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Oyster Reefs a Natural Solution to Storm Surges and Coastal Protection - NUI Galway study

3rd May 2022
Natural oyster reef - Artificial oyster reefs along the US Gulf Coast are designed to protect and restore shoreline habitat and create living oyster reefs as a sustainable option for reducing erosion of coastal marshes and protecting communities from storm surge. A new study shows restoration of marshes and oyster reefs are among the most cost-effective solutions for reducing coastal flood risks
Natural oyster reef - Artificial oyster reefs along the US Gulf Coast are designed to protect and restore shoreline habitat and create living oyster reefs as a sustainable option for reducing erosion of coastal marshes and protecting communities from storm surge. A new study shows restoration of marshes and oyster reefs are among the most cost-effective solutions for reducing coastal flood risks Credit: Nature Conservancy

There are many reasons to love oysters, and now an NUI Galway scientist has suggested another one.

Apart from its nutritional benefits, the shellfish also provides a cost-effective solution to the impacts of climate change.

Natural reefs built from oysters are preferential to seawalls constructed as a flood and coastal erosion defence, according to research led by NUI Galway (NUIG) economist Prof Stephen Hynes.

Such natural reefs are not only cheaper to construct, but they have the added benefit of creating new habitats for marine life, Prof Hynes, who is director of the NUIG Socio-Economic Marine Research Unit, says.

Author Prof Stephen HynesAuthor Prof Stephen Hynes

“Nature-based solutions” to climate change are central to the European Green Deal, his research paper published in the science journal Ecological Economics notes.

Galway has long celebrated the oyster, and a coastal walk in Galway Bay was selected as a template for the study.

The coastal trail to Rinville point is three kilometres from Oranmore village in south Galway. As it lies at sea level, it is exposed to coastal flooding.

The research examined its recreational value and analysed two options for protecting it – the “hard engineering” rock armour solution versus constructing a natural reef from oysters cultivated locally.

Rinville bay was once nucleus for abundance of native oyster, dating from prehistoric times, but productive reefs have been overharvested to the extent that remaining stock is “close to functional extinction”.

However, community-based organisation, Cuan Beo, has been working with the Marine Institute on restoring the native oyster and the first effort to rebuild several oyster reefs began in late 2020.

Cuan Beo used 200 tonnes of empty Pacific oyster shells covering a 50-metre radius and one metre in height from the seabed, which was then seeded with native oyster stock.

Although these structures are not close enough to the point to protect the walk, a similar natural protective reef could be created if given legislative approval, Cuan Beo spokesman Diarmuid Kelly confirmed.

Natural oysters Natural oysters 

The oyster “bar” would be covered by sea most of the time, except at low tide, and would involve sowing seed oysters on top of empty oyster shell substrate

Prof Hynes’s study found that both protection options resulted in a positive net benefit over a 20-year time horizon.

However, the study found the nature-based solution had a benefit-cost ratio multiple times larger than the “grey infrastructure” seawall alternative.

Artificial oyster reefs have been piloted along the US Gulf Coast to protect and restore shoreline habitat and create living oyster beds, Prof Hynes notes.

The results of the research “suggest a compelling case for embedding nature-based solutions in climate adaption and flood management planning for low lying coastal areas where recreational resources are under threat”, his paper says.

“The fact that oyster reefs can also adapt to sea-level rise with vertical growth rates that are faster than the expected rate of sea-level rise also makes them a good nature-based solution,” he adds.

The full paper is here

Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

Email The Author

Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.

 

At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
  • The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world. It’s bigger than all the continents put together
  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
  • The ocean provides the greatest amount of the world’s protein consumed by humans
  • Plastic affects 700 species in the oceans from plankton to whales.
  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

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