Nature-based coastal defense schemes commonly value bivalve reefs for i) reducing coastal erosion in the intertidal and for ii) forming fringing reefs near salt marsh edges to protect them against lateral retreat. The capacity for a reef to reduce erosion increases at a higher position in the tidal frame as the lower over-lying water level magnifies the influence of the reef on wave attenuation. Unfortunately, ecological constraints on reef development typically limit their practical application in coastal protection schemes to the lower intertidal, as bivalves grow best with long inundation times. In micro-tidal areas this is a lesser problem, given the close proximity of lower and upper intertidal ecosystems in space. By contrast, in meso- and macro-tidal estuaries, bivalve reefs tend to form hundreds of meters away from existing marshes, nullifying any wave-protective benefits. In this study, we produce evidence that with the assistance of management measures, widespread reef formation is possible on open mudflats, including bordering the marsh edge in meso- and macro-tidal estuaries, where natural reef formation is normally strongly limited.
In four locations throughout the meso- to macro-tidal Dutch Scheldt estuary, we observed the presence of individuals of two major intertidal reef-forming bivalves, Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) and blue mussels (Mytilus edulis), within low-lying Spartina anglica-dominated marshes. As these communities lie well outside of the expected range of reef formation, this observation suggests the existence of mechanisms that extend the habitable range of these bivalves. In a series of field experiments, we first demonstrate how the stabilization of shell-substrate within the marsh promotes successful establishment and adult survival. Secondly, by placing artificial stable substrate in transects from the subtidal up to the marsh edge, we demonstrate that bivalve establishment is possible throughout a much larger range of the intertidal than where natural reefs occur. The effectiveness of stable substrate in stimulating bivalve establishment is likely a consequence of bridging size-dependent thresholds that limit the effective range for natural reef formation on tidal flats. The success of this approach is tempered by a consistent decrease in reef size and growth at higher elevations, suggesting that the optimal reef position for utility in coastal defense lies at an intermediate tidal position, well above the observed range of natural occurrence, but below the maximum achievable upper limit of reef formation. Together this work provides a pathway forward concerning how artificial reefs may be fostered to increase their utility as a nature-based flood defense measure.