Oyster reefs and sandy beaches have his­tor­i­cally bor­dered many pic­turesque coast­lines. But in an effort to pre­vent ero­sion, coastal devel­opers are increas­ingly replacing these living shore­lines with rocks and seawalls.

The growing trend is prob­lem­atic according to Steven Scyphers, a post­doc­toral researcher in asso­ciate pro­fessor Jonathan Grabowski’s lab at North­eastern University’s Marine Sci­ence Center. “While coastal devel­opers may have good inten­tions for land pro­tec­tion,” he explained, “sea­walls can change the entire wave envi­ron­ment of a bay and have neg­a­tive effects on the nearby coastal habitats.”

Scyphers was recently awarded a three-​​year, $500,000 Sci­ence, Engi­neering and Edu­ca­tion for Sus­tain­ability Fel­low­ship from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion to explore the social, eco­log­ical and engi­neering fac­tors that con­tribute to coastal resilience. Together with his fel­low­ship men­tors, Grabowski and Mike Beck, lead sci­en­tist on the Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team, Scyphers will explore coastal resilience using Alabama’s Mobile Bay and Rhode Island’s Nar­ra­gansett Bay as model systems.

In the first phase of the study, Scyphers will eval­uate how human con­tact has changed the shore­line over time and quan­tify how that change has affected the pro­duc­tion level of coastal fisheries.

Sub­se­quently, Scyphers will col­lab­o­rate with a coastal engi­neer in Mobile Bay to test the eco­log­ical and engi­neering per­for­mance of some of the newly devel­oped “living shore­line” approaches. For example, they will examine whether man-​​made oyster reefs or planted veg­e­ta­tion are capable of pro­tecting upland property.

Inves­ti­gating the social, cul­tural and polit­ical fac­tors that influ­ence the sus­tain­ability of shore­line ecosys­tems is yet a third com­po­nent of the research project. “Failing to include human con­sid­er­a­tions will limit the suc­cess of any con­ser­va­tion ini­tia­tive,” said Scyphers.

Grabowski, whose work focuses on the eco­log­ical func­tion and eco­nomic value of marine habi­tats, praised Scypher’s research, noting that he was “enthused to see someone who was also blending nat­ural and social sci­ences through applying survey tech­niques to assess the human per­cep­tion of living shore­line values.”

Scyphers spec­u­lated about the poten­tial research out­comes. “Maybe we will reveal that putting oys­ters in a metal cage is the absolute best way to pro­tect a shore­line, and that this method pro­vides good habitat for fish,” he said. “But if 99.9 per­cent of the coastal res­i­dents think it’s the ugliest thing they’ve ever seen, it’s never going to be imple­mented in a free market.”

The data will add to an ongoing Nature Con­ser­vancy project in which researchers are devel­oping an online sup­port tool that helps stake­holders decide which shore­lines to restore and which approach to take. Throughout the entire three-​​year fel­low­ship, Scyphers and his team of men­tors and col­lab­o­ra­tors will also work with the Marine Sci­ence Center’s edu­ca­tion and out­reach pro­grams to intro­duce the next gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists and the public at large to cur­rent chal­lenges and research on coastal sustainability.