Oyster Reefs as Natural Breakwaters Mitigate Shoreline Loss and Facilitate Fisheries

Scyphers, S.B. et al., 2011. PLoS ONE

Original research
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Shorelines at the interface of marine, estuarine and terrestrial biomes are among the most degraded and threatened habitats in the coastal zone because of their sensitivity to sea level rise, storms and increased human utilization. Previous efforts to protect shorelines have largely involved constructing bulkheads and seawalls which can detrimentally affect nearshore habitats. Recently, efforts have shifted towards ‘‘living shoreline’’ approaches that include biogenic breakwater reefs. Our study experimentally tested the efficacy of breakwater reefs constructed of oyster shell for protecting eroding coastal shorelines and their effect on nearshore fish and shellfish communities. Along two different stretches of eroding shoreline, we created replicated pairs of subtidal breakwater reefs and established unaltered reference areas as controls. At both sites we measured shoreline and bathymetric change and quantified oyster recruitment, fish and mobile macroinvertebrate abundances. Breakwater reef treatments mitigated shoreline retreat by more than 40% at one site, but overall vegetation retreat and erosion rates were high across all treatments and at both sites. Oyster settlement and subsequent survival were observed at both sites, with mean adult densities reaching more than eighty oysters m22 at one site. We found the corridor between intertidal marsh and oyster reef breakwaters supported higher abundances and different communities of fishes than control plots without oyster reef habitat. Among the fishes and mobile invertebrates that appeared to be strongly enhanced were several economically-important species. Blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) were the most clearly enhanced (+297%) by the presence of breakwater reefs, while red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) (+108%), spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus) (+88%) and flounder (Paralichthys sp.) (+79%) also benefited. Although the vertical relief of the breakwater reefs was reduced over the course of our study and this compromised the shoreline protection capacity, the observed habitat value demonstrates ecological justification for future, more robust shoreline protection projects.

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