This article originally appeared in Space Coast Living Magazine
Writer/Photographer: Fred Mays Drone Photography: Nick Reinert
There is a new way of thinking when it comes to protecting Indian River Lagoon shorelines.
The old way was to harden the shore by building concrete seawalls and piles of large boulders called rip rap. We see lots of that in populated areas of Brevard County. But seawalls are expensive to build, and costly to maintain.
The new approach is called a “living shoreline”. It’s created by planting mangroves along the shore. In front of them, in the shallows, are oyster reefs to absorb the wave action. And in front of that are rocks that form a breakwater. All this diminishes waves during storm events. The result, instead of erosion you get a process called “accretion”, which actually adds to the shoreline.
“We’re trying to be sensitive to the environment”, says Dave Susa from the Riveredge Condo complex in Titusville. They are planning to replant the entire 250-foot shoreline along their property. They currently have a seawall and rip rap barrier that has been a maintenance problem for years. So far the first step has been to plant native plants along the shore, to be followed by moving their rock barrier about 10 yards out into the lagoon to form a protective breakwater. Later, once they get a permit from the state, that will be followed by mangroves.
The cost of the project is not cheap, $20-thousand by one estimate, but still cheaper than repairing or replacing what they have now. “We see the living shoreline as a permanent and natural thing,” Susa says. “We’re trying to go back more to nature.”
Two local agencies, the Marine Resources Council and the Conservation Program of the Brevard Zoo, are working to save natural shorelines along the lagoon. Their efforts are designed to restore shorelines to their natural state, help improve water quality in the lagoon, and combat erosion.
Both agencies receive grants from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and from the Brevard County Save Our Indian River Lagoon trust fund. The trust fund comes from money generated by the voter-approved half cent sales tax to restore the lagoon.
The Brevard Zoo’s “Restore Our Shores” program plants mangroves along shorelines to serve as a barrier against erosion during storms. The mangroves act as a buffer against high-water surges.
The zoo also has a “Shuck and Share” program that utilizes oyster shells donated by restaurants that are recycled into the lagoon to form oyster reefs along natural shorelines. The reefs block erosion, and help clean the lagoon waters. According to Olivia Escandell, program coordinator, each new oyster potentially filters 30 to 50 gallons of lagoon water a day, helping restore water quality. She calls the shells “the liver on the river”, for their water filtering ability.
The zoo began recycling oyster shells in 2009, and built the first reef in 2015. Nearly 4-million pounds of oyster shells have been recycled into the lagoon, forming more than a mile of reefed shoreline. The ambitious effort eventually has a goal of up to 20 miles of reefs, which would be enough oysters to filter the entire lagoon, according to Escandell.
The zoo’s biggest shoreline project yet was recently completed on the lagoon side of Melbourne Beach, replanting and reefing over 900 feet of unprotected shoreline in a Brevard County Environmentally Endangered Land (EELS) park. The work consisted of laying down oyster reefs, and planting mangroves.
Even though the Brevard Zoo was closed, the oyster reef building continued during the Coronavirus shutdown since operations were funded in advance by state and county grants. Furloughed employees from the zoo were hired for the work, instead of the normal reliance on volunteers. But since many restaurants were closed during the pandemic, there was a drop off in the number of oyster shells available for recycling into the lagoon.
The Marine Resources Council work consists primarily of mangrove restoration along the shores of the Indian River Lagoon. The MRC even has large nurseries in Palm Bay and Vero Beach growing all three Florida mangrove species…red, white and black.
According the Caity Savoia, Director of Science and Restoration at MRC, the replanting program is a struggle against nature as only about 50% of replanted mangroves survive and grow to maturity. But where they survive, the experiment works. Instead of shoreline erosion, there is actually shoreline growth, the process known an “accretion”.
The MRC has over 5,000 mangroves in their nurseries, ready for replanting. There are more in the backyards of “foster” homes along the lagoon, where homeowners volunteer to plant mangrove seedlings and tend to them until they’re ready to transplant.
In the right environment mangroves can be fast growers, reaching nearly 7 feet in two years. Red mangroves are planted right at the waterline, and can propagate quickly by dropping seeds year round into the lagoon, filling in along the shoreline. Black and white mangroves are planted a few feet back from the waterline, and only drop their seeds in the fall.
Just offshore from the mangroves is a rocky breakwater, which calms the water before it reaches the shore, and protects the mangrove plantings.
“This breakwater provides habitat, and protects the shoreline,” according to Savoia. “They provide a natural refuge for juvenile fish.”
In addition to the mangroves, MRC plants other native plants, called Spartina, which help stabilize the shoreline. They also remove invasive species.
The biggest MRC project is at their Lagoon House headquarters in Palm Bay. They are planting mangroves and building breakwaters to protect 1,500 feet of shoreline along the lagoon. Several other smaller projects have occurred at Brevard County parks located along the lagoon.
Savoia is hopeful of getting more private property owners along the lagoon to get involved in the back to nature effort. She is the consultant on the Riveredge project in Titusville, and says the Riveredge condo owners are “at the forefront among lagoon homeowners for natural shorelines”.