Beach erosion is a New Jersey preoccupation, costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year to keep homes safe and tourists happy.
But researchers say they have a promising solution to equally troubling erosion in the state’s marshes.
Salt marshes are an important buffer to protect coastal properties from storms and floods, said Danielle Kreeger, science director with the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.
They filter dirty water and provide a home to many baby fish that eventually end up on local dinner plates. And they trap carbon that otherwise could get released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases.
But just as they devastate beaches, coastal storms can carve away the marsh in jagged cliffs, turning once-green salt meadows into open water prone to flooding.
Researchers in southern New Jersey are testing new methods that could solve this problem.
“The goal of the study was to test different approaches and tactics and figure out which worked and which didn’t,” she said.
In 2008, the Delaware nonprofit group worked with Rutgers University’s Haskins Shellfish Research Lab to install natural breakwaters along eroding marsh in the Maurice River. The groups staked down giant logs made of coconut fiber and seeded them with mussels.
The mussels formed mats that deflected waves and held vegetation and wetland mud in place, even during this past winter’s harsh northeasters and the retreat of the bay ice with the spring thaw.
Kreeger said they tested some of the mats in parts of the Maurice River that would see lots of wave action, knowing they probably could not withstand the constant barrage. They were right. Many of the mats washed away, she said.
But in areas that saw minimal wave action from passing boats, the incoming tide or the occasional storm, the logs and mussels worked to trap mud and raise the marsh’s elevation. They call the mats “living shorelines,” an alternative to expensive and permanent bulkheads.
The mussel reefs used in the research project cost about $10 per linear foot.
“Living shorelines are effective up the tributaries and along tidal rivers. But it’s going to be a really good tactic for some of the marinas,” she said.
David Bushek, an associate professor of shellfish ecology at Rutgers University, said the research could help New Jersey towns address rising sea levels, especially in communities along the Barnegat, Great Egg Harbor and Delaware bays.
“Over geological time, as sea level has risen and fallen, the marsh has retreated or advanced. But this is a problem since we developed to the marsh edge,” he said.
Rising sea levels will lead to greater flooding during coastal storms. Without the marsh as a buffer, bayfront residents will be more vulnerable to storm damage.
Marsh erosion does not get the same state or federal attention as beach erosion, which has a direct impact on southern New Jersey’s No. 1 industry, tourism. But its effects can be equally devastating.
“Look at towns like Moores Beach in Maurice River Township that are gone now,” Bushek said. “Sea Breeze has a big sea wall there now. The communities along the Delaware Bay are at risk.”
This year, the researchers hope to find out whether the logs attract native mussels and what effects, if any, they have on other marine life, Bushek said.
“We hope for a lot of natural recruitment,” he said. “We’ll look at the fauna they recruit — things that attach to the structures and the crabs, fish and shrimp that come in and forage.”
And they plan to raise mussels in a hatchery in Cape May County.
Local officials said they recognize the value of the research project.
“Erosion is changing the face of the meadows,” Downe Township Deputy Mayor Lisa Garrison said. “You’re seeing flooding in new areas because of tidal changes. We have experience with this by Maple Creek.”
Her family farms salt hay, but lately some meadows have become too inundated with water to reach, she said.
“You would want to catch erosion early because this is going to hit us on a lot of faces,” she said.
Complicating the project, Kreeger said, were cumbersome state regulations that could discourage future projects.
“It is harder to get a permit to do a living shoreline than to do a bulkhead in New Jersey,” Kreeger said.
Her group spent $20,000 of its $40,000 project grant on winning permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This could discourage private landowners from considering this alternative form of erosion control, she said.
“The shoreline is changing from day to day. But the permitting requires a detailed site plan that says where every peg is going to go,” she said. “We couldn’t do that. They’re used to design plans from a drafting company or design firm. But as a research study, we weren’t equipped to provide the level of detail that they expected.”
Scott Brubaker, the DEP’s assistant commissioner for land use, said the estuary group received its permit less than four months after applying in December of 2007. He said the group first needed to address how its project might affect threatened and endangered species, such as ospreys.
“It seems a simple permit on the face but there were a lot of things that had gone into getting the permit,” he said.
Brubaker said his agency is working to streamline permits under Gov. Chris Christie.
“Whatever streamlining efficiencies we can pull out, we’ll do that,” he said. “I would hope that the experience someone has coming in the door today would be better than the experience in 2008.”
But worse, Kreeger said, the state would not permit the group to use oysters. A combination of oysters and mussels might be a better erosion control, but the state would not let the group harvest oysters from closed sites for fear they would contain toxic bacteria.
The state’s rationale in denying the request was that oysters harvested illegally from the erosion project by poachers might make people sick, which could hurt the reputation of the state’s oyster industry, Kreeger said.
“Funding for oyster restoration is supposed to improve ecological conditions — not to support the oyster industry. But as long as you have policies preventing that, it cuts you out of the funding loop,” she said.
DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said the Maurice River waterways are not classified for oyster restoration. This classification system takes water quality — and public health — into consideration when identifying future oyster beds, he said.
Contact Michael Miller: