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Professor Sees Success, Expansion of Erosion-Prevention Project at Stratford Point as Model for Other Coastal Communities

Large, cement reef balls are the key

Biology Professor Jennifer Mattei talks about the reef ball installation at Stratford Point.

By Kim Primicerio

Biology Professor Jennifer Mattei is cheering the success and expansion of a two-year project to reverse erosion along a section of Stratford’s shoreline.

Mattei partnered with Audubon Connecticut (conservation stewards) and the DuPont company (land owners) of Stratford Point to install Connecticut’s first “living shoreline,” which aims to restore coastal habitats so they maintain their resiliency and function in the face of climate change. Two years ago, a pilot project was installed using 64 cement reef balls, each weighing 1,500 pounds and measuring three feet by four feet. This structure mimics an oyster reef, a habitat that was removed from our shores in the mid-19th century.

The artificial reef was placed along 150 feet of shoreline on the mean low-tide line to abate wave energy, allow for sediment deposits, and protect and restore salt marsh grasses.

When storm waves hit the hollow domes, which are riddled with a dozen portal holes, the water explodes through them and slows by 30 percent. This helps prevent shoreline erosion. The salt marsh grasses slow the waves further so that, in just two years, sand deposits rose 12 inches both behind and in some areas in front of the reef.

“The living shoreline is working beautifully, stopping erosion and allowing sediments to be deposited on the cobble beach,” Mattei said. “The marsh grasses are growing in faster and taller than an adjacent area planted at the same time without the protective reef.”

With success came the need for expansion. That’s now underway, with financial support from the Audubon Connecticut’s In-Lieu Fee Program (ILFP), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Long Island Sound Futures Fund (LISFF), the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA) and DuPont.

The project team will use a $91,000 grant from CIRCA to purchase most of the 273 reef balls needed to protect another 750 feet of Stratford Point shoreline. Because restoring the shoreline to its once-thriving state requires more than the cement structures, the ILFP is providing $250,000 to restore lower and upper marsh habitat along the length of the living shoreline, and LISFF—a group that has funded other SHU projects in the past—has contributed $115,198 for restoration of a mosaic of dune/grassland habitats above the upper marsh. DuPont is providing funds for the reef installation and support for site maintenance. Audubon Connecticut will provide numerous volunteer hours assisting with care of the plants and monitoring use of the new habitats by birds and other wildlife.

“These different habitats are important components of our degraded and lost estuarine ecosystem,” Mattei said, “Migratory birds will soon be able to find food and shelter from storms. Fish, shellfish and horseshoe crabs will thrive in the newly structured tidal zone.”

The reef balls are important for the regrowth of salt marsh grass and protection of the shoreline, she explained. The upland coastal shrub and forest habitats are also important, as they act as a windbreak and shelter for wildlife. Restoring pollinator meadows and grasslands also will help increase the diversity of species living at Stratford Point, according to Mattei. “This past summer, we identified more than 50 butterfly and moth species on site, and our two acres of meadow restored with native grasses and wildflowers has been growing for less than a year.”

“All along the eastern U.S., sea level is rising, beaches are eroding away and property damage is increasingly common even after small storms because many of these habitats are missing,” Mattei said. “This living shoreline model is one we’ve tried and we know is working.”

Mattei has taught at Sacred Heart University for 21 years. Before coming to SHU, she was a post-doctoral fellow at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she worked with a team of restoration ecologists researching best practices for restoring forest communities on land degraded by human activity. Besides the Stratford Point project, Mattei also works on Project Limulus, a research venture that monitors horseshoe crab populations all along Connecticut’s coastline and into Rye, N.Y.

Mattei’s involvement in Stratford Point’s ecological system began in 2011. Then she and other SHU professors—LaTina Steele, Jo-Marie Kasinak and Mark Beekey—joined forces with DuPont and Audubon Connecticut, a chapter of the National Audubon Society, to start the reef ball project.

Stratford Point, a peninsula in Stratford’s Lordship section, formerly belonged to the Remington Gun Club and was used as a firing range for more than 50 years. Lead from the bullets had polluted the area, hindering wildlife’s ability to flourish.

When DuPont acquired the land, it conducted a major remediation effort to remove the lead shot that had accumulated. While most of the lead was removed, the cleanup disturbed much of the area, which is when Mattei and her team became involved.

Mattei said she’s thrilled to see the reef balls working and to receive the three grants to expand the project. Some of the funding will enable six undergraduate students and one graduate student to assist and conduct research on the project next summer and over the next several years.

“This work will be a model for other coastal areas,” Mattei said. “People from neighboring coastal communities are welcome to come to the site and see how we are handling habitat restoration to arrest erosion. This may be one solution that works with nature rather than against it.”

Interested in helping to restore Connecticut’s Living Shoreline on Earth Day? Click here to become a part of the solution.

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