Living Shorelines: The Key to Preserving Our Shores' Natural Ecosystems By Natasha roberts

Dr. Mark Clark is a faculty member in the Soil and Water Sciences Department at the University of Florida (UF). He is also a State Specialist in Wetlands and Water Quality and works with the Nature Coast Biological Station (NCBS) on developing ways to combat shoreline erosion and the continuing destruction of shoreline ecosystems.

(Dr. Mark Clark/UF IFAS, NCBS)

Clark’s interest in marine biology and wetlands began when he was a student. While in graduate school, Dr. Clark studied issues with water quality in Florida and discovered that many of them were actually linked with land-based water quality problems.

“The ocean is oftentimes the recipient of whatever we're doing on the land. And if we can fix that, well, oftentimes the ocean will take care of itself,” said Clark.

Clark and the NCBS team have developed ways to build living shorelines to preserve the ecosystems that the shorelines support as human activities and natural disasters continue to erode natural shorelines,

“A living shoreline is essentially a manmade shoreline that mimics a natural ecosystem,” explained Clark.

The typical response to receding shorelines is to pour in concrete where the shoreline used to be, which Clark calls “the gray approach.” Although this response solves part of the problem, it does not necessarily ensure that the ecosystems on the shoreline are continuing to thrive.

“These living shorelines are buying time, but they are not necessarily going to be the end all protection, especially in areas that are just inevitably going to succumb to sea level rise,” said Clark.

Living shorelines must replicate surrounding areas to ensure that the man-made structure is suitable for the local flora and fauna. A living shoreline may not be attainable if there are not any successful natural shorelines nearby to replicate. This strategy makes the living shoreline most conducive to success because the natural areas are adapted to the local climate and are prepared to withstand any natural disasters that may occur.

In addition, Clark notes that stability may look different for each instance:

“If you have a massive hurricane, they are going to be damaged just like natural shorelines are damaged. …They are going to develop the way they want to develop, not necessarily the way you want them to develop,” explained Clark.

Clark’s living shorelines projects are not a permanent solution to shoreline erosion. Climate change is constantly altering factors such as temperature, sea level, and number of natural disasters, all of which will affect Florida’s shorelines. As a result, even the most well-designed living shoreline can eventually succumb to the sea if any factor of its success changes.

One of the first FMNP Coastal Restoration courses taught in the Florida Panhandle. This is an example of how people can get involved in shoreline preservation through education. NCBS also offers other Extension programs that anyone can join. (Photo/BettyLou Reid, UF/IFAS Florida Sea Grant)

Because the success of living shorelines is such a fragile situation, Clark urges everyone to contribute to the project’s success. Contributions can be as simple as educating yourself on your local shores, taking actions to ensure you are not contributing to the problem, and advocating for shoreline preservation.

Photo essay created by: Natasha Roberts, Undergraduate Student, UF Department of Agricultural Education and Communication

Photos provided by:

  • Dr. Mark Clark
  • UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station
  • Florida Sea Grant
Created By
Natasha Roberts