Erin Hague is director of Tetra Tech’s Center of Coastal Services in southeast Florida and is a Certified Environmental Professional with 25 years of experience specializing in shoreline protection and coastal restoration projects. Her expertise is in habitat characterization, monitoring, and restoration program documents associated with coastal shorelines, seagrass, coral reefs, artificial reefs, and estuarine communities along the Eastern Atlantic Seaboard, Caribbean, and Gulf coasts.

Erin has successfully managed numerous large-scale, multidisciplinary projects involving geotechnical and biological field investigations, agency coordination and permitting, coastal planning, and engineering design. She also has managed the environmental components of significant, award-winning coastal restoration projects in North Carolina and Florida. The Florida Association of Environmental Professionals recognized her with its Outstanding Collaboration Award for the Port Miami Harbor Deepening Project.

She has a bachelor’s degree in geology from Northeastern University and a master’s degree in Coastal Zone Management from Nova Southeastern University.

What led you to a career as a coastal ecologist?

I was first introduced to the coastal and marine environment through SCUBA diving while pursuing a minor in marine science as part of my undergraduate studies at Northeastern University in Boston. After graduation, I pursued work as an environmental planner and marine scientist, working for the United States Geological Survey and then the Massachusetts Highway Department in geomorphological, wetland sciences, and environmental permitting.

Pursuing SCUBA diving recreationally and being immersed in a habitat foreign to everyday life—but close enough to touch—continued to intrigue me. I wanted to find a way that I could link my passion for SCUBA diving to my professional life and make a difference by helping to preserve that habitat. I later pursued a master's degree in coastal zone management with a concentration in marine biology. Through both my education and experience, I developed an understanding of the physical and biological facets of coastal habitats and focused my work on understanding these environments and the interactions of the organisms within their community.

What does a typical coastal or shoreline restoration project involve?

Because the coastal environment is so dynamic, there isn't a typical coastal or shoreline project. Conditions are extremely dynamic through time, even in the same location. What is typical, however, is the process we use throughout the coastal restoration project life cycle, which ranges from feasibility or zero percent design through construction management oversight.

First, we determine the extent of the project, project goals and objectives, and habitat types that may be affected by the project. Next, we review historic data sets and identify gaps to determine the surveys required to fully understand existing conditions and community types. Our team of engineers and scientists develops a cooperative approach to project design and implementation. As the project moves through 30 percent, 60 percent, and final design, we work hand-in-hand to identify a project that avoids or minimizes impacts and provides opportunities for restoration through a combined engineering and scientific approach.

What considerations are included when working on coastal projects in different geographic regions?

Tidal ranges vary in different geographies. In New York tidal ranges are close to five feet, where in the Florida Keys they are close to one foot. These ranges impact our project design and how we perform our field investigations. We look at the project area and begin formulating questions. Is it a protected area (e.g. embayment)? Or is it exposed to high wave energy? What is the local wave climate?

We also consider the project goals and objectives and the type of natural resource impacts that may result. We consider the regulatory climate at the federal, state, and local levels, which is key to the success of the project. Last, but certainly not least, we consider the species and the habitat. There may be a unique habitat specific to a geographic region where we need to employ local experts. My work has covered geographic area, from New England to New York and the mid-Atlantic (North Carolina), Florida and the Gulf coasts, the western and eastern Caribbean, and Washington state.

What are some of the major challenges and complexities facing coastal projects today?

The biggest challenge we face is designing solutions that are resilient and adapt to rising sea levels. Our designs are influenced by the projected life span of the project. A short-term design-life project, like an oyster reef, and a long-term design-life project, like infrastructure, carry different risks. Our work considers the risk tolerance of each project and how the final design will mitigate project risk.

What changes have you seen in shoreline and coastal restoration during your career?

Historically, environmental permits and mitigation were integrated late in the project design—typically after the 60- or 90-percent project design stage. In the early 2000s, regulatory agencies shifted their focus to understanding the habitat diversity and community early on in a project's design. Lately, our work has a more balanced approach that couples engineering and science and moves towards a living shoreline design approach that provides shoreline protection while also restoring and enhancing habitats.

For example, I am currently working on a marsh restoration project in Long Island, New York, for the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery Living with the Bay Resiliency Strategy that is funded through Hurricane Sandy Disaster Recovery Funds. The Living with the Bay Marsh Restoration project includes a multipurpose design that focuses on resiliency. The design protects against flooding; restores and improves marsh habitat; improves water quality in the West Hempstead Bay system; protects marshlands from erosion and fills flooded interiors to increase marsh vegetation; and provides an educational component.