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Ambitious Living Shoreline Project Combats Coastal Land Loss in South Carolina

July 01, 2024

With $6.8 million from NOAA, The Nature Conservancy will build a 2,000-foot-long living shoreline near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. The organization will also help low-income landowners implement living shorelines on their properties.

Volunteers building an oyster castle living shoreline reef near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort (Photo: Lance Cpl. Kyle Baskin/U.S. Marine Corps) Volunteers building an oyster castle living shoreline reef near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort (Photo: Lance Cpl. Kyle Baskin/U.S. Marine Corps)

South Carolina boasts more salt marsh than any other state on the East Coast. These rich coastal wetlands provide critical habitat for birds, fish, oysters, and crabs. The marsh grasses and oyster reefs also buffer the impacts of storms, protecting the land. However, South Carolina’s coastline and salt marshes are disappearing at an alarming rate due to sea level rise and erosion.

In response, long-time NOAA partner The Nature Conservancy is significantly expanding the use of nature-based solutions like living shorelines along the state’s entire coast. NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation awarded the nonprofit $6.8 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act for this work. The Nature Conservancy and its local partners are:

  • Constructing a 2,000-foot-long living shoreline near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort to serve as a model for future projects
  • Designing and building multiple living shorelines on the properties of coastal residents living in under resourced communities
  • Creating an implementation plan for future large-scale living shorelines throughout the state
  • Engaging members of the Environmental Conservation Corps, an accredited AmeriCorps program through The Corps Network, in leading pre- and post-monitoring of the oyster castle reefs, constructing wire reef cages for oyster reef substrate, and building living shorelines
  • Partnering with members of historically marginalized communities such as the Gullah Geechee, who will serve as ambassadors for local living shoreline projects

“This project expands NOAA’s long-term investment in nature-based solutions for enhanced ecosystem resilience and helps coastal communities adapt to sea level rise,” says Lindsay French, NOAA Marine Habitat Resource Specialist. 

Oak trees killed by saltwater intrusion at Boneyard Beach in Beaufort, SC. (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Oak trees killed by saltwater intrusion at Boneyard Beach in Beaufort, SC. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The Living Shoreline Solution

Since 2010, the average sea level in Charleston has increased by 7 inches. It is predicted to rise by at least another foot by 2050. Surging waters from storms and boat wakes eat up much of the state’s shoreline, at an average rate of almost 2 inches annually. Rising sea levels and erosion threaten both the marsh ecosystem and coastal communities. The Gullah Geechee, descendants of enslaved people who have lived along the coast for centuries, face the loss of their homes and cultural heritage.

Scientists from NOAA and The Nature Conservancy believe living shorelines may offer the best solution for people and wildlife. Both organizations have built dozens of smaller scale living shorelines in South Carolina. With NOAA funding, The Nature Conservancy is working with the South Carolina Office of Resilience to establish living shorelines as a go-to solution for coastal erosion in the state.

Hardened shorelines such as seawalls are common in coastal states. But they severely limit the extent and function of coastal habitats, including marsh and oysters. “I grew up in the Gulf of Mexico and saw Mobile Bay, Alabama, turn into a bathtub at one point because it had hardened shorelines around the whole bay,” says Joy Brown, Resilient Communities Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. “We don't want to see that in South Carolina. We want to see healthy marsh habitat so people can continue to use it for fishing and recreation.”

Living shorelines stabilize coastlines by reducing the impacts of waves and rising sea levels. They are made of materials that promote the growth of marsh grasses and commercially important species like oysters and crabs. They help support the state’s fishing economy, worth more than $300 million. A 2019 study by The Nature Conservancy (PDF, 181 pages) found that coastal sites could offset almost 80 percent of tidal habitat loss with careful conservation and management. 

Building Model Living Shoreline with the Marine Corps

Illustration of how a living shoreline made of oyster castles works. (Photo: Robinson Design Engineers)
Illustration of how a living shoreline made of oyster castles works. (Photo: Robinson Design Engineers)

In 2022, Brown connected with an important strategic partner—the Department of Defense—to help her bring this vision to light. “At a climate resilience meeting in 2022, Joy Brown told me she was trying to get a NOAA grant for living shorelines,” says Gary Herndon, Natural and Cultural Resources Manager for Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. “I said, ‘You know what? I think I know the perfect spot for what you’re doing. Erosion is impacting housing units adjacent to Laurel Bay near the base. Some trees already have their roots exposed and are starting to topple over and die.’”

