A Living Shoreline
The Town of Sunset Beach protects its centerpiece waterfront park with the help of the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
The establishment of Sunset Beach Town Park transformed the Town of Sunset Beach nearly four years ago by creating a community centerpiece and greenspace in a peacefully beautiful slice of land along the Intracoastal Waterway. The park provides a recreational respite from the beach with fishing piers, walking and bike paths, benches and swings for watching the boats go by, and space for markets and public events.
Concerned about the threat of erosion in the park from boat wake, daily tides and sea level rise, Sunset Beach town officials, in collaboration with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, took a significant step to protect this natural resource with a living shoreline. North Carolina Coastal Federation assisted the town in building a 60-foot oyster reef along the shoreline of the park.
“In this context, a living shoreline utilizes structural and natural elements to provide erosion control and also restore a natural resource,” explains Tracy Skrabal, a coastal scientist and southeast regional manager of the North Carolina Coastal Federation. “Here, we used oyster shells and oyster domes, which provide substrates for oyster larvae to attach to and form a reef, and planted marsh grass, which is of course a huge natural living resource for fish, for water quality and for erosion control.”
According to North Carolina Coastal Federation, living shoreline projects withstand storms and hurricanes far better than traditional hardened structures like bulkheads. They sustain very little damage because they’re designed to be channelward of the marsh, which means they maintain their intertidal slope. “Mother nature does not like vertical walls,” Skrabal says. “Living shorelines work with Mother Nature not against her.”
The first phase of the project began in April 2018 when 87 local volunteers helped fill bags of recycled oyster shells and gravel granite that would be used for the living shoreline. On January 17, 2019, North Carolina Coastal Federation, joined by 80 volunteers, placed 3,000 bags of oysters and rocks along the shoreline to help protect the park from erosion and create a valuable habitat. Volunteers included community members, students and a teacher from Ashley High School Marine Science Academy, town staff, Mayor Greg Weiss, Councilman John Corbett and representatives from local nonprofit groups including Sunset Beach Turtle Watch, Sunset Vision and Old Bridge Preservation Society.
“This is just the first step in providing protection for the park,” says Sunset Beach Mayor Greg Weiss. “If successful, we can see doing this in other places throughout Sunset Beach. Councilman John Corbett just introduced a framework of what we need to be doing in the next five to 10 years to deal with climate change. This project is part of that program.”
Ted Wilgis, education and outreach coordinator for the North Carolina Coastal Federation, applauds the Town of Sunset Beach for taking the initiative to consider living shorelines. “Their participation means they’re learning from this and may be able to do more living shorelines, as well as encourage residents to look at living shorelines as options for their own properties,” he says.
Wilgis is excited that the town is going to work with the local nonprofit group, Sunset Vision to create interpretive educational signage. “Everybody that comes to the park will be able to learn a little bit more about living shorelines, not only for the habitat value and protection value, but also for all the economic benefits that they provide. This is great site to bring students to as well.”
Savannah Hintz is one of the Ashley High School Marine Science Academy students who volunteered for the living shoreline project at Sunset Beach Town Park. Working alongside fellow students, her teacher and other community members, she passed bags of oyster shells in an assembly line fashion. In addition to the valuable learning experience, Hintz says, “I made some new friends, and I’m excited to see the shoreline as it develops.” Hintz’s teacher, Lauren Thompson, says she is “excited for my students to see the breadth of careers like marine technology and even marine policy. This gave students an opportunity to see what all our local marine professionals do.”
The living shoreline project will be ongoing. North Carolina Coastal Federation will be back in the spring, along with volunteers, to plant more grass.
“We should start to see oysters growing on the bags and domes within six months to a year,” Skrabal says. “At first they’ll be invisible to the eye, but certainly within a year’s time you should see a real growth of oysters along these structures.”
For more information, or to volunteer on the living shoreline project, visit North Carolina Coastal Federation online at www.nccoast.org.