State of the Beach/Methodology/Indicators

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Environmental indicators describe and summarize: they can be used for diagnosis and warning, and they can be used to monitor change. No indicator needs to do all these things, but if one wants to know whether an indicator is of value, its intended use must be clear. Some indicators are more oriented to describing the state of a system, others to predicting its future state. Both description and prediction have their uses. However, it is impossible to imagine a successful set of indicators that fail to describe current conditions or fails to facilitate prediction. We need to know both where we are and where we are going. Good indicators have three key features. First, they quantify information so that its significance is more apparent. Second, they simplify information about complex phenomena to improve communication. Finally, indicators are used based on the assumption that doing so is a cost-effective and accurate alternative to monitoring many individual processes, species, and so on. The most difficult conceptual problem in developing indicators is to ensure that they are complete enough to capture the dynamics of key processes without being so complex that their meaning—what they indicate—is unclear. Not all indicators need to have immediate policy implications, but if they are to be policy-relevant, the relationships between them and the issues relevant to public policy choices should be clear.

Sources of Information on Environmental Indicators

Surfrider is not the first to use environmental indicators. Several states have recognized the importance of establishing indicators as a way to evaluate environmental health, determine program effectiveness, and guide decision-making. Coastal managers in Canada, Australia, and other countries also use environmental indicators as a management tool. Several sources of information on environmental indicators are provided below.

