Living Shorelines

A Living Shoreline replaced a failing bulkhead at the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission's Edenhouse boat ramp on the Chowan River.

Coastal Marshes

This living shoreline is helping to stabilize erosion on the southeast edge of Carrot Island near Beaufort. 
The salt marshes that fringe our coastal waters are some of the most productive and valuable natural habitats in the world. And North Carolina’s got them: more than 3,000 square miles of them.

They offer many benefits, including:

  • providing food and shelter for many creatures
  • serving as critical nurseries for many important marine species
  • filtering pollutants from stormwater runoff, the most significant water quality pollutant in North Carolina
  • protecting the land from wave energy, storm surges and tides
  • providing aesthetic value, enhanced views, a sense of place and privacy

The Problems: Erosion and Habitat Loss

Marshes face many pressures every day:
  • daily tides
  • waves from storms
  • boat wakes
  • sea level rise

The way natural marshes respond to these stressors is to migrate; the waterfront side erodes and the marsh builds up on the landward side.

Volunteers plant marsh grass behind a sill of bagged oysters to stabilize shoreline erosion at Jones Island.

People who build close to our marshes are also affected by erosion. However, instead of moving back, many respond by building wooden or concrete walls or place piles of rock to protect their property. 

Locked in place in front of the wall or rocks, the marsh can't retreat and will eventually disappear, taking its benefits with it. As many as 20 miles of the state's estuarine shoreline are walled or rocked each year.

But there is a better way, and it’s growing more popular by the day.

Living Shorelines

We maintain that the best way to deal with erosion is to plan for it, to build as far as possible from the water's edge and to retreat when the time comes.

When that's not possible, the federation recommends using stabilization methods that maintain the natural integrity of the marsh and do the least damage to them. Living shorelines are one method of doing that.

What kinds of creatures live around living shorelines? 

Striped hermit crab

Check out the ones we recently monitored at Jones Island:

  • Blue crabs
  • Stone crabs
  • Mud crabs
  • Hermit crabs
  • Shrimp
  • Mussels
  • Fish! Mummichog, killifish, anchovies, silversides, mullets, pin fish and many, many more juveniles and adult species that escape our monitoring net.
  • Starfish
  • Sea squirts
  • Slipper shells
  • Snails
  • Barnacles
  • Herons
  • Pelicans
  • Osprey
  • Skimmers
  • Terns

Livings shorelines use as many natural elements as appropriate for the site to protect the shoreline from erosion. Specific materials include bags of oyster shells, native marsh grasses, wood, limestone, rip rap, or constructed ‘oyster domes’. They range from construction setbacks and simple plantings of marsh grass to more complex approaches that use the materials listed above or other structures to dampen wave energy.

No two shorelines are the same, and living shoreline strategies must be selected based on:

  • existing land uses
  • the amount of wave energy at the site
  •  individual local conditions
The federation and many other organizations consider this method a better alternative than traditional bulkheads or walls. Bulkheads reflect the wave energy back along the shoreline, which worsens erosion. Living shorelines act as a natural buffer, absorbing the wave energy, minimizing shoreline erosion and protecting the marsh.

The federation has designed, constructed and monitored dozens of living shoreline projects all over the coast. We’ve also had several renowned scientists, such as Carolyn Currin, Rachel Gittman, and Lexia Weaver, assess our living shorelines and, in summary, they work.

The habitat values, erosion control, filter effects of living shorelines compare well with natural marsh and perform significantly better than bulkheads.

Good News!

Up until very recently, one impediment to using a living shoreline instead of a bulkhead was permitting. A permit for a bulkhead was a relatively simple, one-step process called a general permit. A living shoreline, while by for the preferred alternative, required a much more difficult major permit.

Now, though, the state has begun to issue general permits for living shorelines and has embarked on a program to promote the use of living shorelines. We hope that this increases the demand for living shorelines by making the bureaucratic process easier.

In addition, the 
Wilmington District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) authorizes bulkheads and revetments with no review through an automatic general permit, but an individual permit is required for living shoreline projects, costing thousands of dollars for property owners and months of preparation and review time. A Federation study of federal permit approaches within 10 COE districts found that 9 districts authorized all shoreline stabilization structures with the same permit type, and many of the districts have adopted incorporated regulatory language or adopted new permits to promote the use of living shoreline projects, and discourage the use of bulkheads and revetments. Ironically, the study found that only the Wilmington District COE creates a regulatory incentive for hardened approaches, and significant regulatory hurdles for applicants seeking to use more natural approaches that provide erosion control and protect critical habitats.

At the federation, we continue to work with the Corps of Engineers to remove the disincentive to create living shorelines, making our district consistent with the others, for the benefit to our coast.

Membership support makes these efforts possible—thank you. If you’d like to support living shorelines work, please join or donate today. 

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