The Benefits of a Living Shoreline

The Benefits of a Living Shoreline

Imagine this…

You are a sailor on a 16th century Spanish galleon anchored in a Florida Bay south of Tampa. You, along with others, are ordered to go ashore for a scouting trip to set up a base camp.  You transfer over to a small skiff and row ashore to find a forest of root tangled mangroves.  There is no dry beach to land so you disembark at the edge of the trees in knee-deep water.  The bottom is sandy and your footing is good but you must literally crawl through the tangled mess of mangrove prop roots to finding dry ground.  As you do, you encounter spider webs, numerous biting insects, and the bottom becomes muddy and footing is less stable.  I am sure I would have returned to the ship to report to the captain that there is nothing of value here – let’s go back to Spain!

The dense vegetation of a black mangrove swamp in south Florida.
Photo: UF IFAS

Along the shores of northwest Florida it would have been different only that they would have encountered acres of grass instead of trees. The approach to Pensacola would have found a long beach of white sand and dunes.  Entering the bay, they would have found salt marshes growing in the protected areas, with the rare exception of dryer bluffs in some spots – which is where de Luna chose to anchor.  These marshes are easier to traverse than the emergent root system of the mangrove, but the muck and mire of the muddy bottom and biting insects still remain.


For centuries, Europeans have sought to alter these habitats to make them more suitable for colonization. Whether that was for log forts and houses or marinas and golf courses, we have cleared the vegetation and filled the muck with fill dirt. But have we lost something by doing this?


Yes… Yes we have, and some of what we have lost is valuable to us.


We have lost our water quality.

These emergent shoreline plants filter debris running from shore to the sea during rain events. The muck and mire we encounter within the marsh would otherwise entered the bay or bayou.  Here it would cloud the water and smother the submerge seagrasses.  My father-in-law told me that as a kid growing up on Bayou Texar in Pensacola he remembered clear water and seagrasses.  He remembered throwing a cast net and collecting 4-5″ shrimp.


That has changed.

In our modern world, it is not just mud that is running off towards our bays. We can add lawn fertilizers, lawn and garden pesticides, oils and grease from cleaning, and a multitude of other products – including plastics.


We have seen a decline in living resources.

The large shrimp my father-in-law talked about are not as common. He spoke of snapper – very few now.  Bay scallops are basically gone in Pensacola and have declined across much of Florida’s gulf coast. Horseshoe crabs have become rare in many locations.  Moreover, salt marsh/mangrove dependent species, such as diamondback terrapins, are difficult to find.

Storm drains, such as this one, discharge run-off into local bays and bayous.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Maybe of more concern is the decline of commercially important aquatic species such as crabs, shrimp, and finfish. It is known that 80-90% of these commercially important species spend at least part of their lives in the marshes and mangroves.


And this we are losing.


And then there is the shoreline itself.

The emergent plants the Spanish encountered actually act as a wave break. Sand running off the land is trapped to form a “beach”, albeit a mucky one, and the wave energy is absorbed by the plants reducing the energy reaching the shore.  The damage in south Florida from hurricane Andrew was devastating.  But that same storm made a second landfall in the marshes of Louisiana and there was little to write about – the marsh absorbed much of the energy.  The removal of these vegetated shorelines has enhanced the loss of coastline across the Gulf States.


Can we restore these shores and return these “services”?



Whether communities want to or not is another question, but we can.

Studies have shown that a marsh 10′ across from water to land can remove 90% of the nutrients running off. Nutrients can trigger hypereutrophic conditions in the bay – which can lead to algal blooms – which can lead to low dissolved oxygen – which can lead to fish kills and seagrass loss.  In addition to removing nutrients, marshes and mangroves can remove a variety of other contaminants and plastics.  Many sewage treatment facilities discharge their treated effluent through the coastal plant communities before it reaches the bay, thus improving water quality.


We know that restoring a living shoreline will enhance the biological productivity of the bay. Studies have shown that swamps and marshes can produce an annual mean net primary production of between 8000 – 9000 kcal/m2/year, which is equivalent to tropical rainforest and the open estuary itself.


