How coconuts could help restore shorelines on Prince Edward Island

A wildlife group in Souris, P.E.I., has turned to an unusual material to help restore shorelines in the area — it is testing something called coir, made from the outer husk of coconuts.

Biodegradable fibre from outer husk of coconuts used to create a 'living shoreline'

In one section of the river, the coconut fibre is rolled into logs and laid down to form a retaining wall, three logs high. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

A wildlife group in Souris, P.E.I. has turned to an unusual material to help restore shorelines in the area — It is testing out coir, or coconut fibre, made from the outer husk of the coconut.

The wildlife group is using the coconut fibre to create what's called a living shoreline, in part to help combat coastal erosion on the Souris River.

"Down where they do produce coconuts it's a waste product," said Frances Braceland, project manager with the Souris and Area branch of the P.E.I. Wildlife Federation.

"The benefit is it's natural and biodegradable and it's a very tough fibre so in terms of saltwater marsh restoration it's an ideal product to use."

Living shoreline

"It's been used fairly commonly down in the U.S.A. and it's starting to be used more and more," Braceland said, who first heard about coconut fibre at a conference in New Orleans.

Coir, or coconut fibre, is made from the outer husk of the coconut. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

"Particularly in Louisiana and Delaware, places like that where there's a lot of oil activities or a lot of boat wakes," she said.

The Souris group will test three different methods of creating living shorelines.

In one section of the river, the coconut fibre has been rolled into logs and laid down to form a retaining wall, three logs high. 

Watershed coordinators from across P.E.I. are going to visit the site in September to watch the silt gator in action, and to see the coconut fibre logs. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Then the crew will use a machine they have created, dubbed the silt gator, to pump sediment from the riverbed behind the retaining wall to create the new shoreline. 

Coastal shorelines are the fastest-disappearing ecosystems in the world, so something's got to be done.— Fred Cheverie

"There are so many benefits to restoring a saltwater marsh in terms of your water quality," Braceland said. 

"And when you take the sediments out of the river channel, it improves fish passage."

Water filled with sediment pours out behind the retaining wall. The water then seeps out, leaving a layer of sediment. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

In a second area, the crew is putting oyster shells into jute bags that are then wrapped in coconut fibre mats to form another kind of retaining wall.

They're also testing spruce boughs, something the group has used before to rebuild shorelines.

Reduce greenhouse gases

The crew will plant cordgrass on the sediment collected by the silt gator — the marsh grass then helps to reduce greenhouse gases.

In a second area, the crew puts oyster shells in jute bags that are then wrapped in coconut fibre mats to form another kind of retaining wall. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

"Saltwater marshes are a vital ecosystem for carbon sequestering," Braceland said. "They're very important in terms of climate change."

"Coastal shorelines are the fastest-disappearing ecosystems in the world, so something's got to be done," said Fred Cheverie, watershed coordinator for the Souris branch.

"Every estuary on Prince Edward Island has problems, so we're trying to experiment the best we can, come up with what methods work the easiest and become financially affordable."

Watershed coordinator Fred Cheverie watches as his invention, the silt gator, pumps up sediment from the river channel. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Braceland admits the coconut fibre is expensive compared to spruce boughs or oyster shells.

The Souris group received $278,000 for the project over four years from the coastal restoration fund, through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

After two years, the group will determine which of the three methods is most effective and try it on a larger scale. 

'Working great'

Braceland believes this is the first time coconut fibre is being used this way on P.E.I.

The crew will plant marsh grass on the sediment collected by the silt gator, to help rebuild the shoreline — at the same time, the grass reduces greenhouse gases. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"I was like, 'You must be foolish, there's no way that will ever work,'" said Luke Chaisson, site supervisor for the project. "But now that I see it, it's working great and hopefully it will last a long time."

Watershed co-ordinators from across P.E.I. will visit the site in September.

"There were some raised eyebrows at first but I think they're all watching us pretty carefully," Cheverie said. 

"If this sort of thing works out I don't think it will be very long before they start jumping on the bandwagon."

Project manager Frances Braceland watches as sediment is pumped into the retaining wall to build the living shoreline. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

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About the Author

Nancy Russell

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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