State of the Beach/State Reports/AK/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. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals, 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 way, 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. In short, sandy beaches are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments.

Erosion of the beach, whether it is “natural” erosion or erosion exacerbated by interruptions to historical sand supply, can negatively impact beach ecology by removing habitat. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities. Even our attempts at beach restoration may disrupt the ecological health of the beach. Imported sand may smother natural habitat. The grain size and color of imported sand may influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions.

In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the implementation of a 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. We believe that a standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health is essential to meeting the goals of ecosystem-based management. And, 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. The Surfrider Foundation proposes that four different metrics be used to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics include

  1. quality of habitat,
  2. status of ‘indicator’ species,
  3. maintenance of species richness, and
  4. management practices.

It is envisioned that beach systems would receive a grade (i.e., A through F), which describes the beach’s performance against each 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 would be identified.


Alaska allowed its Coastal Management Program to sunset on July 1, 2011. The program was formerly housed under the Department of Natural Resources.

NOAA's Section 312 Assessment in 2008 noted the following with regard to State Habitat Standards:

The ACMP 9 (Alaska Coastal Management Program) describes the value of certain habitats within its coastal area, which are listed in the state habitat standards (11 ACC 112.300) and include: offshore areas; estuaries; wetlands; tideflats; rocky island and sea cliffs; barrier islands and lagoons; exposed high-energy coasts; rivers, streams, and lakes and the actives floodplains and riparian management areas of those features; and important habitat. The latter “important habitat” can be designated by coastal districts or state agencies in order to be managed for the special productivity of the habitat. In addition, as part of the amendments to the ACMP, the State is placing more emphasis on other existing State resource agencies’ authorities regarding habitat management, most notably the Office of Habitat Management and Permitting (OHMP).

The evaluation team heard concern among program partners (state and federal agencies, coastal districts) and the public that the new habitat standards have hindered protection of natural resources. Federal agencies expressed concern with the changes to the substance of the habitat standards and felt that the diminished role for the districts would result in reduced protection for resources. One agency advocated for an “on the ground effects” study of the impact of the changes brought by the program changes, including whether the goals of the changes were being achieved, i.e., improved permit timing and streamlining government processing, along with continued protection of the resources. OHMP noted that certain standards of the ACMP remain unclear, such as the designation of important habitat, and believes that additional written clarification would be very helpful. [Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR)] noted the difficulty in balancing the need to be objective and predictable to project applicants but also respectful and meaningful at the local level.

In addition, the evaluation team noted what appear to be challenges faced by coastal districts to designate “important habitat areas,” which are required for districts to write and employ district-specific enforceable policies regarding their management. There are currently very few areas that have been designated in new district plans. This may mean that the bar is set too high to achieve designation and/or insufficient data exists. Many districts have chosen not to designate important habitat areas because of these difficulties. Some districts said they do not have the funding or expertise to obtain and assess the scientific information necessary for designating these areas. OCRM encourages DNR to revisit the designation process, and increase technical assistance to districts that will help them to obtain the scientific information necessary for area designations (when lack of information or detailed maps is the reason given for denying designation).

Since the new standards have only been applied for a short while, it was difficult to collect information regarding their effectiveness in avoiding and/or minimizing negative impacts to coastal resources. In order to demonstrate the effectiveness of the standards in protecting coastal habitat, OCRM encourages the ACMP to consider ways to monitor how the standards are implemented through permitted projects. For example, the Program might choose to monitor a sub-sample of projects per year (a set percent or number) through periodic follow-up during staff visits to coastal districts or in cooperation with DNR compliance/enforcement staff. Information collected through the Unified Permit project (to be discussed later in this document) could also be used to evaluate how the standards influence coastal resource management. DNR’s ability to demonstrate the standards’ impact/effectiveness is not only important for validating coastal management decisions, but also valuable for the upcoming re-evaluation of the ACMP to inform any changes to Program enforceable policies. In addition, this information could feed into the Coastal Zone Management Act Performance Measurement System coastal habitat indicator “number of acres of key coastal habitats lost or gained due to activities subject to core CZM regulatory (including mitigation) programs,” which will all coastal programs will be required to report on by 2010. The ACMP has also identified cumulative and secondary impacts to coastal resources as a high priority in its 2006 Section 309 Assessment and Strategy and outlined a number of thoughtful strategies to address them. OCRM supports and encourages DNR in these efforts as well.

