COMMERCIAL TOWNSHIP - A short stretch of marsh along the Maurice River is the latest New Jersey test site for a unique way of naturally reinforcing the shoreline.

Researchers will use the site to learn how to restore and fortify the marsh through a "living shoreline," which uses natural materials, such as native plants and oyster shells, to restore degraded areas and create a rich habitat for grasses, crabs and fish.

Call it using the marsh to restore the marsh.

Along with the Partnership for the Delaware Esturary, researchers at the Haskins Shellfish lab have used coconut fiber logs, ribbed mussels cultured in the lab and native marsh grasses to fortify about a dozen yards of shoreline that had suffered erosion from boat wakes, daily tides and storms.

And this method, researchers say, can be applied to parks, marinas and even waterfront homes where property owners are considering putting in bulkheads.

"This is definitely a more eco-friendly option," said David Bushek, Rutgers University professor and director of the shellfish lab. "It won't work in areas with strong waves or plenty of boat wakes, but the designs will work well in communities along the back bays or creeks."

By using much of the marsh's native flora and fauna, researchers can extend and restore sections of eroded marsh or even create a new green area where one had not existed. Because there are no hard structures involved, such as a bulkhead or wall, the natural shoreline not only can better survive storm waves but can better protect the edge of the marsh, Bushek said.

As the grass grows, it will become a part of the coconut fiber log that has been laid, eventually forming a new marsh edge that helps stabilize the shoreline. Baby ribbed mussels will grow into the roots, filtering the water. Small mesh bags filled with oyster shells, which line the seaward side of the log, will act as a miniature gabion, absorbing erosive waves.

And all of this provides new habitat for marsh wildlife that helps filter the water or act as a nursery for baby fish and crabs.

This "living shoreline" is one of fewer than a dozen built in New Jersey, which earlier this year began streamlining what had been a multiyear process to allow the practice.

"We realize everything we're doing will have an implication for a community or a property owner in terms of their own installation," said Amanda Wenczel, a Rutgers graduate student working on the project. "We can say we've gone through these obstacles that you're going to hit."

Communities and homeowners can use living shorelines to stabilize many types of waterfronts, with the design costing similar to that of a regular bulkhead, Bushek said. But unlike bulkheads and other hard structures, the living shoreline creates wildlife habitat, helps improve water quality and makes the shoreline boundary more resistant to erosion from waves.

"The idea is that (living shorelines) are flexible. Something hard is fixed, and if (wave energy) hits it, (the energy) reflects off it," Bushek said. "(A living shoreline) also helps the marsh build up."

Helping the marsh build up could be critically important in the future as sea-level rise may slowly swamp the hundreds of thousands of acres of marsh in Southern New Jersey. As the marsh builds up, the higher elevation theoretically protects the grasses from eventually drowning if they are underwater at all times.

Researchers with The Natural Capital Project found that the number of people who would be vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise if protective coastal habitats were destroyed would more than double by 2100, according to a study published last week in the journal Nature. According to the study, New Jersey ranks fourth nationally for the number of people in the areas most vulnerable to sea-level rise by 2100.

The researchers said focus on using natural defenses for storm protection lags significantly behind methods that harden the shoreline, such as using bulkheads, jetties and seawalls. As part of their work, the researchers included the first national map showing coastal exposure for the value of property at risk as well as the number of people.

This is where living shorelines could be a critical part of helping the bay side of New Jersey's shore recover from damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, said Bill Shadel, habitat restoration program director for the American Littoral Society.

"Bulkheads, at some point, especially when they're overtopped by water, will start to erode from behind and fail," Shadel said. "Living shorelines will still be there when the storm is over."

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