Tag Archives: Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

As waves from storm events go over the reef they will attenuate, or become less intense – saving the salt marshes from damage. Credit: Steve Droter

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Kevin Holcomb and Amy Ferguson

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.



oyster castles at Chincoteague NWR

Building Castles to Fight Sea-Level Rise

No, we’re not talking about putting up walls and towers and turrets.

We’re talking about building homes for baby oysters. (Awww.) Out of LEGO-like cement blocks.

Sounds like everything is awesome, doesn’t it?

Well, not quite.

oyster castles at Chincoteague NWR

A completed array of oyster castles at Chincoteague NWR. Credit: TNC.

In the mid-Atlantic region, water levels are rising at rates three to four times the global average for sea-level rise. Places like Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and the entire Virginia coast are smack in the middle of this zone.

One innovative and natural method for combating the impacts of sea-level rise is to build oyster reefs to help buffer waves and create a better marine habitat.

Volunteers and project partners have been doing just that at Chincoteague NWR. Over multiple days in April and May, volunteers donned their waders and rolled up their sleeves to assemble thousands of cement blocks into oyster castles at two sites. These castles form the foundation of the oyster reefs.

building oyster reefs at Chincoteague NWR

Helping hands assemble castles to create oyster reefs at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Chelsi Burns/USFWS.

“The oyster reefs will provide natural benefits such as filtering water and nutrients and promoting sediment uptake, so they’re vital to our marine areas,” says Kevin Holcomb, USFWS wildlife biologist at Chincoteague NWR.

“But there is also growing scientific evidence that coastal habitats such as oyster reefs, tidal salt marshes and sea grass meadows can offer cost-effective risk reduction in the face of rising sea levels and future impacts.”

Watch a video of the project and see a photo slideshow (from Delmarva Now).

How does it work?

First, crushed oyster shells are laid down as a “bed” under the castle blocks. Oysters will settle on these beds and the spat (baby oysters) will cling to the castles, growing up the vertical columns. The castles weigh around 30 pounds each with windows for water to flow through. The whole system creates a functional habitat for oysters and other marine life, including fish like striped bass. And it provides a natural buffer to oncoming waves, reducing their impact on the shoreline.

assembling oyster castles at Chincoteague NWR

Jenny Young hands of a castle block to Jenny Miller. Credit: Danny White/TNC.

When finished, there will be an estimated 1,400 feet of living shoreline oyster reefs at Tom’s Cove and 2,050 feet in Assateague Bay – two sites that were battered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (See photos of the damage.)

Using natural methods of coastal protection like oyster reefs, living shorelines and tidal marshes is a high priority for the USFWS. With $167 million in funding from the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, USFWS is working on over 70 projects to restore areas hit hard by Hurricane Sandy and build in resiliency to help protect coastlines against future storms and the impacts of sea-level rise.

Our awesome partners in this work include The Nature Conservancy, the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, the National Park Service, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Read a press release about the work.

Oyster spat

Oyster spat. Credit: CSIRO Marine Research


Repairing What Jonas Has Washed Away

When winter storm Jonas barreled up the eastern coast last weekend, it wasn’t just the snow that left a path of destruction behind; it also caused serious coastal flooding along the mid Atlantic shoreline. The storm happened to coincide with a full moon, which in itself leads to extreme high tides. Add 80 mph hurricane force winds blowing water toward the coast, and freezing cold floodwaters move ashore.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located on the coastline of Virginia and Maryland, was one location affected by the wind-driven tides. Their beach parking lot, consisting of sand and crushed oyster shells over a clay base and managed and maintained through a special agreement with the National Park Service’s (NPS) Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, was mostly washed away.


A view of the eroded beach parking lot at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. What remains of the clay base layer is visible on the right side of the image. Credit: USFWS

This damage, though expensive and unsettling, has become a frequent occurrence due to the vulnerability of the extreme southern end of Assateague Island. The parking lot was built on unconsolidated sand deposited by the Atlantic Ocean since the 1850s. Because there is no supporting landmass to anchor this ​portion of the island ​in place, ​it ​​has slowly been moving west into Tom’s Cove (see image below). This dynamic movement of sand ​on a barrier island is natural but ​makes the parking lot vulnerable to erosion, especially during storms.

When there are storm surges or extreme high tides, seawater over-tops the beach and flows into the parking lot, sometimes causing damage as it did with this storm. Although the USFWS and NPS have tried various resiliency techniques (sand fence placement, dune construction, etc.) at this site over the past 50 years, at great cost to taxpayers, all attempts have failed because the site is constantly shifting.


Pictures of the current beach parking lot, before and after the storm.

In recent years, global climate change has led to an increase in the number and intensity of major storms affecting the shoreline at Chincoteague NWR, making the location of the current parking lot even more worrisome. For this reason, the refuge has approved a plan to move the parking lot to a more stable area one and a half miles north of the current location. The supporting land mass to the west of the new recreational beach and parking lot site and large man-made dunes  on the ocean front, add to its resiliency to storm damage.


The new recreational beach and parking lot location was virtually unaffected by the storm, further supporting the need to relocate. Unfortunately, winter storm Jonas hit before this new lot was in place.  Although uncertainties exist with regard to the severity of future storms, the amount of resulting damage, and the availability of federal funding, the FWS and the National Park Service have committed to maintaining the current lot until the new beach and parking lot is open and ready for use.  Therefore it seems likely that the parking lot at the current site will be rebuilt, a project that could cost taxpayers as much as $800,000.

“What this really comes down to is economic and environmental sustainability,” says Kevin Sloan, Project Leader of Chincoteague NWR Complex. “Over the past 50 years, taxpayers have been burdened with repetitive beach parking lot repair costs – an estimated $6-8 million since 2003 and now another $800,000.  And, another storm could be just around the corner.”

Sloan says continuing on that course and in the face of climate change and sea-level rise would be “fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable.”  Once the beach recreation infrastructure is relocated to the resilient site, he says, natural processes will continue to reshape the beach, providing tremendous habitat for migrating and nesting shorebirds.