In defense for our shorelines, the natural way
It’s that time of year again. The sun is shining, the air is thick with heat and humidity, and people have begun to watch their weather forecasts with a nervous eye out for a special set of names — the names associated with tropical storms and hurricanes.
Meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have predicted an above-normal to near-normal hurricane season, as evidenced with the recent storm event of Hurricane Hanna in south Texas. Fortunately, the collaborative restoration of the Gulf of Mexico will help keep the coastlines resilient from surging waters and storm erosion.
The name for these resilient coastal projects? Living shorelines. They are shorelines protected by vegetated buffers and beach renourishment. Some are combined with harder structures such as breakwaters to help minimize storm damage. All are used to stabilize estuarine coasts, bays, and tributaries.
The benefits of living shorelines include increased habitat for fish and wildlife and safeguarding the shores from wave impacts. Not only do the vegetated buffers protect from water coming inland, but they can also help filter water flowing into the Gulf. Living shorelines incorporating oyster reefs help to filter coastal waters, too. One adult bivalve can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. “Providing resilience against storm surge and erosion is crucial in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Ben Frater, Chief of Restoration Planning and Compliance for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Gulf Restoration Office. “Living shorelines are able to provide this protection and defense, while also providing habitat for the region’s fish and wildlife populations.”
State and federal agencies create living shoreline projects from Texas to Florida using funding from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlements, such as the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, RESTORE Act, and the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA). In total, $224 million has been dedicated to planning and implementing projects focused on shorelines, and the growing project list will continue to benefit the Gulf.
One example in the fringe marshes of Louisiana is the Biloxi Marsh Living Shoreline. Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is completing the expansive project within Eloi Bay. The nearly $70 million project, which also involves the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will create living breakwater structures from bioengineered oyster reefs to help reduce erosion from wind driven wave action. Overall, 11 miles of shoreline will serve as a storm buffer for New Orleans and provide vital habitat for coastal fish and wildlife. Project planning was funded by the RESTORE Act while NRDA is funding the implementation.
“Louisiana’s coast is a particularly sensitive area that is continually changing,” said Micaela Coner, Project Manager for the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “The creation of living shorelines and breakwaters like the ones in Biloxi Marsh provide critical protections against storm damage to our ecological resources, our state’s residents, as well as Louisiana’s energy infrastructure which is vital for the country’s economic security.”
State agencies, as well as non-governmental organization partners, are executing many of the living shoreline projects. However, federal agencies are also providing these natural defenses to federal lands to ensure these resources remain intact for future generations.
The Service, as a Trustee of the NRDA, is currently completing a project on the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge that has provided valuable fish and wildlife habitat to an ecologically sensitive area. The Little Lagoon Living Shoreline project, while meager in its cost compared to other projects — it is just under $261,000 — will have a large impact on the shoreline’s ability to defend against erosion from severe weather and improve the water quality of the Little Lagoon. Dune vegetation planting at the shoreline includes black needlerush and smooth cordgrass plants.
Dune vegetation also provides habitat for threatened and endangered species that live in coastal areas. The Alabama beach mouse, for example, has a very small range that includes the barrier islands of Gulf Shores, Alabama, and the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Planting dune vegetation will expand its range and aid in the recovery of the species.
“One of the reasons why we love this project is because it’s community-driven,” said Jereme Phillips, Refuge Manager for the Gulf Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Bon Secour NWR. “The Little Lagoon Preservation Society reached out to us and we thought the project was a fantastic idea. Since then, we’ve been fortunate to work with our partners including Mississippi State University, The Nature Conservancy, and the University of South Alabama, with strong support from our colleagues with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to make this project happen.”
The project recently received some fanfare with a visit from Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne of Alabama. While on a visit to the Bon Secour NWR, Secretary Bernhardt and Rep. Byrne contributed to the Little Lagoon project, planting several black needlerush plants along the shoreline.
You can learn more about living shorelines and other resiliency projects at the Gulf Spill Restoration website.
Taylor Pool, Public Affairs Specialist
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