Oyster reefs are an important component of coastal ecosystems and economies because they create, modify, and maintain environmental conditions and habitat.  For this reason, they have been called ‘ecosystem engineers’. Although they provide a variety of ecosystem goods and services, such as water quality regulation, shoreline stabilization, sequestration of nutrients and sediment, and essential habitat for fish and invertebrates, oysters also provide significant economic value to coastal fisheries. But because there are biological limits to the amount of services that reefs can produce, potential conflicts can arise between strongly competing interest groups. Some stakeholders may desire conserving oyster reefs primarily for their ability to protect coastal ecosystems and near-shore infrastructure, while others value reefs as a principal revenue resource. As a result, selecting the best locations for reef restoration activities may depend on which goal is the objective.

American oysters collected at low tide. Photo by North Inlet Winyah Bay National Esturine Research Reserve.

At the South Atlantic LCC, we are developing a decision model for Atlantic coast oyster restoration, supported by ecological modeling of oyster reef dynamics, to demonstrate a logical approach for resolving this tradeoff and identifying alternative decision pathways. One of the key features of this framework is to represent stakeholder interests with transparency, so that productive discussion is based on a true understanding of the role of values on decision outcomes. In most cases, restoration resources are limited, and difficult decisions must be made regarding how and where these are allocated. Our decision modeling will help to quantify the expected value of restoration investments under different landscape plans, with the goal of identifying the best strategies as a function of stakeholder input, providing suggestions that stakeholders can use to negotiate their interests.

Volunteers plant marsh grass for a living shoreline at Trinity Center. Photo by the NC Coastal Federation.

In terms of coastal protection benefits, one promising application in the near future will be the ability to support planning and implementation of living shoreline projects. In a nutshell, these are projects that replace expensive seawalls and jetties with natural wetland grasses and oyster reefs that provide their own self-maintenance, potentially reducing costs in the long term while still providing protection against storm surge and erosion. Reefs and wetlands are thought to absorb and reduce wave energy, however, very little research has been done to quantify the amount and value of these protective services. This work by the South Atlantic LCC is one step toward understanding the broader landscape of ecosystem services and the processes that create them, as well as ways that we can implement restoration to meet stakeholder needs.