In May 2011 it was announced that a 5,500-foot long fence was being installed to protect the dunes at the mouth of the Kasilof River. The fence, which is a guardrail, will assist in keeping vehicles off the dunes and ensure the conservation of the habitat. Along with a fence, the state Department of Natural Resources has been working on a decision to designate a special use area in order to monitor and control activity on the dunes. The fence is on the south side of the mouth of the river and will protect the wetlands, which have developed trails from excessive vehicle traffic throughout the years. The concept was based on the fence that was constructed in Kenai to keep vehicles off the dunes there.

Vehicle use is a generally allowed use on most state lands, including state tidelands below mean high tide, subject to general guidelines described in the information sheet linked below. Vehicle use may be somewhat more restricted on State Park lands.

Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program

Congress established the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) in 2002 to protect coastal and estuarine lands considered important for their ecological, conservation, recreational, historical, or aesthetic values. The program provides state and local governments with matching funds to purchase significant coastal and estuarine lands, or conservation easements on such lands, from willing sellers. Lands or conservation easements acquired with CELCP funds are protected in perpetuity so that they may be enjoyed by future generations.

The CELCP guidelines outline the criteria and process for states to nominate land conservation projects to a national competitive process. The program is coordinated at the state level through each state’s CELCP lead within the state’s lead coastal management agency. According to the CELCP guidelines, a state must have an approved CELCP plan in order to compete for funding. During NOAA's most recent Section 312 evaluation period, the ACMP coordinated with the Kachemak Bay NERR to develop the statewide CELCP plan. At the time of NOAA's evaluation, the plan was awaiting review in DNR.


Black Oyster-Catcher

The Alaska ShoreZone Coastal Inventory and Mapping Project, a unique partnership between government agencies, NGOs, and private industry, has been flying helicopters along the entire Alaska shoreline each summer since 2001, collecting high-resolution imagery and detailed classifications of the coast's geologic features and intertidal biological communities. ShoreZone has surveyed Alaskan coasts at extreme low tide, collecting aerial imagery and environmental data for roughly 80% of Alaska's coastal habitats and continues to move towards full coverage each year. This is a great accomplishment, but ShoreZone, with help from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, has done an equally impressive job at making their entire inventory accessible to the public. For the Office of Response and Restoration, ShoreZone is an invaluable tool that serves alongside NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps and data as a baseline for the coastal habitats of Alaska and is currently being used for environmental planning, preparedness, and Natural Resource Damage Assessment planning in Alaska.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) published a report "State of the Sound" in July 2003 that discusses five primary human uses and activities in Prince William Sound, and presents sixteen indicators to provide a gauge of overall ecosystem health. The indicators include environmental quality, which was further broken down into water quality, acoustic quality, wilderness quality, intertidal habitat and upland habitat. NWF notes that: "Intertidal and upland habitats have been significantly degraded in some areas, while remaining relatively healthy on the whole. The wilderness character of the region, while still outstanding by most measures, is clearly eroding and in ever-increasing danger due to burgeoning use." The report's recommendations relative to habitats and some key fish and wildlife species include:

  • Pursue up to $100 million from Exxon Corporation for restoration of unanticipated damages to fish, wildlife, and habitat flowing from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
  • Evaluate specific, highly biologically productive marine areas in the Sound for customized management prescriptions to benefit fish and wildlife, similar to what is done on land.
  • Identify fish and wildlife populations in significant decline and prepare plans to promote their recovery.
  • Track specific populations of nearshore species, such as black oyster-catchers and harlequin ducks, and protect habitat from human disturbance as appropriate.
  • Ensure enforcement and prosecution of violations of fish and wildlife laws, including illegal take, harassment, etc.

An article about the report can be viewed online here

Other Coastal Ecosystems


Alaska's 2011 Coastal Assessment and Strategy reports:

