C+S August 2023 Vol. 9 Issue 8 (web)

Environmental + Sustainability

Oyster habitat restoration could make a lasting difference in the protection of the vulnerable Gulf Coast shoreline. Enlisting One of Nature’s Ecosystem Engineers to Assist with Coastal Defense

By Kathleen Saal

Oysters receive a lot of attention along the United States Gulf Coast, a region that produces a majority of the country’s commercially harvested bivalve mollusk. But oysters are highly regarded for much more than their economic value. The key role they play in creating and maintaining healthy coastal and estuarine environments makes them an essential part of this important ecosystem. A current study, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is taking a deeper dive into innovative methods that would enable oysters to better protect coastal shorelines. The project, “Reefense: A Mosaic Oyster Habitat for Coastal Defense,” is exploring the development of self-healing, hybrid biological, and ecologically engineered reef-mimicking structures to achieve two main goals — increasing wave attenuation to reduce damaging coastal impacts and erosion, and promoting the development and growth of healthy, self-sustaining oyster populations.

Rutgers University is leading the 18-month project during its first phase, with options that could extend out to a total of five years. The three main areas of study include: • design of the macro structure itself, • selectively breeding oysters that grow faster and are more disease resistant, and • protecting oysters from being eaten by predators. The development of novel materials and reef design is aimed at enabling the use of low-cost, interlocking reef modules that are adaptable to different conditions and can be arranged to minimize any wave energy reaching the shoreline. In locations where wave attenuation is less important, the modular design would protect against erosion from daily currents, while also providing additional habitat value. “We don’t have a module in the water yet, but, from the perspective of progress towards overall project goals, the work has been moving — either on target or earlier than expected,” said Nigel Temple, a coastal restoration specialist with WSP USA and professor at the University of South Alabama. “We are doing wave flume testing and we’ve coalesced around a general design for the modules.”




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