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Don’t be Shellfish, Plant a Reef: How the Military Uses Oysters to Protect Shores

Posted January 3, 2018

Earle Naval Weapons Station in New Jersey, where the Navy loads some of the military’s most sophisticated weapons onto its ships, suffered $50 million worth of damage in Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Now the pier is fortifying itself with some unlikely protection: oysters.

Betsy McAllister, a Hampton City Schools science teacher specialist, prepares for an oyster planting event at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. As generations of oysters settle on top of each other and grow, they form reefs that provide structured habitat for many species of fish and crabs. Air Force photos by Airman 1st Class Anthony Nin Leclerec.

The facility has paired with an area environmental group to plant nearly a mile of oyster reefs off its shoreline to serve as a natural buffer to storm-driven wave damage.

Oysters also help protect Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, and three oyster reefs protect the USS Laffey museum in South Carolina.

So why is the military increasingly relying on these unassuming shellfish – considered a delicacy in many areas of the world- to protect their equipment and structures? Well, it’s not because they’re trying to cut down on the cost of feeding troops. It’s science.

Elementary school students planted oysters at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. in June 2017. The goal with planting the oysters was for them to multiply into a healthy new oyster rock and ecosystem which in turn creates a healthier bay.

‘All the pipes and cables that are on the pier now, all of that was washed away and had to be rebuilt [after Superstorm Sandy],” said Earle spokesman Bill Addison. “And there was a lot of flooding that came into the base. Will this protect us against all of that? No, but it will do a significant amount of good to protect the base and the complex and our surrounding communities. Having a hardened structure like that oyster reef will absorb some of that wave energy.”

Traditionally, shorelines are stabilized with hardened structures, like steel barricades, revetment, and concrete seawalls. But these structures often increase the rate of coastal erosion, remove the ability of the shoreline to carry out natural processes, and provide little habitat for fish and crustaceans native to brackish water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA is working to implement a more natural bank stabilization technique called “living shorelines.” This approach uses plants, sand, and rock, and yes, oysters, to provide shoreline protection and maintain valuable habitat.

According to the NOAA website, benefits of living shorelines include not only protecting the shoreline, but also purifying the surrounding water, and increasing the types of wildlife that inhabit the water.

‘Waves are affected by the roughness of the bottom,’ said Boze Hancock, a marine restoration scientist with The Nature Conservancy who has studied and participated in oyster projects around the world. The Nature Conservancy is partnering on a reef project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The Army is leading the project.

‘Picture a wave trying to roll over a huge sponge, compared to one rolling over an asphalt parking lot. The ‘sponge,’ or rough, uneven oyster reef, sucks the energy out of the wave as it rolls toward the shore.’

And for those who still see a meal in the effort? Tough shuck. The oysters around Earle are not meant to be harvested and eaten and have been placed in areas protected by military vessels.

Source: Armed with Science, written by Alexandra Snyder, Defense Media Activity.

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