Brown and Herndon hope that the 2,000-foot-long living shoreline will be a model for future projects with the Department of Defense and other major coastal players. This spring, volunteers from the local community, the Marines, and the Sustainability Institute’s Environmental Conservation Corps began building the shoreline. They will use almost 42,000 “oyster castles,” four-walled interlocking concrete blocks that attract oyster larvae. 

The Sustainability Institute’s Environmental Conservation Corps members at the living shoreline build near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. (Photo: Lance Cpl. Kyle Baskin/U.S. Marine Corps)
The Sustainability Institute’s Environmental Conservation Corps members at the living shoreline build near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. (Photo: Lance Cpl. Kyle Baskin/U.S. Marine Corps)

“This living shoreline will help prevent erosion and create habitat for oysters, a keystone species in this ecosystem,” says Greyson Webb, an AmeriCorps member with the Environmental Conservation Corps. “Oysters help clean our waters, and oyster reefs provide habitat for many other species. It's cool to see these nature-based solutions coming into play and know that they can potentially have huge environmental impacts.”

NOAA funds support Environmental Conservation Corps members’ participation in The Nature Conservancy’s living shoreline builds. Young people in this AmeriCorps program receive training, a living stipend, an education award, and connections to potential employers.

“Thanks to this opportunity, I, at age 23, have been able to work with organizations like NOAA and The Nature Conservancy,” says Sarah Byrd, an Environmental Conservation Corps member from Duncan, South Carolina. “The Nature Conservancy trained us in GIS applications, which I was initially intimidated by. But then I realized I can do this, and I can do it well. I’m so grateful to sit in the room with these women, learn from them, and apply what I have learned in the field. That's all an early career environmental professional wants to be able to do.”

Protecting a Rich Cultural Heritage

Making a traditional Gullah Geechee basket with sweetgrass. (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Making a traditional Gullah Geechee basket with sweetgrass. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The Nature Conservancy will soon launch its community assistance program to build living shorelines on the properties of residents in historically marginalized coastal communities. This includes the Gullah Geechee, many of whom live near the coastal rice plantations where their ancestors were enslaved. Community members depend on salt marshes to sustain their culture and livelihoods. The marsh provides fish, crabs, oysters, and the sweetgrass used to make their traditional coiled baskets. 

Sea-level rise and erosion threaten this way of life, and building shoreline protection can be prohibitively expensive. The required engineering design and building survey for a living shoreline may run up to $30,000—and that’s before buying any materials or paying for installation.

To address this problem, The Nature Conservancy is working with community ambassadors to identify citizens with vulnerable properties who lack access to funding and resources. The Nature Conservancy is collaborating with the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Coordinator to facilitate the process. This community-driven National Heritage Area received a $536,000 NOAA award through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act to expand its ability to participate in coastal restoration.

"Implementing tailored shoreline protection strategies is essential to safeguard ancestral lands, cultural sites, and economic livelihoods," says Djuanna Brockington, Interim Executive Director for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. "This involves physical infrastructure and holistic approaches that honor cultural practices, promote community engagement, and sustain the delicate balance between human needs and environmental conservation.” 

Once sites are identified, the organization will work with the property owners and volunteers to install living shorelines. Environmental Conservation Corps members are making 1,600 manufactured wire reefs—wire cages filled with recycled oyster shells—to serve as building blocks for the shorelines.

Before and after photos of a Nature Conservancy living shoreline on Goldbug Island, SC. The site was transformed from an area eroding from heavy wave and boat activity to a stabilized shoreline supporting healthy marsh grass and oysters. (Photo: Cara Chancellor /The Nature Conservancy)
Before and after photos of a Nature Conservancy living shoreline on Goldbug Island, SC. The site was transformed from an area eroding from heavy wave and boat activity to a stabilized shoreline supporting healthy marsh grass and oysters. (Photo: Cara Chancellor /The Nature Conservancy)

What’s Ahead

Project partners aim to complete this work by 2027. To help ensure the continued use of nature-based solutions in South Carolina, The Nature Conservancy is creating a state-wide plan for implementing large-scale living shorelines over the next 10 years. 

“We divided the coast into three sections, and we want to create basic landscape designs for at least one project in each location,” says Brown. “I will raise my hand and pick one, and The Nature Conservancy will implement it. But we want other partners to raise their hand on the other projects and say, yes, I want to help drive this project to the finish line. That's when we'll see a big bang for our buck and make the system healthier for everybody.”