Finally, living shorelines will stabilize erosion issues, much longer than seawalls and other harden structures. Studies have shown that seawalls will eventually give in.  Wave energy is increased when it meets the wall and reflects back.  This generates higher energy waves that decrease seagrasses and actually begins to remove sediment around the wall itself.  You will see the land begin to erode behind the wall and eventually it begins to fall forward into the bay.  The east coast of Florida recently experienced this during hurricane Irma.  Interestingly the west coast experienced negative tides.  The exposure of these seawalls to an empty bay had the same effect.  Without the water pressure to hold them, they began to crack and fall forward.  A living shoreline can sustain all of this.

FDEP planting a living shoreline on Bayou Texar in Pensacola.
Photo: FDEP

So how do restore my shoreline?


  1. You will need a permit. The state of Florida owns land from the mean high tide seaward. To plant above this line you do not need a permit, but you will want to plant at and below to truly restore and benefit from the services. Permitting can be simple or complicated – each property is different. Visit to learn more about the process.
  2. You will need plants. There are a few nurseries that provide the needed species. There is a zonation to the plant community and it is important to put the right plant in the right place. The above link can help with this and the Extension office is happy to visit your location and give recommendations.
  3. You will need to plant them. Fall and spring are good planting times. A recent project we helped with planted in April and it has been very successful.
  4. You may want to monitor the success of your project. This not needed, but if interested the Extension office we can show how to do this.I certainly understand why many would rather remove these shoreline ecosystems, but I think you can see the benefits outweigh the problems. It is not an all or none deal. Living shorelines can be designed to allow water access. If interested in learning more contact your county Extension office.


I certainly understand why many would rather remove these shoreline ecosystems, but I think you can see the benefits outweigh the problems. It is not an all or none deal.  Living shorelines can be designed to allow water access.  If interested in learning more contact your county Extension office.




Permitting a Living Shoreline; can a living shoreline work for you?

Miller Jr., G.T., S.E. Spoolman. 2011. Living in the Environment: Concepts, Connections, and Solutions. 16th edition. Brooks and Cole Cengage Learning. Pp. 674.


Sharma, S. J. Goff, J. Cebrian, C. Ferraro. 2016. A Hybrid Shoreline Stabilization Technique: Impact of Modified Intertidal Reefs on Marsh Expansion and Nekton Habitat in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Ecological Engineering 90. Pp 352-360.

Coastal Erosion–a problem with new solutions

Coastal Erosion–a problem with new solutions

Life on the Gulf Coast can be beautiful, but has its share of complications. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Life on the coast has tremendous benefits; steady sea breezes, gorgeous beaches, plentiful fishing and paddling opportunities. Nevertheless, there are definite downsides to living along it, too. Besides storms like Hurricane Harvey making semi-regular appearances, our proximity to the water can make us more vulnerable to flooding and waterborne hazards ranging from bacteria to jellyfish. One year-round problem for those living directly on a shoreline is erosion. Causes for shoreline erosion are wide-ranging; heavy boat traffic, foot traffic, storms, lack of vegetation with anchoring roots, and sea level rise.


Many homeowners experiencing loss of property due to erosion unwittingly contribute to it by installing seawalls. When incoming waves hit the hard surface of the wall, energy reflects back and moves down the coast. Often, an adjacent homeowner will experience increased erosion and bank scouring after a neighboring property installs a seawall. This will often lead that neighbor to install a seawall themselves, transferring the problem further.

Erosion can damage root systems of shoreline trees and grasses. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Currently, south Louisiana is experiencing significant coastal erosion and wetlands losses. The problem is compounded by several factors, including canals dredged by oil companies, which damage and break up large patches of the marsh. Subsidence, in which the land is literally sinking under the sea, is happening due to a reduced load of sediment coming down the Mississippi River. Sea level rise has contributed to erosion, and most recently, an invasive insect has caused large-scale death of over 100,000 acres of Roseau cane (Phragmites australis). Add the residual impacts from the oil spill, and you can understand the complexity of the situation.


Luckily, there are ways to address coastal erosion, on both the small and large scale. On Gulf and Atlantic beaches, numerous coastal communities have invested millions in beach renourishment, in which offshore sand is barged to the coast to lengthen and deepen beaches. This practice, while common, can be controversial because of the cost and risk of beaches washing out during storms and regular tides. However, as long as tourism is the #1 economic driver in the state, the return on investment seems to be worth it.


