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A living shoreline project is protecting Topsail Beach's sound and its species — one bag of oyster shells at a time

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Hannah Breisinger
The bagged oyster shell used in this project will serve as a living reef for new oysters, and the sill will be restored with marsh species.

Since ancient history, humans have used bulkhead structures or strategically-placed rocks to prevent flooding and control erosion. These methods are still common practice, despite more effective and sustainable alternatives to protecting shorelines. A local partnership is hoping to change that.

Along Banks Channel at Topsail Beach, Tracy Skrabal shows me a sill structure built from bagged oyster shells.

“One of the reasons why these projects are more resilient than bulkheads is because during a hurricane — when we say, get a six-foot surge — the energy is up over there. These projects are not designed to keep water from coming up and over, but they're designed to mimic what happens in nature that is very resilient during hurricanes.”

Skrabal is a Coastal Scientist with the North Carolina Coastal Federation. She tells me this is the first of three living shoreline projects made possible through a $5 million state grant, and set to be installed through a partnership with the Town of Topsail Beach.

“And the concept of all of these three living shoreline projects are to provide very visual demonstrations of different techniques that private property owners could utilize to protect their shorelines, and also protect and restore ecosystems.”
Tracy Skrabal

Living shorelines are constructed using natural elements to stabilize estuarine coasts and bays. Compared to their manmade counterparts, they’re better prevention methods for erosion, provide more resiliency against storms, and better absorb wave energy.

They also promote biodiversity and wildlife habitat. The bagged oyster shell used in this project will serve as a living reef for new oysters, and the sill will be restored with marsh species.

"We've lost, since about the turn of the century, at least 50% of our native oyster populations — and associated with the structures, the reefs themselves. That's a combination of die-off due to diseases, overfishing, structural damage, basic pollution, all sorts of things. So we, along with many other folks in North Carolina, are putting back in the reefs that oysters need to attach to."

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National Oceanic Administration
National Oceanic Administration
Living shorelines provide a natural alternative to ‘hard’ shoreline stabilization methods, like riprap or bulkheads.

While living shorelines aren't necessarily new, Skrabal says many people still don’t know much about them. And she hopes this project can inspire property owners to adopt a new method of erosion control.

"These techniques are really designed because of oyster settlement. And these are perfect for most property owners on sounds, bass, creeks, rivers."

Interested in creating a living shoreline on your property? The North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, in coordination with other state and federal agencies, recently revised the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) General Permit for marsh sills.

As a result, the amended General Permit now makes the process of obtaining a living shoreline permit quicker and simpler. For more information, visit here.

To learn more about this specific project, text TOPSAIL to 252-557-8936.