If necessity is the mother of invention, the quest to enjoy a Jersey Shore summer on Barnegat Bay may spur the creation of a new structure that will promote the health of the waterway while also functioning as a new type of protective barrier against shoaling at Lavallette’s municipal boat ramp and the West Point Island Bridge.
“The waves come across the bay, strike the beach in shallow water, compared to ocean waves, but the wave action ceases at the bridge – and boom – there’s no more transport,” explained Dr. Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton University.
When the sand comes to rest at the bridge, it has the nuisance effect of blocking in the lagoon inside West Point Island. It also makes the boat ramp essentially useless for most boaters who cannot retrieve their vessels since the mounting sand makes it impossible to submerge trailers. These problems, however, may be solved by a large reef that could be built north of the boat ramp, made of living oysters, marine vegetation and other bay creatures.
Farrell has proposed to Lavallette the construction of a new type of “living shoreline,” only this time a reef that juts out into the bay instead of a traditional rock or wooden jetty. The proposed reef would utilize a new invention known as a tensar mat – woven fabric that can stand up to the elements of salt water – covered in oyster shells that will be designed to reroute sand and sediment while simultaneously supporting a mini-ecosystem of marine life.
“This is rather new, and I don’t think the DEP has even seen these yet,” said Farrell, who would have to help the town pitch the plan to the state Department of Environmental Protection in order to receive a permit to construct it in the bay, which comes under state jurisdiction. “But they’re using them in Delaware and they’re using them in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.”
Closer to home, so-called “oyster castles” were built this summer in Ocean City, but the Lavallette project would be larger and more functional. In many ways, this combination would make it a first-of-its-kind project.
Before the project even moves to the permitting phase, the state Department of Transportation needs to complete its dredging of the channel under the bridge and the area around the boat ramp. The borough is taking the opportunity to rebuild the ramp, and the oyster project could be key to protecting the town’s investment, officials believe.
“We think, as part of this entire bayfront project, we want to go ahead with some kind of mitigation,” said Mayor Walter LaCicero.
The reef structure would reach between 75 and 100 feet into Barnegat Bay, as envisioned by Farrell. It would be visible at high tide and would likely require some lighting to warn boaters of its presence at night. Farrell said there is the potential to make pallet-sized structures to hold the fabric in place, with oyster shells serving as an exterior. Eventually, oysters would live in the shells and a small ecosystem would develop around the reef. Sand may need to be cleared on occasion, but such maintenance could be covered under a one-time permit from the state.
“We definitely need one on the north side of the boat ramp,” said Farrell. “That’s the prime location,” he explained, adding that smaller reefs could be useful around the largest one.
There are about 16 “living shorelines” in New Jersey, being used for different purposes, but the Lavallette project would likely be the most ambitious. It’s also a potential saver of tax dollars.
“The cost of the reefs are pretty low,” said Farrell. “You don’t embed them anywhere; you set them on the surface and it’s an appreciable shoreline.”
Alternatives such as driving pilings into the bay or installing a large rock groin or jetty would require a much larger investment as well as much more costly state permits. The borough previously looked into those options about 15 years ago.
Nothing has been decided yet, LaCicero said. Borough officials must first agree to move forward with the plan, then draw up specifications and go through the permitting process. But with an investment in a new ramp plus the state’s dredging project reviving Lavallette’s boating access, the reef project would provide simultaneous peace of mind as well as financial benefits.
And while it is revolutionary, the concept is fairly simple.
“You lay this down, fill it with the oyster shell and sew it shut,” Farrell said.
Nature then does the rest.