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Project Details

Guidance for the Successful Use of Living Shorelines

Project Status: This project began in July 2015 and was completed in July 2017

Living shorelines are an increasingly popular shoreline stabilization strategy because they protect against shoreline erosion while also providing habitat and enhancing water quality. The widespread adoption of living shorelines is limited by a thorough understanding of their costs, benefits, and effectiveness. This project will provide a suite of guidance products targeted at marine contractors, coastal resource managers and shoreline homeowners that address these information gaps.

Why We Care  
The term “Living Shoreline” encompasses a variety of shoreline stabilization techniques, all of which incorporate natural estuarine vegetation either alone, or in combination with hard structures like oyster reefs or rock sills. Living shorelines are widely recognized for providing a suite of benefits that are not associated with traditional shoreline stabilization techniques like bulkheads. These benefits include provision of habitat for a wide range of intertidal organisms, filtration of nutrients and pollutants from upland runoff, trapping of sediments that are carried into the marsh during high tides and carbon storage. Because of these additional services, NOAA (as well as many NGO’s and state and local resource management agencies) advocates for their use instead of shoreline hardening where conditions permit. 

A coastal landowner whose property is experiencing erosion has multiple options ranging from creation or restoration of natural shoreline habitats like salt marshes and oyster reefs; to hybrid shorelines that include both natural habitat and built infrastructure (like rock sills); to built infrastructure like seawalls and bulkheads. The option that is best suited to a given site depends on physical conditions of the site including near shore topography and wave energy among other factors. Other considerations include; regulatory and permitting requirements, construction/maintenance costs, and finding a qualified marine contractor. Currently, there is little specific guidance to help coastal resource managers and property owners determine how to best utilize living shoreline approaches to protect against erosion. We are working to provide guidance on all of these fronts to help coastal landowners make decisions about shoreline stabilization with a greater degree of confidence.

What We are Doing
Understanding the factors that drive the distribution of these natural estuarine habitats is crucial to successfully incorporating living shorelines into shoreline stabilization efforts. For the past decade we have monitored changes in vegetative biomass, marsh surface elevation and shoreline position in living shoreline and natural marshes of the central coast of North Carolina. Using this data, we are working to develop products and tools that guide the implementation of living shorelines within the region and to develop outreach products which communicate the benefits of living shoreline adoption. Specific products developed through this effort include:


1. Weighing Your Options – this pamphlet, published in partnership with the North Carolina Estuarine Research Reserves and North Carolina Division of Coastal Management is a handbook for homeowners who are considering the use of a living shoreline. It provides information  about the variety of living shoreline design options, describes the permitting process and approximate costs of each approach, and provides a worksheet to help individuals identify the type of shoreline stabilization that is best-suited to their shoreline.

2. Living Shoreline Siting Tool – We are developing map-based guidance on the type of living shoreline that is best suited to each shoreline parcel (with 50 m resolution) within the study region based on modeled values of shoreline wave energy that each site experiences. In addition to providing spatially registered recommendations, this effort also provides a demonstration of how to best utilize similar data in any region. This web-based siting tool is being developed in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and will be hosted on their coastal resilience explorer website.

3. Coastal Training Workshops – We synthesize results of our research and translate them to general audiences as part of the North Carolina Estuarine Research Reserve’s Coastal Training Program. Participation in these workshops allows us to share our findings with realtors, marine contractors who are interested in living shoreline design, and the general public.

4. Living Shorelines Infographic – Data generated through our living shoreline research efforts has facilitated the development of a living shorelines infographic – a pictorial representation of research results that is intended for a general public audience. 

5. Publications – Results of our living shoreline research program have are published in a number of technical journals and book chapters.

Region of Study: North Carolina

Primary Contact: Jenny Davis

Research Theme: Science for Coastal Ecosystem Management 

Related NCCOS Center: CCFHR


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