  • The goal of NOAA's State of the Coast (SOTC) website was to provide a clear, simple, and engaging Web destination that will foster an increased awareness of the crucial importance of healthy coastal ecosystems to a robust U.S. economy, a safe population, and a sustainable quality of life for coastal residents. The SOTC Web site first offers quick facts and more detailed statistics through interactive indicator visualizations that provide highlights of what we know about coastal communities, coastal ecosystems, and the coastal economy and about how climate change might impact the coast. This approach provides insights to the story of the coast's extraordinary benefits to our nation, but also the degraded state of our nation’s coast and the continuing threats to its health.
  • The Coastal Condition Index incorporates many measurements of coastal health. As a requirement of the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) coordinates a multi-agency effort between the EPA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of the Interior to assess the condition of U.S. coastal resources. Results from more than 3,100 sites nation-wide have been compiled into four reports. These National Coastal Condition Reports incorporate data on many components of coastal health and provide a number indication of the Overall Coastal Condition. The 2011 National Coastal Condition Report IV summarizes results from sampling efforts in 2003-2006.
  • The Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) Performance Measurement System includes a suite of "contextual" indicators on the status of coastal societies, economies, environments, and natural hazards. Contextual indicator data supplement performance measurement data collected by state coastal zone management programs and give context to state activities by illustrating the many pressures on coastal areas. New contextual indicator data are collected annually from existing data sets by NOAA's office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) and the NOAA Coastal Services Center. Data are provided at the national, regional, and state levels where possible. The contextual indicators were developed collaboratively by state and federal partners. Additional details on the contextual indicators are available in the Contextual Indicator Manual, which includes information on the data sources used, analyses performed, and other methodological information.
  • A National Core Coastal Indicators Workshop was held May 1-2, 2007 at the Conference Center at the Maritime Institute Linthicum Heights, Maryland. The National Core Coastal Indicators Workshop brought together experts on indicators from federal and state agencies, regional indicator groups, non-governmental organizations, coastal industries, and universities. The primary purpose of the invitation-only workshop was to solicit input on a set of national core coastal indicators that could be used to tell a more coordinated and comprehensive story about the state of the Nation’s coasts. The organizers of the workshop were the Coastal States Organization (CSO), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • The Heinz Center's The Coastal Zone Management Act: Developing a Framework for Identifying Performance Measures and Indicators. Developing a set of measurable outcomes for coastal programs that can be linked to annual budget allocations and that can be part of a broader effort to foster 'results-based management' is a high priority at all levels of government. Coastal managers must be able to assess coastal issues and trends effectively and efficiently, set goals for the protection and improvement of resources, and monitor the success of implemented management strategies. The goal of this study was to identify shared national and state coastal resource goals, based on the objectives of the Coastal Zone Management Act, and to develop a framework for results-based management utilizing performance. This framework will be an effective tool to provide information on local, regional, and national trends or issues affecting the coast, will assist coastal managers in improving internal management of their programs, and will showcase accomplishments and potential needs of specific state programs.
  • The Heinz Center's 2002 State of the Nation's Ecosystems report used indicators to describe the use and condition of America's "lands, waters, and living resources." Chapter 5 of the report describes "Indicators of the Condition and Use of Coasts and Oceans." Many studies consider a much broader "coastal zone," which includes areas with significant populations that affect the coast, or from which drainage flows to the coast. This report focuses on the narrow strip of land that borders these waters. The State of the Nation’s Ecosystems 2008 Report is now available.
  • The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment published a report titled Filling the Gaps: Priority Data Needs and Key Management Challenges for National Reporting on Ecosystem Condition]. The report identifies areas where adequate environmental data are lacking and recommends that attention be given to filling the gaps. Data gaps in the report included:
  • Analyzing remote sensing land-cover data
  • Reporting on species and communities at risk of extinction of loss
  • Measuring the extend and impact of non-native species
  • Assessing the condition of plant and animal communities
  • Determining the condition of riparian areas and stream habitat
  • Reporting on groundwater levels
The report also concluded that the current system for collecting and reporting environmental data is fragmented because government agencies and other organization collect data according to their own mandates, missions, interests and resources.
  • In 2007 EPA released the National Estuary Program Coastal Condition Report, an environmental report card on the condition of the nation's coastal waters. The report primarily evaluates estuaries. The report was developed in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It will allow EPA to monitor the progress of ongoing coastal water quality protection programs, analyze trends, and identify data gaps. The EPA website now has reports from 2001 to 2012.
The number of indicators was reduced from seven in the first report to five in the second report. The eutrophication index (based upon NOAA's study in the first report) was replaced by a water quality index including dissolved oxygen and water clarity, both of which were distinct indicators in the first report. The other indicators -- benthic health, fish tissue contaminants, sediment quality and habitat (coastal wetlands loss) -- continue to be reported, although some of these indicators were modified to include additional data sets and comparisons to regional and sub-regional reference conditions. The draft third report presents three main types of data: 1) coastal monitoring data, 2) offshore fisheries data, and 3) assessment advisory data. For the first time, an analysis of changes over time in estuarine condition from 1990-2002 are presented for the nation´s estuaries and by region.
  • NOAA presented a draft report National Coastal Zone Indicators, An Assessment of Indicator Use and Potential in Five Coastal States at the National Program Managers Meeting in Silver Spring, Maryland in March 2002. The report summarized the results of workshops that were held to determine the current use of indicators and measures that might make sense in the future.
  • The California Environmental Protection Agency, California Resources Agency prepared a report in 2002 Environmental Protection Indicators for California, Understanding Environmental Conditions Through Indicators. Coastal-related indicators discussed in this report include Extent of Coastal Beaches Posted or Closed as a water quality/recreation indicator, Fish Consumption Advisories as a water quality/fish and shellfish indicator, and persistent organic pollutants in harbor seals as a health of aquatic ecosystems indicator. More info.
  • New Hampshire's Environmental Dashboard evaluates trends in New Hampshire's environment to try to answer the questions "What's the state of New Hampshire's environment? Is it good? Is it bad? Getting better or worse?" As a way to answer these questions, a table provides a snapshot of trends for some key environmental issues important to the quality of life in New Hampshire. The "indicators" chosen have specific scientific data tracked over a period of time, which helps to show a trend in that topic area.
  • Several publications are available online via the Florida Coastal Management Program website, including the 2010 Florida Assessment of Coastal Trends (FACT) report that tracks the most recent changes in 65 indicators in order to help illustrate how resources have responded to policies and activities implemented by coastal resource managers. This document is a great source of information on beach health indicators in Florida. It describes and reports on indicators in areas including Coastal Habitats, Living Resources, Environmental Health, Coastal Access, Coastal Hazards and Environmental Awareness and Stewardship. It is filled with facts and figures that paint a picture of the state of the beach in Florida.
This site provides a direct link to indicator measures in the areas of beach water quality and land acquisition, among others. It provides a link to "our goals", which identifies goal and milestones to measure progress.
  • The Virginia Coastal Program has begun an excellent effort to clearly identify coastal goals and objectives and develop a performance indicator system to identify successes and measure progress toward meeting the goals of the program. Also see here.
  • The January 2002 Issue 17 of Coastlines from UMASS Boston, Urban Harbors Institute, 100 Morrissey Blvd., Boston MA 02125-3393 has an article on indicators titled Measuring the Health of the Delaware Estuary. This led to Strategic Plan 2007-2012, Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.
  • Perhaps the most ambitious use of indicators is the Ocean Health Index, released in 2012. This index is the first comprehensive, annual assessment of the benefits that a healthy ocean provides through 10 goals emphasizing the human-ocean relationship: harvesting seafood sustainably; ensuring food for local communities; harvesting non-food ocean resources sustainably; preserving habitats that absorb carbon; preserving habitats that safeguard shores; sustaining jobs and thriving coastal economies; maintaining the attraction of coastal destinations for tourism and recreation; protecting iconic species and special places; minimizing pollution; supporting healthy marine ecosystems. The analysis – a collaborative effort made possible through contributions from more than 65 scientists/ocean experts and partnerships between organizations including the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, Sea Around Us, Conservation International, National Geographic, and the New England Aquarium – is now available online here. According to the analysis, the overall global ocean health score is 60 out of a sustainable state scored at 100, indicating that the human-ocean relationship is out of balance and unsustainable. Country-specific and goal-specific scores are also available here. Questions should be directed to
  • Following the release of Australia: State of the Environment 1996, a set of environmental indicators was developed for use in tracking the condition of Australia's environment, the human activities that affect it and the management of the environment. A set of 75 indicators were derived from the larger set of environmental indicators and identified as core environmental indicators. The core set of indicators was endorsed the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) in December 1999. The indicators cover six of the state of the environment reporting themes. Core indicators are being used by the Commonwealth, some states, territories and local governments in their SoE reporting. More recently, Australia Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts has begun compiling both "Section 516A reports" that evaluate environmental performance and contribution to ecologically sustainable development, and "triple bottom line reports" that look at practical measurable social and environmental outcomes, as well as financial matters. Information on these reports and the reports themselves can be viewed here.

Surfrider Foundation continues to attempt to more stringently apply the concept of environmental indicators. As noted above, we looked for quantifiable information within each of our beach health indicator areas. We also identified indicator "thresholds" in each of these areas in order to establish measurable, reproducible standards for our rankings. Information types and thresholds associated with each indicator area are described for each indicator.