By LISA MONTI
You won’t be able to see most of the structure except from a boat when the tide is low, but the “living shoreline” planned for Hancock County is expected to prevent the erosive pattern of disappearing marsh that is critical to marine life, shorebirds and ultimately to fishermen.
The living shoreline is just one on the state’s growing list of restoration projects funded by BP oil spill money. The shoreline itself is the first of its size in the state, and will receive around $50 million of the BP early restoration money that was advanced to jump start recovery even before the full injury was understood.
After the structure is in place it will be colonized with marine life scientifically referred to as secondary productivity. “This isn’t just for oysters, it’s for all other living organisms that live on reefs to help bring those back and other marine life that feed on them like worms, shrimp, crabs and small fish. Once they come, the bigger fish return,” said Marc Wyatt, director of the Office of Restoration in the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
The project, pitched early on by state agencies, calls for construction of a living shoreline just shy of 6 miles long between the mouth of the East Pearl River and Bayou Caddy at Hancock County’s border with Louisiana.
There will be two breakwaters on either side of Heron Bay. One will be built from the mouth of the Pearl River west to Heron Bay and the other to the east around St. Joseph’s Point.
The “boot” that hooks around the opening of Heron Bay has eroded severely since the 1970s and much of the marsh has been lost. “It’s the fastest eroding marsh in the state,” he said. Natural erosion is partly to blame along with waves created by boats in the nearby shipping channel.
“With the current erosion rates we would lose Lighthouse Point which serves as a protective barrier to Heron Bay” if nothing is done to stop it, he said.
The structure will be made up of large rock that will form a breakwater to reduce wave energy and shoreline erosion. Over time the breakwater will create habitat for reef species as well as create and protect marsh habitat. That’s why the structure is called a “living shoreline.”
The project will also add approximately 46 acres of march to create another layer of shoreline protection and 46 acres of subtidal reefs will be created inside Heron Bay to encourage fish, crabs and other sea life and wildlife to make the area robust again.
Although the oysters won’t be harvested from the living shoreline, spat coming off the reef can be transported a short distance to the state’s harvestable reefs to help replenish them.
“It should be very good for fishermen, and for the crabs, shrimp and oysters,” Wyatt said.
The whole project is inside the 20,909-acre Hancock County Marsh Preserve, the largest in the state, which is part of the Pearl River estuary in the western Mississippi Sound. It includes freshwater, estuarine, marine and submerged habitats among the wetlands. The preserve is part of the Mississippi Coastal Preserves Program managed by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.
The shoreline is among 44 early projects identified in Phase III of Early Restoration and is a first step toward BP fulfilling its obligation to pay for up to $1 billion to restore the natural resources across the Gulf Coast injured by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Not surprisingly, with so many projects, agencies and jurisdictions involved, getting from idea to implementation takes time.
Wyatt said numerous permits are needed before construction of the shoreline can begin. DEQ was granted a permit for the project by the Commission on Marine Resources on Nov. 17. Willa Brantley, director of the DMR Bureau of Wetlands Permitting, said the living shoreline is the largest BP-funded project so far to be permitted.
“We go to get our Corps of Engineers’ permit and then we move toward getting bids for construction,” Wyatt said.
He expects construction to be in three or four phases kicking off early next year. “We’re hoping to get started in the first or second quarter and to reach full completion with the reefs and the living shoreline itself in approximately two years,” Wyatt said.