State of the Beach/Methodology/Beach Ecology

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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. Beaches are diverse and productive transitional ecosystems that serve as the critical link between marine and terrestrial environments. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for hundreds of plant and animal species, they also serve as breeding grounds for many species that are not residential to the beach. Additionally, beaches function as areas of high primary production. Seaweeds and other kinds of algae flourish in shallow, coastal waters, and beaches serve as repositories for these important inputs to the food chain. In this and other ways, beaches support a rich web of life including worms, bivalves, and crustaceans. This community of species attracts predators such as seabirds, which depend on sandy beaches for their foraging activities.

Erosion of the beach, whether it is natural or human-induced interruptions to historical sand supply, can influence beach ecology by removing habitat. Beach "renourishment" typically consists of large dredge and fill projects that can bury existing habitats on the beach, create large craters offshore and greatly reduce water clarity. These actions and the biological cascades they induce in food webs, shelter availability and juvenile nursery habitats can disrupt the ecological health of the beach. For example, the grain size and color of imported sand, or large berms, may negatively influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities.

In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the development of standardized methodology for assessing ecological health. We believe that in combination, the identified metrics such as those described below can function to provide a revealing picture of the status of beach systems. A standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health would provide a badly needed tool for ecosystem-based management, especially if typically unevaluated nearshore components of beach health are considered. We believe that the adoption of such a procedure will function to better inform decision makers, and help bridge the gap that continues to exist between science and policy.

Surfrider Foundation proposes that at least four different metrics be considered for use to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics may include:

  • quality of habitat
  • status of 'indicator' species
  • maintenance of species richness
  • management practices

It is envisioned that beach systems could receive a grade (i.e. A,B,C,D,F) which describes the beach's status in terms of these metrics. In instances where information is unavailable, beaches would be assigned an incomplete for that metric. Based on the beach's overall performance against the four metrics, an 'ecological health' score could be identified.

Threshold criteria for the beach ecology information indicator are:

7 to 10 -­ Regular comprehensive statewide monitoring of the ecological health of sandy beaches. Identification and tracking of indicator species. Beach management practices are designed with beach ecology in mind. This information is presented in a manner that is easily understood by a range of audiences, and it is easy access.
4 to 6 -­ Some statewide monitoring of the ecological health of sandy beaches. This information is presented in a manner that is only understood by experts, and access to this information is limited to state agencies and academic institutions.
1 to 3 ­- Little to no beach ecology information of value exists, can be easily understood, or is readily available.