Virginia has some of the fastest-eroding coastline in the U.S, so an effort at one federal agency is bringing new focus to the region.
Inside the Commerce Department lies NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In recent years, NOAA has designated Habitat Focus Areas in select locations around the country to attempt to restore coastal habitats.
The newest area is Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, and Andrew Larkin – a senior program analyst with NOAA Fisheries in Virginia – explained why.
“The Middle Peninsula was selected because it’s an area that’s experiencing some impacts from climate change,” said Larkin. “It’s an area that’s experiencing a lot of flooding, and they’ve seen some decline in their seafood industry.”
The sudden loss of infrastructure during large storms is easy to see, with washed-out highways, rail lines and utilities. But the longer-term economic impacts of habitat loss are harder to spot.
Habitat Focus Areas help to bring resources from different levels of government to bear on problems that may be too big for local governments to handle.
Efforts to slow coastal erosion in the past were often limited to concrete or rock structures like bulkheads or riprap shorelines. In some areas of the Middle Peninsula, NOAA is stabilizing the coast using so-called “living shorelines.”
Larkin described how they incorporate plants and marine life to create sustainable and stable shore conditions.
“By using things like plants or oyster structures – so we’re talking marsh grass or things like oyster castles – these are concrete structures which oysters adhere to, and then the oysters provide kind of a wave break,” said Larkin. “So, when you’ve got waves that are kind of pounding a shoreline, these will kind of break up and weaken those waves. And the plants behind them, the marsh grass, will help to trap the sediment to prevent erosion from happening.”
Changes to shore ecosystems often have a direct impact on jobs connected to fishing and tourism, and communities see their tax base eroded as residents and businesses leave. So, efforts to stabilize shorelines are not only seen as helping the environment but making local communities more resilient.
Lewie Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, said it’s about striking a balance.
“We’ve got to try to figure out how do we find balance and parity,” said Lawrence. “If you put too much development pressure on one side, you cause too much environmental damage. If you protect too much on one side, you’re losing the ability to generate economic revenue, which is needed to make government function through tax revenue.”
More information on NOAA Habitat Focus Areas is online at www.habitatblueprint.noaa.gov
Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.