The Economic Value of Living Shorelines

by James A. Bacon

Every so often I find myself in agreement with new environmental initiatives.

Not those relating to climate change that require the re-engineering of Virginia’s energy economy in the vain hope of slowing down global warming. And not in zero-risk regulations such as the landfilling of coal ash at a cost of billions of dollars to save a single hypothetical life from exposure to heavy metals and toxic chemicals.

But I do tend to favor rules, regulations, and voluntary practices that protect Virginia wildlife habitat — such as living shorelines.

A new study by Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) researchers published in Ocean and Coastal Management has made an important contribution to assigning economic value to tidal marshes and living shorelines. Marsh habitat on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, the researchers found, produces more than $6.4 million in economic value each year from recreational anglers.

Living shorelines, which avoid the use of bulkheads and stone riprap, rely upon wetlands conservation for erosion control (which likely yields the largest economic payback of all and was not studied in the paper). It has been state policy since the enactment of legislation in 2020 to support living shorelines for coastal stabilization. (The legislation does allow exceptions for protecting valuable waterfront.)

Living shorelines preserve shallow-water habitat that supports speckled trout, redfish, rockfish, white perch, and flounder, among other species of interest to fishermen.

“Small baitfish, crabs, grass shrimp, they’re all at the base of the food web,” Chesapeake Bay Magazine quotes Carl Stover, a Middle Peninsula angler, as saying. “The predator fish go where the bait lives, and there is more along natural shorelines than bulkheads or riprap. This rule holds everywhere I fish, from the James to the Rappahannock. I’ll go a long way to cast to a natural or living shoreline, whether I’m on foot, in a kayak, or aboard my 18’ center console. That goes for every diehard angler I know.”

VIMS surveyed 1,500 anglers with Virginia saltwater fishing licenses and addresses on the Middle Peninsula. Their recreational fishing accounted for an estimated $6.4 million in economic activity each year.

That may be small fry in Virginia’s $728 billion economy. But it’s only one part of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline. Total angler activity is considerably larger. Moreover, recreational fishing in the Chesapeake Bay is an important amenity which, along with other activities such as sailing, kayaking, motor boating, and just sitting on the dock on the bay, that form the economic foundation for one of Virginia’s largest rural regions.

Let’s be honest, other than farming and a tad of light industry, there isn’t much else to underpin the economy of the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and Eastern Shore besides vacation homes and retirement homes. But vacation homes and retirement homes are a pretty good base for a rural economy. Upscale housing generates tax revenues to support local-government services. Vacationers and retirees support retail amenities, cultural institutions and medical services that everyone in the community can share. And they provide blue collar jobs for a local population lacking the education and skills to participate in the knowledge economy.

In sum, wetlands habitat is not just part of the natural ecosystem, it’s part of a broader economic system. It is far wiser to funnel Virginia’s finite resources into initiatives like living shorelines with a tangible, real-world payback for both the natural environment and human economy than to restructure the energy industry on the basis of vague, hypothetical concerns with vaguely-stated benefits at some indeterminant time in the future.

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6 responses to “The Economic Value of Living Shorelines”

  1. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    one oil spill…

  2. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    Henrico has done something similar with some older drainage. You would have perfectly crafted, deep cement ditches. With hard rains, the water comes roaring out and causes greater erosion, plus maintaining those beautiful concrete ditches… So they have naturalized some of these areas – it slows the water, creates living environments and still drains the water, but without the ancillary damage from the over-engineering… Also more aesthetically pleasing…

  3. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “And not in zero-risk regulations such as the landfilling of coal ash at a cost of billions of dollars to save a single hypothetical life from exposure to heavy metals and toxic chemicals”

    There is no such thing. Btw, you oppose regulating the management of coal ash? That is pretty jaw dropping.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Natural shorelines have a relatively minor impact on The Chesapeake Bay's ecological health.

    Wastewater treatment and containing agricultural runoff have bigger impacts, by far.

    1. CJBova Avatar

      Have to add VDOT’s failure to understand capturing stormwater prevents oxygenation of the Bay and required natural sediment that replenishes marshes.

  5. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

    It is never wrong to concerned about the environment. The problems we do have is human perception of risk and politics and unrealistic expectations of a zero pollution utopia, which humans have not acheived to date.

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