On quieter waters like bays and bayous, living shorelines have “taken root” as a popular method of restoring property and stabilizing shorelines. This involves planting marsh grasses along a sandy shore, often with oyster or rock breakwaters placed waterward to slow down wave energy, and allow newly planted grasses to take root.


Locally in Bayou Grande, a group of neighbors were experiencing shoreline erosion.  Over a span of 50 years, the property owners used a patchwork of legally installed seawalls, bulkheads, rip rap piles, private boat ramps, piers, mooring poles and just about anything else one can imagine, to reduce the problem. Over time, the seawalls and bulkheads failed, lowering the property value of the very property they were meant to protect and increasing noticeable physical damage to the adjacent properties.”


Project Greenshores is a large-scale living shoreline project in Pensacola. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

In 2011, a group of neighboring property owners along the bayou decided to take action. After considering many repair options, the neighbors decided to pursue a living shoreline based on aesthetics, long-term viability, installation cost, maintenance cost, storm damage mitigation and feasibility of installation. By 2017, the living shoreline was constructed.  Oyster shell piles were placed to slow down wave energy as it approached the transition zone from the long fetch across the bayou, while uplands damage was repaired and native marsh grasses and uplands plants were restored to slow down freshwater as it flowed towards the bayou.  Sand is now accruing as opposed to eroding along the shoreline.  Wading shorebirds are now a constant companion and live oysters are appearing along the entire 1,200-foot length.  Additionally the living shoreline solution provided access to resources, volunteer help, and property owner sweat equity opportunities that otherwise would have been unavailable.  An attribute that has surprisingly appeared – waterfront property owners are now able to keep their nicely manicured lawns down to within 30 feet of the water’s edge.  At that point, the landscape immediately switches back to native marsh plants, which creates a quite robust and attractive intersection. (Text and information courtesy Charles Lurton).


Successes like these all over the state have led the Florida Master Naturalist Program to offer a new special topics course on “Coastal Shoreline Restoration” which provides training in the restoration of living shorelines, oyster reefs, mangroves, and salt marsh, with focus on ecology, benefits, methods, and monitoring techniques.  Keep an eye out for this course being offered near you. If you are curious about living shorelines and want to know more, reach out to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Ecosystem Restoration section for help and read through this  online document.



National Estuaries Week! – What We Can Do

National Estuaries Week! – What We Can Do

In the last edition in this series we discussed some of the issues and problems our estuaries are facing. For the final edition for National Estuaries Week we want to leave you with some ideas on you can help improve things.


The first issue we dealt with was eutrophication – or nutrient overloading. The primary nutrient we have issues with in this part of the panhandle is nitrogen. Nitrates can converted from other forms of nitrogen and can be discharged directly into the water. Common sources are leaf litter, animal waste, commercial fertilizers, and human sewage. Most of this is discharged into our waters via stormwater runoff. This runoff occurs from our properties (due to the lack of natural vegetation holding it) and from stormwater drains (where it is directed through our engineering projects).


One method of dealing with this problem is restoring the shoreline back to its natural state. This is called Living Shorelines and they are being restored all over the country. In most cases locally Living Shorelines would be restoring salt marshes to our shorelines. There are some issues with this. It lessens the amount of open beach you have to enjoy. You have to purchase special plants to do this, and it may require a permit from the state of Florida. Permits are required only if you are planting at or below the mean high tide line; all submerged lands are actually the property of the state of Florida. Permits for Living Shorelines can be obtained from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

FDEP planting a living shoreline on Bayou Texar in Pensacola. Photo: FDEP

FDEP planting a living shoreline on Bayou Texar in Pensacola.
Photo: FDEP


The first question you would want to ask when considering a Living Shoreline for your property is whether there was a salt marsh along your shore historically. Salt marshes require low energy beaches to establish themselves and your location may not be such. If you are not sure you can contact the Sea Grant Agent in your county to provide assistance with that determination. If you feel your property would support a Living Shoreline then you will need a permit. There is the “long form” and the “short form” permit. The “short form” obviously what you want and it costs less also. However certain criteria must be met in order to be exempt from the “long form”. To determine whether you are exempt from the “long form” visit  Click “view rule” and scroll down to (12)(e). If you feel that you qualify for the exemption then it is as simple as completing the form and submitting your check. You should have your permit in just a few weeks. If you do not qualify then it is recommended that you contact the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for advice on moving forward. (850) 595-8300.


