Tiny oysters play big role in stabilizing eroding shorelines
Lacey, N.J. (AP) — Dennis Vaccaro, who bought her home on the Jersey Shore more than 20 years ago, was fascinated by the little beach at the end of the Barnegat Bay Spit, where she Sit back and read, listening to the waves while enjoying the cool breeze.
That house was destroyed in Superstorm Sandy 10 years agothe beaches she loved are gone, and rising sea levels are eroding the shoreline and pushing water up the porch.
“It’s so sad that this small community has lost its beach,” Vaccaro said. “People are losing their possessions. My home is completely destroyed. It’s a way of life that is disappearing.”
This is a story played out on coastlines around the world The once idyllic beach community is being washed away and residents are struggling to adapt.
But part of the solution being tried around the world is also taking place here: building oyster colonies to form a natural barrier that dampens the force of the waves and helps stabilize eroding coastlines.
One such project is underway near the rebuilt home in Vaccaro, and is being carried out by the American Coastal Association, which received a $1 million grant from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The team has been building wire cages, filling them with rocks and conch shells, and lining them along the coastline of Banegat Bay.
Tiny baby oysters, called spats, attach to conch shells and are placed in bays near existing cages to further stabilize the shoreline.
The coastline near Vaccaro has lost 150 feet (46 meters) of beach since 1995, according to the Seaside Association.
Most places have no sand at all. The waves crashed against the smaller and smaller grass hills. A shuffleboard course that used to be part of a wide beach with a lot of sand between the beach and the bay is now half submerged in water.
“Some people along the coastline have seen the bay gobble down their back porches, more than one,” said Julie Schumacher, habitat restoration coordinator for the Coastal Society. “The water is right on them.”
Rows of oysters appear to act as effective breakwaters. On a recent day, a strong easterly wind blew the bay, and the white surf outside the oysters swelled. But between the oysters and the shoreline, the water is much calmer, with the waves gently sloping to the shoreline rather than hitting it.
As an added bonus, oysters help improve water quality in the bay: a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons (190 liters) of water per day.
Projects like this are an important part of New Jersey’s coastal restoration plan — using plant and shellfish beds to create “living shorelines” that complement engineered structures like seawalls and bulkheads to protect homes and people.
A few miles south, a group called ReClam the Bay is building an oyster reef to protect the shoreline of Mordecai Island, an uninhabited piece of land that in turn protects a popular Boracay island. The coastline of the resort town of Beach Haven.
Volunteers fill mesh bags with 35-pound (16-kilogram) conch shells to which millions of small oysters are attached and transport them to the reef a few hundred yards offshore. They have placed 10,000 bags of oysters and conch shells there since 2015.
“In the past 100 years, Mordecai Island has shrunk by 35 percent,” said Jack Duggan, a longtime volunteer with the organization. “If we do nothing, in 40 years the island will be gone — just washed away. The island protects the beach haven from all wave action.”
ReClam The Bay has already completed a similar project to create an oyster reef in front of a brick wall in Tuckerton further north in the bay, while the Marina Society has a number of other oyster projects in the works. At the Earle Naval Weapons Station in Middletown, the NY/NJ Baykeeper organization is growing oysters along the heavily fortified pier and deploying them along the shoreline to protect the coast that was severely eroded during the Sandy.
Governments and volunteers elsewhere are doing the same.
In New York, city, state and federal agencies are using oysters, shells and native plants to build a “living shoreline” along the southwestern tip of Long Island. A similar project in Delaware used 1,300 bags of seashells to expand shoreline protection near the Lewis Canal Frontier Park.
The Maryland Oyster Recovery Partnership is placing billions of oysters on the Chesapeake Bay’s shells through 2025. In Florida, volunteers and researchers established oyster habitats in parts of the Peace River in Punta Gorda.
In California, the Wild Oyster Project is building coral reefs in San Francisco Bay to protect shorelines and improve water quality.
In Argyll, Scotland, in 2020, a group called Seawilding began restoring degraded areas near coastal inlets. They recovered over 300,000 oysters there. Also in Scotland, a project aims to restore 30,000 oysters near Edinburgh.
Vaccaro realized that her New Jersey home could well depend on the success of a herd of baby oysters.
“If we didn’t do anything, we wouldn’t have these houses,” Vaccaro said. “After 20 years, the house I’m rebuilding on piles may disappear again. That’s why what we do here is so important to me. I see what happened, and I see what could happen again.”
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