POLICY COLUMN: Walls, Aquatic Habitat, and Fish

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

If walls and fish could talk, I suspect they’d have a strained conversation. Unfortunately, neither fish nor walls were interviewed for this column, so the following is based on 40 years of my personal observations.

There has been much talk in recent years about living shorelines, which trend toward using natural materials and native species to protect and restore eroding shorelines along our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Although there has been welcome legislative, regulatory, scientific, and management progress in that arena, I have been surprised to realize that many projects continue to rely on old-school approaches to control the land–water interface. I wouldn’t expect a one-size-fits-all solution, but those older options are not good news for fish or aquatic systems. The body of knowledge must continue to grow, inspired by actions such as those mentioned below.

Vertical surfaces are about as different from most fish habitat as possible. Some Ozark reservoirs, deeply incised and meandering rivers, and the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon, among others, have steep walls, but my focus is on the much more common waters constrained by berms, dams, dikes, bulkheads, seawalls, gabions (stone-filled cages), and even rip rap. Regardless of the moniker, those unnatural surfaces are better for mussels or barnacles than finfish. The key is partly the surface but mostly the lack of sediments, vegetation, and organisms that support fish populations and aquatic systems.

Since we have the engineering ingenuity and ecological knowledge, why do we continue to use old-school designs to develop obsolete plans? How can we make “green” or “softer” options more acceptable?

From my experience, this predicament is framed by comfort with the status quo of long-accepted but increasingly outdated practices. The pendulum has shifted in the past decade or so, with living shorelines gaining but still not replacing poured concrete walls, steel sheets, and treated timbers. Our long-established environmental review policies, coupled with new pressures such as rising waters and increased erosion, seem to be lagging behind the value society places on our shorelines. Economic prosperity and our propensity to armor rather than yield are conspiring to accelerate my concern.

At the heart of these choices are the ecological services provided by wetlands and imperiled by poor decisions. Summaries such as Virginia Institute of Marine Science (2009) remind us of the societal values at risk along our freshwater and marine shorelines.

Fortunately, some private and public sectors are leading our charge toward more enlightened decisions. Maryland’s (2008) “Living Shorelines Protection Act” offers solid legislative guidance. The North Carolina Coastal Federation (no date) is a prime example of private-sector leadership in a state known for its history on living shorelines. The Hudson River (New York) National Estuarine Research Reserve (no date) is part of another sustainable shoreline effort of note. Restore America’s Estuaries (no date) has hosted several technology transfer meetings and regional workshops to translate guidance into action. Spanning hardened (“gray”) to living shorelines (“green”), the SAGE (2015) effort offers a “systems approach to geomorphic engineering” and links to efforts by public- and private-sector partners.

This trend was highlighted earlier this year by Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears, who noted the social hypocrisy of spending billions for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup while allowing new development to perpetuate outdated practices. Based on a tour of waterfronts from recent AFS annual meetings (St. Paul, Little Rock, Quebec City, Portland), scary parallels exist in other North American aquatic systems. In every instance, too many steep surfaces fail to filter sediments, remove chemicals, and sequester runoff, extending our worries beyond fish and to entire urban watersheds. Fish will benefit from the huge investments in water cleanup and will suffer mightily when such efforts fail because of old-school technology.

These economic, social, and ecological trends are interwoven. New waterfront developments—housing, marinas, storm barriers, urban parks—remind us of this troubling trend while contributing to create a sense of urgency. Each decision, whether for a permit or a planting, will be with us for decades, just like a mortgage decision that will be with us for a generation or more.

Our society, as individuals and groups, tends to struggle with change—the shift to unleaded auto fuels, seat belt requirements, mandatory immunizations—but somehow we always survive
despite the most dire predictions. I expect that the shift to greener shores will be easier than most others, but only if we change our expectations. These changes are needed to ensure success with our multi-billion-dollar investments for water quality.


Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve. Undated. Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines. Available: www.hrnerr.org/ hudson-river-sustainable-shorelines/. (January 2016).

Maryland. 2008. Maryland’s Living Shorelines Protection Act. Available: www.dnr.state.md.us/ccs/pdfs/ls/dnr/scm/2008_LSPA.pdf. (January 2016).

North Carolina Coastal Federation. Undated. North Carolina Coastal Federation Restoration and Protection Project: Living Shorelines. Available: www.nccoast.org/uploads/documents/ factsheets/FS_LivShorlines.pdf. (January 2016).

Restore America’s Estuaries. Undated. Living Shorelines. Available: www.estuaries.org/living-shorelines. (January 2016).

SAGE. 2015. Systems approach to geomorphic engineering. Available: www.sagecoast.org/info/information.html. (January 2016).

Virginia Institute of Marine Science. 2009. Available: ccrm.vims.edu/publications/pubs/rivers&coast/Jan09rivers&coastfinal.pdf. (January 2016).

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