As part of an ongoing project, Erika Zambello is visiting all National Estuarine Research Reserves in the continental United States. Established by NOAA, the sites work together toward long-term research, education and coastal stewardship.
A group of scientists attending a Jacksonville-based living shorelines conference, garbed in knee-high wading boots, walked across a mudflat toward a line of raised oyster shells collected in bags at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM NERR). With each step, our boots sunk into the soft earth and crabs scuttled away from our impending approach.
The oyster bags created a new living shoreline, an initiative intended to prevent erosion. Put simply: “Living shorelines are shoreline protection construction projects along shoreline properties that provide habitat for plants and animals through careful consideration of the site and strategic placement of components along the entire upland-to-wetland profile.”
The shells contained in the oyster bags in front of us provide habitat structure for oyster larvae, which in turn create a thriving oyster bed. As a result, wave energy hitting the shore would be reduced, allowing marsh plants and earth once pulled away by the current to build up.
As sea levels rise and large boats create ever larger waves, erosion has become a huge issue along the coast of Florida and around the country. GTM NERR researchers have begun multiple living shoreline initiatives to study the best methods for reducing erosion and protecting inland areas during storm events.
The oyster bag reefs were created through a citizen science program, with volunteers bagging recycled shells from local restaurants. The researchers first tried coconut fiber bags, but found these quickly deteriorated into monofilament dangerous to wildlife. Plastic bags, though they too have environmental drawbacks when they eventually degrade into microplastics, held the oyster shells for longer periods of time.
Other shoreline projects have worked less well. At the end of the reserve’s Yellow Trail, a high shoreline faces the water. As I stood on that spot, blue water reflecting the sky met with green marsh grasses, and a large boat cruised through the river, sending pounding waves against the coast.
The earth at the edge of the water looked like barren cliffs. A line of dark rock had been placed next to the fallen ground in an effort to block the wave energy and protect the land. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working. A recent hurricane had easily pushed the water past the rocks, Dr. Nikki Dix, Research Director for the GTM NERR, explained. Though this shoreline restoration attempt hadn’t functioned as they had hoped, researchers learned from its failures and are in the process of beginning new projects.
Dr. Dix showed me images of a new idea: upturned oyster shells embedded in tiles that could be laid together to form new oyster reefs. Marine creatures not only inhabit the space between the tiles, but under them as well. In addition, living shoreline practitioners will add a “fence” of tree limbs or PVC pipes in the shallows to further block some of the waves, allowing marsh grass and sediment to accumulate where the shore had recently eroded.
In the future, living shorelines could become the best defense against stronger storms and higher seas, simultaneously providing habitat to wetland plant and animal species. By testing different designs and construction techniques, staff at the GTM NERR can provide coastal managers with the best defenses against future climate change.
Read more about Erika’s National Estuarine Research Reserve visits on VoicesforBiodiversity.org!
Erika Zambello is a writer and photographer currently living on the Emerald Coast of Florida. She has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management from the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, where she specialized in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. She is also a National Geographic Young Explorer, completing four trips to the Maine North Woods in each of the four seasons, Fall 2015-Summer 2016.
In addition to acting as the sole blogger for the entire Florida State Park system, she is a regular contributor to the Duke Nicholas School, the Maine Sportsman, Bangor Daily News, and 10000 Birds. In the past she has written for The Conservation Fund, the Triangle Land Conservancy, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, BirdWatching Daily, and the Florida Sportsman. Finally, she is the founder and managing editor of the travel website One World, Two Feet, co-founder of TerraCommunications, as well as the co-managing editor for the award-winning online magazine Voices for Biodiversity.
Follow her daily adventures on Instagram, or zambellophotography.com.