Whether you qualify for a Living Shoreline or not – or even if you do not live on the water – there is a landscaping program that you can adopt that will help a lot. It is called Florida Friendly Landscaping. This UF/IFAS program helps homeowners select the “right plant for the right place”. Basically the idea is to landscape your yard with native plants that require little or no fertilizing or water. Not only does this program help our estuaries it saves the homeowner money. One of the first things you will want to do when planning a Florida Friendly Landscape is have your soil tested. The county extension office provides this service for about $7. If interested contact your county extension office about where to pick up the soil testing sample bags. Rain barrels and rain gardens are also good ways to reduce water runoff and save water for those times when you might need it. A trickle hose connected to a rain barrel can reduce runoff and your water bill.

Florida Friendly Landscaping involves using native plants that require less water and fertilizer. Photo: Southwest Florida Water Management District

Florida Friendly Landscaping involves using native plants that require less water and fertilizer.
Photo: Southwest Florida Water Management District


We are not certain how much of the animal waste is in fact human but we do know that much of the human waste is from septic tanks. If you have a septic tank – maintain it. Most of the problems come from those that are not maintained well. If you can connect to a sewer line we recommend you do this. The sewer is not without its problems but the problems are much reduced. If you own a pet – clean up behind them.


The leaf litter problem is just that… a problem. Within the city limits many municipalities will collect your yard waste. In Pensacola they do so using a large “claw” however this claw leaves large holes in your yard – so people place the yard waste in the street. Doing this encourages runoff into the bay and the problems we have already discussed. So many will bag it. In Escambia County the yard waste is converted into mulch and is free to the public. However if the yard waste is placed in plastic bags they cannot do this. It’s tough problem. One answer is to develop your own compost pile and dispose of your yard waste there. Your county extension office can help you with different methods of composting and help you select the method that is best for you.

A commercial composting bend that can purchased at many locations or on line. Photo: UF/IFAS

A commercial composting bend that can purchased at many locations or on line.
Photo: UF/IFAS

Composting bends can also be made from recycle materials such as pallets. Photo: UF/IFAS

Composting bends can also be made from recycle materials such as pallets.
Photo: UF/IFAS


All of these suggestions about can reduce nutrients and bacteria in our waterways that contribute to fish kills and health advisories. It will reduce turbidity, which will help seagrasses, and actually Living Shorelines can reduce shoreline erosion.


These same practices can not only improve water quality they could help restore some of our declining fisheries. Living Shorelines provide needed habitat for many commercial and recreational valuable species. As mentioned, these projects will remove much of the sediment improving water clarity to a point where seagrasses can restore themselves and who knows… maybe the scallop will return. On the subject of scallops, Florida Sea Grant conducts scallops surveys in some of panhandle estuaries in the summer. You can volunteer to be a scallop surveyor and assist with data collection that could support a scallop restoration projects. When fishing follow the regulations. They may seem unfair and out dated but know that fisheries managers are trying to get it right and your cooperation will certainly help develop a sustainable fishery for years to come.


The issue of garbage is another tough one. We have been conducting educational programs for decades trying to reduce the amount of solid waste – it’s still there. Many of the local residents are pretty good at taking their trash with them and recycling monofilament fishing line… but not all. Encourage your friends to “take it with them” and “leave no trace” when they go home each day. Out of town visitors can be a problem. Local education from all of us should help some. Participate in one of the CleanPeace’s Ocean Hours. If in the Santa Rosa and Escambia area contact the Sea Grant Agents from those counties for more information. If from another county, contact your local county extension office for information on beach clean ups.

A sea turtle entangled in a discarded fishing net. Photo: NOAA

A sea turtle entangled in a discarded fishing net.
Photo: NOAA


Our estuaries have improved significantly from where they were in the late ‘60’s and early 70’s. A little on our part now we can improve them even more. We hope you have learned something new about your local estuary during National Estuaries Week. We hope you will take the time to enjoy these great bodies of water and do what you can to protect for future years.