“The Fish and Wildlife Service office was in Pleasantville when Hurricane Sandy hit, right near Atlantic City. We closed the day before and took preparations. Where I live, we had high winds, some damage on the house. We just kept our family close and hoped to carry through the storm,” says Eric Schrading, pictured above with USFWS biologist Katie Conrad at Gandy’s Beach, New Jersey. Photo: Steve Droter
Located on the Delaware Bay side of the New Jersey coast, Gandy’s Beach was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Sandy. “Most of the houses here were completely flooded. In some cases there was so much erosion that a house was undermined and had to come down, or had to be abandoned,” says Schrading. Photo: Steve Droter
In the wake of Sandy, federal funding helped fuel efforts to build a better natural defense system. “There’s a Nature Conservancy preserve here, and we knew they were interested in taking action. They had a ‘shovel-ready project,’” says Schrading, pictured at right with Conrad (left) and Moses Katkowski (center), Coastal Projects Manager at The Nature Conservancy. “Partnerships are really crucial, and the important thing was having a plan in place.” Photo: Steve Droter
The partners, together with the help of volunteers, built over 3,000 feet of living shoreline oyster reefs. “Waves hit the living shoreline and the wave energy gets dissipated over the structure. That’s different from bulkheads or sea walls, where the energy is not dissipated – what they do instead is basically take all that energy and force it down, which causes continual erosion,” explains Schrading. Photo: Steve Droter
The reefs are made of concrete blocks, similar to interlocking LEGOs, and filled with bags of oyster or clam shells. Says Conrad, “The oyster shells come from Dock’s Oyster Bar in Atlantic City – The Nature Conservancy goes there every week or so and picks up oysters from the restaurant and brings them to a site to cure for a few months before they’re bagged. The clam shell is sourced from LaMonica Fine Foods in Millville, NJ. And the spat (baby oysters) are natural, they are already in the water here at Gandy’s.” Photo: Steve Droter
“The long-term goal is that these castles get covered with oysters and barnacles and a lot of other marine life,” says Schrading. “So once we’ve created this foundation, more and more marine life will continue to grow on it and it will be a self-sustaining reef system. That’s the key – you can build this and then walk away and have it be self-sustaining, versus constantly going in every 5 or 10 years to rebuild the structure.” Photo: Steve Droter
“Coir logs (pictured) help by stabilizing the marsh edge,” says Conrad. “Coir is a material made out of coconut and it’s good for working in salt marshes because it’s water resistant and doesn’t degrade quickly in salt water. We place the coir logs in the marsh to accumulate sediment behind and then we can plant marsh plants in the sediment and expand the marsh.” Photo: Steve Droter
“The commercial areas here are driven by bay men – people who work on the bay and make their living on the bay, oyster dredging, going out getting crabs or clams,” says Schrading. “Gandy’s Beach itself is a recreational community, some long-term residents, some who use it as a summer place. It’s a pretty close-knit community.” Photo: Steve Droter
Delaware Bay coastal areas like Gandy’s Beach are important for birds – from red knots and black rails to harriers, raptors and waterfowl. “We want to build up the beach areas to make them better for horseshoe crab spawning and shorebird foraging for red knots – anyplace where horseshoe crabs spawn and produce eggs and can feed red knots on their trip north is important,” says Schrading. Photo: Steve Droter
“Sandy was the biggest storm I’ve been in,” says Conrad. “It made me realize how important these [natural] structures are in helping to enhance habitat but also protect communities. Traditional hard structures that are used for reducing shoreline erosion don’t provide habitat and they don’t absorb wave energy so they can cause further erosion. I think these [natural] structures should be used more.” Photo: Steve Droter
“It’s scary, especially when you think about climate change. It’s not fun living through a hurricane. A lot of people got really hurt, but it may be worse in the future,” says Schrading. “One thing I’ve learned about climate change is, you have a lot more energy with warming climates, a lot more energy in the system. And with more energy that means more intensity and higher frequency of storms, so that’s something to think about.” Photo: Steve Droter
It’s a windy day at Gandy’s Beach, on the Delaware Bay side of the New Jersey coast, and everyone is having a hard time keeping their hats on. The waves are choppy, kicking up plenty of surf – the perfect weather for witnessing the benefits of the living shoreline oyster reef recently built here.
“When a wave hits, there are a lot of nooks and crannies in the reef that dissipate the wave throughout the whole structure or deflect it to the sides or down,” explains Eric Schrading, supervisory biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s field office in New Jersey. “But none of that energy is forced into one particular direction, and that’s what the key is behind these – there’s a variety of directions that the wave energy can be dissipated.”
Schrading is standing on the shore with fellow FWS biologist Katie Conrad and Nature Conservancy partner Moses Katkowski. They are some of the key players behind the living shoreline project at Gandy’s Beach to repair and build coastal resiliency in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The project is funded with $880,000 from the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013.
The living shoreline oyster reef, located just offshore, creates a natural defense system against the ongoing erosion and flooding that plague this coastline and community. Historical records indicate the Gandy’s Beach shoreline has eroded by 500 feet since the 1930s – and, with climate change bringing more frequent and intense storms and rising seas, the rate of erosion is likely to pick up.
“All the wave energy goes up on the beach or, where there’s little beach, it hits the marsh mostly at the roots,” explains Schrading. “So it just keeps hitting over and over again, and creates this scalloping effect where it takes away the soil underneath the vegetation, the vegetation then slumps in and you have continued erosion.”
Since 2014, the partners – along with help from dozens of volunteers – have built more than 3,000 feet of living shoreline oyster reefs along the coast at Gandy’s. Once in place, the structures recruit new oysters and eventually build up to be a self-sustaining reef system.
“We’ve been surprised at how many oysters have been recruited since we started this project,” says Conrad. “We put out pilot reefs in the summer of 2014 and they accumulated a lot of oysters.”
Hurricane Sandy dealt a massive blow to Gandy’s Beach and surrounding areas, so making this coastline more resilient to future storms is crucial. The living shoreline protects about one mile of sandy beach and adjacent salt marsh and is projected to reduce incoming wave energy by up to 40 percent.
“Maybe with major hurricanes these structures themselves won’t do much, because everything’s going to be under water, the structures will be 12 feet underwater,” acknowledges Schrading.
“But on days like today you see their value because you have a strong fetch that comes across the bay, and the first thing that it hits is the sandy beach or the marsh areas. But if you have these living structures in place, it basically takes that energy out of the wave before it hits the beach – it reduces a lot of wave force, which causes erosion in the first place.”
This is the fourth in a series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In previous weeks we have looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons, combating climate change in the Chesapeake Bay, Julie Devers, assessing fish barriers and culverts in Maryland, and Kevin Holcomb and Amy Ferguson building living shorelines at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website.