.
Two people stand on a shoreline. There is marshy shoreline, a sandy area, and salt scrub bushes are visible.
At Goodwin Islands, different kinds of habitat—saltmarsh, grasslands, salt scrub, and upland forests—exist in close proximity to one another, providing resources for many species.
Two men stand in a marshy area. The man on the left is wearing a long-sleeved turquoise shirt and a tan baseball cap. The man on the right has on a long-sleeved light grey shirt. He is holding a large fixed-wing drone that looks like a miniature stealth airplane rather than the usual "quadcopter" drone
Zachary Topor, Ph.D., a Knauss Fellow (left), and Alex Demeo, a Reserve scientist (right), prepare to launch a fixed-wing drone. The drone flies transects over the islands to map shoreline locations and vegetation.
Several people huddle around a laptop computer that is open on a folding while out in the field. They are protected from the sun by a pop-up tent.
Reserve scientist Alex Demeo (seated), Reserve Field Support Technician Sarah Brazil (standing, green ball cap), NOAA Knauss Fellow Zachary Topor, Ph.D. (turquoise shirt), NOAA Hollings Scholar Tochi Iwuji (purple shirt), and other Reserve staff monitor the data the drone is collecting.
A man wearing a grey camouflage hoodie lays prone on a board several feet above the ground. With his right hand, he reaches to work with scientific equipment that is set in the ground.
Reserve scientist Scott Lerberg monitors the surface elevation at sites around Goodwin Islands. Lerberg and his team measure changes in elevation related to sea level rise.
A white pickup truck backs a small boat into the water at a boat ramp. On the truck are logos from several organizations: The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve Virginia, and NOAA.
The remote Goodwin Islands can only be accessed by scientists by boat. Access is carefully managed to protect the vibrant habitats. Here, the Virginia Reserve/VIMS/NOAA team gets ready to launch a boat to head out to the Islands.