A coastal conservationist group is pouring more than $1 million into an effort to build reefs from oyster shells to protect the shoreline around one of the Marine installations that is most vulnerable to climate change.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a Congress-chartered nonprofit, made a $1,187,000 grant to the Coastal Conservation League and two partners, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the Sustainability Institute, for reef-building in the waterways near Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina.

The second-oldest post in the Corps and one of the two locations for training Marine recruits, the low-lying island in South Carolina’s Lowcountry is threatened by increased flooding because of climate change, some scientists say.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a national science advocacy nonprofit, projected in 2016 that sea levels near Parris Island, South Carolina, would rise between 4.0 and 6.4 feet by 2100. In the worst-case scenario, flood-prone areas of the base could be underwater for nearly 30% of the year by 2050. Some areas already flood about 10 times a year.

And the one road that connects the island to neighboring communities sits just a few feet above the tide, Marine Corps Times previously reported. If that floods, Marines will have trouble commuting to the depot.

Two Department of Natural Resources employees and local volunteers will place recycled oyster shells on the seabed near Parris Island, South Carolina, forming the building blocks of reefs, according to Michael Hodges, who works at the shellfish management section of the South Carolina Department of National Resources and is managing the project. Baby oysters will attach themselves to the shells, building up the reefs further, in what’s called a living shoreline.

The reefs should help keep the sediment on the shoreline from washing out to sea, instead allowing it to build up behind and on top of the reef, Hodges said. With a higher elevation of seabed, salt marsh grass can flourish and in turn act as another buffer against waves and wind that could otherwise erode the shoreline.

The living shorelines won’t stop floods altogether, but they could mitigate them, Hodges said.

“Oysters are delicious, but a lot of people don’t know a lot more than, they like them or they don’t,” he said, adding that oysters also serve an important role in naturally filtering water.

The project will create approximately three acres of living shorelines but protect approximately 30 acres of estuary, Hodges added.

Oyster reefs and salt marsh serve as a habitat for fish, birds and even some mammals, said Rachel Hawes, a land, water and wildlife project manager at the Coastal Conservation League.

“A lot of people move to this area in on the coastline because of this habitat exactly,” she said. “People like to recreate in it. People like to bird, kayak, fish, swim — all of those things, people love to do in our waterways.”

The partners receiving the funding, along with the depot and Pew Charitable Trusts, are set to cobble together more than $800,000 in matching contributions. About a fifth of that (and all of the depot’s contributions) will come in the form of in-kind volunteer hours, or “sweat equity,” as Hodges put it.

In the past, Hodges said, volunteers for similar initiatives run by the Department of Natural Resources have ranged from nonprofits to schoolchildren to boating enthusiasts.

While the living shoreline efforts won’t take place on Parris Island, South Carolina, property, Hawes said that the recruit depot has been discussing coastal resilience with the Coastal Conservation League for a year and a half, and has offered insight into which sites near the base would be best for the project.

“Nature based solutions like the oyster reef positively impact Lowcountry communities and can be combined with future initiatives adding even a more holistic approach to sustainability,” Maj. Philip Kulczewski, depot spokesman, said in a statement to Marine Corps Times.

The depot has been eyeing projects like limiting development in low-lying parts of the island, raising a culvert that needed repairs anyway and adding floodproofing measures as part of upgrades to firing ranges, Maj. Marc Blair, Parris Island, South Carolina, environmental director, told The Associated Press in May — in his words, “the art of the small.”

Work on the living shorelines will start on Jan. 1 and last for three years, followed by one year of monitoring, Hodges said.

After that work is complete, the conservationists’ expectation is that the reefs will stay in place for generations to come, with little or no human effort required.

“Unless there’s something catastrophic and a gigantic storm comes through and it just carries all that oyster material off the shoreline, they will stay in place and continue to proliferate and be a self-sustaining reef structure,” Hodges said.

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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