Beach is Alive is a campaign of the Surfrider Foundation as part of its Ocean Ecosystem Program. The Making Waves article below introduced the campaign and was followed by a series of articles linked at the bottom.
By Pete Stauffer, Chad Nelsen and Kevin Ranker
To the casual observer, beaches may simply appear as barren stretches of sand: beautiful but largely devoid of life or ecological processes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sandy beaches function as dynamic ecosystems and provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals. Residing within the sand that we walk, play, and surf upon, is a robust community of life. Clams, snails, crabs, and worms are just some of the common inhabitants of this unique environment. For the most part, these animals remain hidden from our view because they are adapted to living within the beach. Additionally, beach sand is abundant with a plethora of smaller organisms, including a variety of crustaceans. Many of these animals are as small as the grains of sand themselves!
Amazingly, the mechanism that makes all of this diversity possible is the same thing which attracts many of us to the beach: waves. Every time a wave crashes against the beach, it brings new resources to support this community of life. This is because the ocean is full of the things that are essential to life: food, nutrients, and oxygen. As each successive wave rises up the slope of the beach, seawater sinks into the sand and drains back down to the ocean. The beach sand then functions as a giant filter as it removes minute particles of algae and other organic material which provide an energy source for the beach community.
Waves also provide larger inputs to the food chain in the form of seaweeds and seagrasses. These macrophytes tend to flourish in shallow, coastal waters and are regularly deposited near the high water mark of the beach. Not only does this provide an additional source of food for residents of the beach community, it also indirectly supports the foraging activities of predators like seabirds, reptiles, and mammals which depend on beaches as a location for feeding. This is one reason why beach grooming practices that remove these seaweeds may be detrimental to the ecological health of the system.
Finally, it should not be forgotten that beaches serve as important breeding grounds for animals which are not permanent residents of the system. In the Pacific Northwest, small forage fish such as sand lance and surf smelt swim to the beach during high tides and lay their eggs in the sand. As adults, these fish form a significant part of the diet of salmon, seabirds, and seals, demonstrating the importance of beach habitat to the health of the marine ecosystem. In Hawaii and Florida, sea turtles protected under the Endangered Species Act utilize sandy beaches for nesting. And in California, protected species such as the elephant seal and snowy plover are dependent on beach habitat for reproduction.
Given the numerous ecological functions that beaches provide, it is surprising and disconcerting that coastal management has so often failed to adequately protect these systems. Perhaps due to their unique location between land and sea, beaches have generally languished in the bureaucratic black hole between marine and terrestrial management. And, while beaches are consistently valued in our society for the aesthetic, recreational, and storm buffer services that they provide, their ecological contributions have too often been ignored.
In acknowledgment of the important role that beaches play as ecosystems, the Surfrider Foundation initiated the Beach is Alive campaign in 2002. As the U.S. embraces the new paradigm of 'ecosystem-based' management, the Surfrider Foundation believes that beaches must be treated as an integral link to marine and terrestrial systems. Accordingly, Surfrider has established three main goals of the Beach is Alive project:
To achieve these goals, the Surfrider Foundation began incorporating ‘beach ecology' as a new indicator within our annual State of the Beach Report in 2004. We will continue to report on the availability of information in coastal states related to habitat quality, biodiversity, status of priority species, persistence of key ecological functions, and presence of invasive species. It is the hope of the Surfrider Foundation that expanding the State of the Beach Report to include ecological considerations will support better monitoring and management of our beach ecosystems.
Additionally, the Surfrider Foundation will advance volunteer monitoring of beach systems through strategic partnerships between scientists, conservation advocacy groups, and agencies. Such monitoring may facilitate the discovery and documentation of critical habitats such as spawning locations of forage fish and increase the data available to coastal resource managers.
Finally, the Surfrider Foundation will begin initiating an educational campaign based on the latest scientific findings on beach ecosystems. As part of this campaign, materials will be provided to Surfrider Foundation Chapters and their respective communities on the important ecological functions that beaches provide in their region. We believe that this knowledge will empower our chapters and the communities in which they work, to achieve better protection for their beach resources. By increasing awareness of the biological impacts of traditional management practices, real solutions that support the long-term health of beaches may be more readily achieved.