Repairing the Shoreline

by | Jul 23, 2021 | Around Town, Education

The N.C. Coastal Federation teams up with local towns like Topsail Beach to preserve the soundside of the island, one living shoreline at a time.

Hazel. Fran. Matthew. Florence.
Hurricane names remind Topsail Island dwellers how nature can devastate coastal living. King tides and weather changes erode at the shorelines. Daily shifting sands are commonplace on the island, and over time the island needs a little preservation help.

All three towns on Topsail Island want to protect the beloved coastal areas, and in recent years, state and federal funds have helped restore beaches from hurricane damage. Most visitors see the impact of beach nourishment on the restored dunes. The erosion on the sound side of the island is less visible but equally as important to mitigate. This year the Town of Topsail Beach began investing in living shoreline projects.

Living Shoreline Topsail Beach NC

“We were looking for ways to focus on the impact of erosion on the sound side of the island,” says Christina Burke, assistant town manager of Topsail Beach. “The town was awarded a $1.66 million grant to be used on storm resiliency projects, and the living shoreline projects will come out of that grant money (along with other projects).”

As rising sea levels, king tides (a term for especially high spring tides), boat wakes and development created more erosion on the sound side of the island, the town created a partnership with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to coastal environments, to build three living shorelines in the coming year.

The Coastal Federation describes living shorelines as “environmentally friendly shoreline stabilization techniques that help reduce shoreline erosion while protecting and restoring valuable salt marsh and oyster habitat at the same time.”

Living shorelines can reduce wave energy and erosion. They encourage plant and sea life habitats to grow and help with stormwater runoff, says Burke who manages the projects with input from the Beach Inland Sound Committee, a citizen advisory board.

“The Coastal Federation will evaluate, identify and install vegetation along three demonstration projects as an environmentally friendly way to reduce soundside erosion,” Burke says. “They’ve been a huge help to educate us on what can be done to protect the sound.”

Tracy Skrabal, coastal scientist and manager of the southeast regional office of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, says that living shorelines can often be less expensive than solid bulkheads to stabilize shorelines and are environmentally friendly.

“Oyster sills, like the Rocky Mount Access project, will attract oyster larvae, and within a year many new oysters will live on the structure,” she says.

Oyster Shell Recycle Living Shoreline

Skrabal credits the progressive town administration and community members for choosing three sites and three contractors to showcase examples of living shorelines. The shoreline projects are education and demonstration areas open to the public to show how erosion can be slowed and habitat increased both above and below the water line. The Coastal Federation will use the sites to provide free training for marine contractors. The three contractors for the projects are Sandbar Oyster Company (sandbaroystercompany.com ), Ennett Marine Construction (ennettconstruction.com) and Restoration Systems (restorationsystems.com).

Restoration Systems began building the first living shoreline in March.

Recycled oyster shells are mixed with cement to create a block about 2 feet long, says Grainger Coughtery, project manager. The cement and oyster shell blocks are molded off site, then placed in the mud about 3 to 4 feet from the shoreline. Marine strength net bags full of recycled North Carolina oyster shells are placed on top of the blocks. Depending on weather conditions, about two weeks are required to complete the structure, and then native marsh grasses are planted along the shoreline. Gaps in the structure allow for easy kayak access to Banks Channel.

The 110-foot shoreline structure looks a bit like a serpent, resting in the clear water waiting for marine life. Oysters, like clams and other shellfish, are a natural filtration system removing excess nitrogen and other particles from the water. Adult oysters can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day creating a better habitat for plants and marine life.

Topsail Beach and the Coastal Federation share the goal of educating property owners to learn about living shorelines. Two local property owners have joined the movement – Howard Malpass and Jack Cozort.

Malpass lives adjacent to the Rocky Mount Access and has seen the fragile vegetation deteriorate and erosion damage the shoreline.

“The town-funded living shoreline will extend across my entire property’s shoreline to provide enough of a sample for study and demonstration to encourage private property owners to do the same,” Malpass says. “It is my hope that this will become a better fishing and crabbing spot as well as an aesthetic one. By conversation with visitors to the access, I will encourage private duplications of this effort.”

Oyster Recycle Shoreline Topsail NC

Up the shoreline, Cozort is a member of the town’s Beach and Inlet Sound Committee, which gathers information to help town managers be good stewards of coastal improvement projects. Their research helped Cozort learn about shoreline preservation.

“It was eye-opening to me to learn all that needs to be taken into consideration to preserve this fragile island,” he says.

“I’ve really enjoyed learning and meeting people. It’s remarkable the commitment this town has made and what it has done relying on planning ahead and good management without borrowing money.”

An avid fisherman, Cozort will begin his own living shoreline project later this year by planting the appropriate native marsh grasses to create more habitat for crabs, small fish and crustacea. He intends to install a reef structure of some type next year. “I’ve seen on my own property that almost 6 feet of shoreline has eroded,” he says.

North Carolina’s coastal environment is unique as it is the only state with both deepwater reefs and low reefs in salt marshes along the estuary shorelines. Since the 1880s, oysters have been harvested from its waters and shipped as far west as California, according to the Coastal Federation. To learn more about oyster farming, see the winter edition of Topsail Magazine (topsailmag.com/love-your-local-oyster/) or visit a working farm on the North Carolina Oyster Trail (ncoysters.org/oyster-trail/).

Want to learn more about living shorelines?
For property owners or others who want to learn more about living shorelines, contact the North Carolina Coastal Federation via nccoast.org.

About the author

Kate Carey

Kate Carey

A former Ohioan and Buckeyes football fan, Kate M Carey has her toes firmly placed in the sands of Topsail Island. Kate writes fiction about people and the strange things they do for love and essays on the politics of everyday life. Her work has appeared in Noctua, Indiana Voice, The Tishman Review, Panoply, Camel City Digest, Savannah Writers Anthology, and County Line Journal. A guest columnist for Women AdvaNCe, she and her husband, an Episcopal priest, moved to North Carolina in 2015 and have adult children living in Ohio and Florida.
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