New Oyster Reefs at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge to Help Protect Coastlines


Volunteers Do the Heavy Lifting to Build “Oyster Castles” for Living Shoreline Project


To better protect shorelines in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), two oyster reef living shoreline projects are being constructed in refuge waters by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and other partners.

Dozens of volunteers are helping out at Chincoteague NWR to build the reefs using oyster castles, which will form the foundation of two living shorelines designed to reduce wave energy and make for a more resilient coastline.

“The Nature Conservancy is excited about using nature-based solutions like these restored oyster reefs to help protect the places people love while also helping to improve the health of the coast,” said Bowdoin W. Lusk, coastal scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. “The fact that we’ve got so many dedicated volunteers coming out to work with us on projects like this shows that many people and local communities feel the same way.”

The labor-intensive work is taking place over multiple days at two sites that experienced significant damage from Hurricane Sandy: Tom’s Cove, adjacent to Beach Road, and Assateague Bay, adjacent to the Service Road. When finished, there will be an estimated 1,400 feet of living shoreline at Tom’s Cove and 2,050 feet in Assateague Bay, made from a total of 13,800 marine-friendly oyster castle blocks.

Under the direction of the Virginia Marine Resource Commission, a local contractor first laid down 2.5 acres of crushed oyster shells before Lusk and volunteers installed the castle blocks.  Oysters will settle on these beds and the spat (baby oysters) will cling to the castles, growing up the vertical columns. The castles weigh around 30 pounds each and are approximately 18 inches tall, with windows for water to flow through. The whole system creates a functional habitat for oysters and other marine life, including popular species of recreational fish like striped bass and shorebirds like the American oystercatcher.

“The oyster reefs will provide natural benefits such as filtering water and nutrients and promote sediment uptake, so they’re vital to our marine areas,” said Kevin Holcomb, USFWS wildlife biologist at the refuge. “But there is also growing scientific evidence that coastal habitats such as oyster reefs, tidal salt marshes, and seagrass meadows can offer cost effective risk reduction in the face of rising sea levels and future impacts.”

In the coming years, as oysters become established on these structures, they will provide increased resilience along the Beach Access Road by reducing erosion associated with wave action. Researchers from the University of Virginia’s Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research Project, one of 26 prestigious programs funded by the National Science Foundation, will be studying the extent to which the new reefs dampen wave energy to help direct future investments in natural defenses. Unlike gray infrastructure such as riprap or revetment walls, restored oyster reefs can grow at least two inches per year to keep pace with sea-level rise.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused extensive destruction at the refuge – damaging visitor facilities and roads, eroding trails and shoreline, and leaving tons of downed trees and debris strewn across the land. High water flooded the main access road and intense waves caused erosion of the Tom’s Cove marsh and shoreline. (See photos of the damage.) In January 2016, Hurricane Jonas came through Chincoteague with stronger winds and tides than Sandy, leaving behind a flooded parking lot and more downed debris.

“One of the biggest messages Sandy delivered is that the Chincoteague Refuge and other coastal landowners need more resilient shorelines to cope with the threat of future storms,” said Gwynn Crichton, senior project scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. “What’s more, the Chincoteague NWR lies at the epicenter of sea-level rise in the United States, as water levels along the mid-Atlantic region are rising at a rate three to four times faster than the global average.  It is critical that we figure out ways to adapt to these changes using natural solutions like these oyster reefs to make our coasts more resilient while providing other benefits to the communities, economy, and ecosystems here on the Eastern Shore.”

With 1.2-1.4 million tourists annually, Chincoteague NWR is one of the most visited refuges in the United States, generating millions of dollars for the economy and thousands of jobs for local residents of the Town of Chincoteague and other nearby locations. Tourists come to enjoy and explore the refuge’s diversity of habitats – maritime forest, marshes, beaches and dunes – and wildlife, such as songbirds, shorebirds and wading birds. Tens of thousands of spectators arrive each summer to witness the wild Chincoteague ponies at annual events.

Numerous partners are working in this effort to secure the refuge for the future, including: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The projects total $577,000 funded by the Hurricane Sandy disaster relief appropriation through the Department of the Interior (DOI). A portion of the funding comes from DOI’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

View pictures from the oyster castle project and installation at Tom’s Cove.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen in the northeast region, visit

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at unprecedented scale, and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 65 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.