Highlights from America’s Biggest Conference on Coastal Restoration

Aerial view of Long Island National Wildlife Refuge.

There’s nothing a scientist likes more than sharing information – seeing the latest developments and getting feedback on their own work. And the recent Restoring America’s Estuaries Summit delivered just that.

In December 2016, 11 members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Region attended the Restoring America’s Estuaries Summit in New Orleans. Together with partners, they chaired three full, oral sessions – an entire day’s worth of presentations – dedicated to showcasing Hurricane Sandy resiliency projects.  Topics covered sediment enrichment, wildlife impoundments, living shorelines, ditch legacies, our largest coastal resilience project and more.

Two FWS biologists – Laura Mitchell and Susan Adamowicz, Ph.D. – explain why this conference matters and what the future of coastal restoration looks like.

Aerial view of Long Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Aerial view of Long Island National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS

Q: Why is the Restoring America’s Estuaries Summit important?

Smiling faces at RAE summit 2016

USFWS staffers Paul Castelli, Laura Mitchell and Kevin Holcomb at RAE 2016. Credit: USFWS

Laura: Restoring America’s Estuaries (RAE) provides incredible networking opportunities as well as concurrent sessions jam-packed with cutting-edge coastal research, innovative restoration techniques and policy discussions.  The summit brings together a host of professionals involved in conserving and improving estuarine resources across the United States.

Susan: In 2014, USFWS biologists from the Northeast Region introduced our Hurricane Sandy Resiliency projects to the RAE community as concepts or early plans. This time we returned to the 2016 RAE Summit as leaders of some of the largest and most innovative salt marsh projects on the East Coast.  We had lots of practical experience to share, and we were also eager to hear feedback and lessons learned from other projects. In addition to our three oral sessions, we had a number of posters that provided additional information on our projects.

volunteer-finishing-channel-m

Dredging at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS

Q: What are some of the coastal resiliency projects that you find particularly exciting?

Laura: The Prime Hook NWR resiliency project is exciting, for a number of reasons.  First, it is the largest marsh restoration project on the East Coast. Second, the project combined multiple coastal restoration techniques, including barrier beach/back barrier platform restoration, thin-layer deposition of dredge material for marsh restoration, and restoration of miles of formerly blocked tidal marsh channels. Additionally, the refuge used innovative planting techniques, such as aerial seeding of native tidal marsh plants and using seed drills to restore native dune vegetation.

Susan: We have a total of 31 Hurricane Sandy-funded resiliency projects from Virginia to Massachusetts. This includes innovative work across the region, such as salt marsh integrity assessments, which are helping establish a baseline of current conditions for salt marshes across 15 different wildlife refuges. This is the first time we’ve had a single protocol to evaluate salt marshes. Through assessments like this, we can identify high quality salt marshes in order to protect and maintain them into the future.  We are also looking at where the future footprint of salt marshes might be and are exploring ways to facilitate marsh migration.

RAE 2016

USFWS staffers Matt Whitbeck and Susan Adamowicz at RAE 2016. Credit: USFWS

Q: Are there any new trends, topics or research in coastal restoration that you’re keeping an eye on right now?

Laura: I’m excited about the development of rapid assessment methods (including remote sensing) to determine which marshes are keeping pace with sea-level rise and which are not. There’s also thin-layer deposition of dredged material to enhance tidal marshes that are suffering elevation deficits, to extend their longevity – for instance, we’re using this technique in Rhode Island to raise marsh elevations.

Susan: We are always on the lookout for new restoration/resiliency techniques that may be useful to salt marshes in the Northeast. We also are looking for ways to reduce “human-induced stressors” such as excess nutrients, stormwater runoff, or low-lying roads that act as dikes.  Removal of these stressors, either alone or in conjunction with resiliency techniques, will provide salt marshes with a better chance at self-sustainability given low or moderate rates of sea-level rise.

RAE 2016

USFWS biologist Susan Guiteras at a poster session for RAE 2016. Credit: USFWS

Q: What do you think will be the top priorities for restoring coastal areas in the next few years?

Laura: I think enhancing “green infrastructure” at the water’s edge, such as living shorelines, permeable surfaces and bioswales, and relocating hard infrastructure will be hot topics.

Susan: Since Hurricane Sandy, we’ve come to understand that barrier islands and coastal marshes are naturally designed to be resilient and to protect our shores.  Continuing to remove prior alterations and restore more natural processes such as tidal flow, sedimentation and healthy vegetation will help maintain good quality marshes.  Where coastal systems have been highly altered, we see the need for larger/more extensive resiliency efforts.

Just as we, as a nation, are turning to the restoration of our built infrastructure (roads and bridges), we also need to be mindful of the natural infrastructure – coastal wetlands and barrier islands – that protect our shores and coastal communities.

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