More frequent storms surges have continued to sculpt habitat and public access along the Virginia coastline. At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge — one of the country’s most visited refuges — supervisory biologist Kevin Holcomb is using oysters to face the challenges of sea-level rise and climate change.
This past spring, Holcomb and partners installed a living shoreline totaling over 3,650 linear feet of oyster reef at the refuge. The oyster reef protects the refuge’s shoreline and access roads by slowing down the speed and intensity of incoming waves. Amy Ferguson, a graduate student from the University of Virginia, is measuring this slowing down process — called attenuation — as part of a partnership with The Nature Conservancy.
“Anything that can help nature help itself — like artificial oyster reefs or marsh enhancements — I think is a great thing to consider when looking at shoreline protection methods,” says Ferguson.
What makes a shoreline come alive? Coasts are often protected by grey, hardened infrastructure such as bulkheads and sea walls that don’t provide habitat for estuarine wildlife and can lead to even more damage to the ecosystem over time. In contrast, a living shoreline such as an oyster reef creates habitat and buffers wave energy — instead of the wave hitting a wall at full force, its energy is dampened by the breakwater reef.
Overseeing the refuge’s oyster restoration project is The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. This past spring, volunteers, community members and partners gathered to move 13,800 cement “oyster castle” blocks to help lay the foundations at Tom’s Cove and Assateague Bay.
The oyster castle blocks act as substrate for oyster spat to cling on to. The blocks are stacked so that as oyster colonies grow, they increase in size until a reef forms. It takes around three years for the reef to form, but Holcomb says that the benefits can last decades — benefits such as filtration of nutrients and water, food for shorebirds and biodiversity.
These oyster reefs will enhance Chincoteauge’s rich coastal environment and natural treasures. And the refuge’s popularity with visitors — whether for wildlife observation, nature photography, hunting or fishing — is also a valuable asset for the local community. A 2006 economic study by the USFWS estimates that tourism from the refuge contributes $315 million in annual spending and 3,766 jobs.
“Chincoteague has a wonderful array of wildlife for easy observation by the public,” says Holcomb. “Our visitors come to see the birds, beach and the Chincoteague ponies which make the refuge and the town famous.”
When Hurricane Sandy made landfall four years ago in October 2012, most of the damage to the refuge was downed trees and road washouts, which threatened tourism areas. To prepare for the next big storm event, refuge managers and biologists like Holcomb wanted to use natural methods like a living shoreline. Chincoteague NWR received more than $500,000 in federal funding from the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Act to work with their partners to enhance, restore, and build a more resilient natural defense system to make their community #StrongerAfterSandy.
This is the third in a five part 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 and Julie Devers, assessing fish barriers and culverts in Maryland. You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website.