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Home The Atlantic-Hub Atlantic-Hub News Veteran helps living shoreline thrive at Naval Weapons Station Earle

Veteran helps living shoreline thrive at Naval Weapons Station Earle

Veteran helps living shoreline thrive at Naval Weapons Station Earle

Robert Mennella has exchanged his U.S. Air Force uniform for fisherman’s overalls.

“This is my new mission, I’ve just changed uniforms,” he said.

The Keansburg resident and second-year Brookdale Community College student is one of three scholars who have been selected to take part in the fifth cohort of the NASA STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Fellowship program. 

The program includes participation in a year-long research project before a final presentation of the students’ findings and accomplishments is held in April.

Mennella is working alongside Meredith Comi, restoration director for the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, as he continues to research and optimize solutions that would enhance the efficiency of a living shoreline in a local waterway.

A living shoreline is a protected and stabilized coastal edge that is made of natural materials. Living shorelines provide wildlife habitat and resilience to communities near waterfronts, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Working under the waters of the Raritan Bay at Naval Weapons Station Earle, Colts Neck, Mennella said he is optimizing the assembly of a series of concrete structures that are mixed with oyster shells. The structures resemble an artificial reef near the shore of the bay area.

Mennella described each 20-pound concrete structure as a LEGO block he needs to fasten together in a way that optimizes the effects of a living shoreline. The 80-foot-long underwater wall behaves like a speed bump that diffuses wave energy and minimizes the effects of erosion at the base of the shoreline.

According to the American Geosciences Institute, “Techniques to try and prevent beach erosion revolve around methods to limit the removal of sediment along specific areas of the coast or involve adding material to areas undergoing erosion. Examples include jetties, groins, and breakwaters. Nearly all these methods have shortcomings.”

Mennella said he is in the process of determining wave currents and is examining the way the ocean’s currents are directed. Once that data is collected, Mennella said he will begin testing scale models.

“I was struggling to find research that was ongoing. I didn’t want to just report on something someone else was doing … I just showed up at (Comi’s) door,” he said. “I made sure to let (Comi) know that by no means will my involvement end when the project does.”

Comi said Menella’s engineering experience is necessary for the full optimization of the living shoreline. She said the placement of the concrete mix structures is crucial for the system to properly carry out its intended function – a skill best carried out by an engineer, she said. 

Comi said Mennella will continue to observe the way water flows and determine whether the system in places needs to be aligned in a different fashion. She said Mennella will observe the nature of sediment and its role in the “green alternative” solution to combat erosion.

Speaking about the logistics of the living shoreline, Comi said, “We put the oyster castles into our tanks and set oysters right onto them. We don’t have any natural oysters in our system so we have to jump start the whole process … We facilitate (the binding of oyster shells) by having heated tanks and we put the baby oysters in.

“They attach to either shells or these castles. We are constructing this wall with oysters and all of the other living organisms that grow on it. That’s why it’s called a living shoreline,” Comi said.

Comi said oyster shells are ideal additives for inclusion with the concrete structure due to an ability to bind together and form three-dimensional structures. She said oyster shells also provide habitat for other creatures that live in water.

“Oysters are so beneficial, but they need some support structure,” she said. “Concrete is great because it is marine grade and it is not plastic.”

Comi said there are a number of challenges when working below the surface of the Raritan Bay. She said there is limited visibility and an absence of oyster larvae – oysters in the early stages of development.

Asked to explain the end goal of the living shoreline restoration effort in the Raritan Bay, Comi said she would like to transfer the technology to other waterfronts at the Raritan bayshore.

It is unlikely the system in place in the Raritan Bay would be ideal for an ocean shoreline, she said. 

“I would say (the system) is more for a low-energy situation like in the bay,” Mennella said. “For an ocean, you would have to make (the system) too high. This helps dissipate something that is already slowed down.”

Mennella, who served in the Air Force for more than a decade, said he has carried his discipline from military service to academics.

“In the military, you are faced with different challenges where you understand the depth and importance of everything you have to deal with,” he said. “When you come back to civilian life, everything is a transition. A lot of the lessons in the way you have trained, you are taking that same approach with classes.

“When I’m going to my classes, I look at what’s required and from there it is on me. This is now my new mission, I’ve just changed uniforms. I attack it the same way. I look at what is needed. I stay on top of it,” Mennella said.

Gitanjali Kundu, coordinator of the NASA STEM Fellowship program at Brookdale Community College and a former professor of Mennella’s, described the Air Force veteran as a dedicated and hard-working student.