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New oyster reefs could prevent beach erosion worsened by climate change

Researchers explain oyster recruitment and predation trials at field site.
Kurt Gust
Researchers explain oyster recruitment and predation trials at field site.

Sea level rise and increased storm events caused by climate change are accelerating erosion along the East Coast, putting communities and infrastructure at risk.

Concrete breakwaters are often installed in the ocean to reduce erosion and protect communities. However, scientists say nature might be the best defense.

Rutgers University has partnered with the environmental engineering firm WSP USA to develop oyster beds that could also protect coastlines from storms, flooding, and erosion. It’s a natural alternative to man-made protections, said Rutgers professor David Bushek.

“How can we use Mother Nature to help us keep up with things such as sea level rise, and keep the shorelines from eroding? Because behind the shorelines are other infrastructures, buildings, roads, and whatnot,” he said.

Bushek’s team have produced oysters, which attach to one another and become a solid structure. As sea level rises, they can grow on top of each other.

Researcher displays oyster recruitment to experimental structure.
David Bushek
Researcher displays oyster recruitment to experimental structure.

“So the next generation of oysters will sit on top of the previous one, and they will grow vertically in that way,” Bushek said. “And so you have a structure that’s living that continues to provide that protection as opposed to something that’s fixed and inanimate. Oyster reefs, in theory, would increase in height as sea level rises.”

The project is funded by a $12.6 million grant from the Department of Defense, which will help them create the reef in East Bay, Fla. That project will protect a nearby military base, as well as the surrounding community.

The scientists hope the project will inform similar projects in other regions where oysters can thrive.

“I think the 10,000-foot view is to have something that is transferable to any system anywhere across the world that has erosion issues. It’s not just a local issue, it’s a global issue,” said Nigel Temple, Coastal Restoration Specialist at WSP. “Having a product that’s quickly deployable and easy to produce and get out on site and build these systems as close to natural conditions as possible.”