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Shell volunteers use an innovative idea to protect a native American homeland

Home to Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, the island of “Isle de Jean Charles” sits along the Louisiana coastal region of the Gulf of Mexico. It is accessible only via a small road that is continuously bashed by erosion, subsidence, flooding and hurricanes. Without this one-way road, the community and culture would simply cease to exist, making the group the first environmental refugees in US mainland history. But one Shell team created an innovative shoreline technology that would have a profound impact. “Floating islands”, as they are known, made of recyclable materials protected Isle de Jean Charles and eventually helped save the community.

The island road links the Native American community to the mainland, but is outside the current levee and hurricane protection plans. This gave rise to the need for more innovative coastal flood protection measures, such as the floating islands project.

Saving a threatened culture

The concept originally started in 2009 with a Shell volunteer’s idea. Though it had previously never been deployed in open water, the Floating Islands Project was an innovative solution that showed promise for tackling and preventing coastal land loss.

The islands are a man-made ecosystem that mimics naturally occurring wetlands and serves to protect and enhance areas impacted by land loss like Isle de Jean Charles. The island’s base material is made from 100% recycled drinking grade plastic which is safe for marine life. They are vegetated with native plant species to help nurture the natural ecosystem and create multiple lines of defense.

In October 2011, more than 200 volunteers, including employees, local students and residents, built and launched 187 floating islands in a demonstration project. Results exceeded expectations. The islands doubled in vegetative growth over three months from the time they were installed, which prompted a second implementation in celebration of Earth Day, in April 2013.

In July 2013, the project received the 1st place Environmental Protection Agency Gulf Guardian Award in the environmental justice and cultural diversity category.

Now, the Shell-led project has successfully created nearly 10,000 feet of protective “Recycled Floating Islands Shoreline.” The islands are as healthy as the native marsh they are protecting, sustaining and enhancing coastal protection, fisheries and habitat and establishing new land in open water areas. Above the islands, a protected waterfowl nesting and migratory bird habitat now thrives. The project created 10,000 ft2 of Recycled Floating Islands Shoreline.

Following the project’s success, this technology has been replicated in at least nine similar activities across the region, demonstrating feasibility, innovation and enabling communities to take action in sustaining their fragile environment.

Watch a video from the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana.

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