"The State of Alaska includes 63% of the nation's wetland ecosystems (DEC, 2004). Wetlands in Alaska's coastal zone include bogs, muskegs, wet and moist tundra, ferns, marshes, swamps, mud flats and salt marshes. Alaska’s wetlands function to support the state's diverse human communities, fish and wildlife populations, water resources, and economy. In addition to being valuable, Alaska’s wetlands are highly variable. They include salt and freshwater areas influenced by tides, temperate rain forests, bogs, moist and wet tundra, extensive rivers and streams, large river deltas, and vast areas of black spruce forested wetland. Alaska has 174,683,900 acres of wetlands comprising approximately 43% of the surface area of the state of which less than 2% have been developed. Wetlands in the coastal zone amount to 2,190,600 acres.
Threats to Alaska’s wetlands include filling and dredging activities that fragment and block hydrologic processes and result in the elimination of and/or degradation of wetland habitat. These impacts are largely associated with transportation corridor construction, utility installation, natural resources extraction, and other development projects (such as urban development in population centers) that result in wholesale wetland conversion (DFG, 2005).
In urbanized and developed areas of Alaska, such as Anchorage, over 50% of the wetlands have been developed (DEC, 2004). Additionally, significant percentages of wetlands in other urbanized areas in Alaska including Juneau, Fairbanks, the Matansuka-Susitna Valley, and the North Slope have been lost or impacted. Although there is no statistically reliable data on statewide wetland losses, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that Alaska had lost 200,000 acres, or less than one percent of the state’s original wetland acreage (Dahl 1990)."
"The National Wetland Inventory (NWI) is now 40% complete for Alaska. The NWI mapping has limitations in that some wetland habitats are excluded from the NWI report including seagrasses or submerged aquatic vegetation found in the intertidal and subtidal zones of estuaries and nearshore coastal waters (i.e., salt marsh). In addition, Alaska’s NWI is conducted at a 1:60,000 scale; thus, many small yet important wetlands are undetected in the survey (DFG, 2005). However, selective updates using more recent and finer-scale imagery have been completed for most major population centers (e.g., Anchorage-Mat-Su Boroughs, Kenai, Juneau, and Fairbanks) and a few remote areas subject to natural resource exploration and extraction (e.g., National Petroleum Reserve and Arctic Coastal Plain)."

Kachemak Bay Research Reserve

The Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, designated in 1999, is located south of Anchorage in Homer, on the western coast of the Kenai Peninsula. Kachemak Bay Reserve, at 365,000 acres, is the largest reserve in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Kachemak Bay features extensive mudflats, subtidal habitat, and upland forests. It is one of the most productive, diverse, and intensively used estuaries in Alaska. The local community pursued the designation of Kachemak Bay as a National Estuarine Research Reserve to preserve the lifestyle and economy of the region.

The Reserve emphasizes long-term ecological research and education. Scientists are working to better understand the linkages between the ocean, nearshore environment, and land uses. Research activities include studying the relationship between changes in biological communities and changes in water circulation, including the effect of currents and tides. The Reserve also has educational programs for students, the local community, and visitors. Reserve staff were also instrumental in forming the Alliance of Kachemak Bay Educators which strives to inspire life-long learning and commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainability among Kachemak Bay residents and visitors.

Education and research staff at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve strive to provide leadership in demonstrating how science and education can improve coastal management and increase public awareness and understanding of our nation’s estuaries. They provide an integrated set of education, outreach and training programs linked to regional research efforts that are intended to strengthen understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the Kachemak Bay environment.

In March 2000, the Research Reserve was instrumental in bringing together representatives from over 15 marine, estuarine, and natural resource organizations involved in environmental education in the Kachemak Bay watershed. Twenty-five individuals came together to share their concerns and dreams for science education in this region. One outcome of this 2-day forum, held at the Kasitsna Bay Lab, was the formation of an alliance of Kachemak Bay Environmental Education Alliance (KBEEA).

Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies

The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS) is an environmental education organization in Homer, Alaska. Established in 1981, CACS delivers educational programs to over 11,000 students and other visitors every year. As of 2011, Their grassroots organization has grown to over 350 memberships and they have more than 100 active volunteers and an annual Kachemak Bay Coast Walk event that involves more than 200 additional volunteers. Their mission is to foster responsible interaction with natural surroundings and to generate knowledge of the marine and coastal ecosystems of Kachemak Bay through environmental education and research programs. The Alaska Coastal Ecology day or residential program for grades 4-12 is based out of Peterson Bay Field Station on the south side of Kachemak Bay.

National Coastal Condition Assessment

The US EPA’s National Coastal Condition Assessment (NCCA) is a statistical survey of the condition of our Nation’s marine and Great Lakes coasts. The NCCA builds from previous National Coastal Assessments. The goals of the NCCA are to address two key questions about the quality of the Nation’s coastal waters.

  • What percent of the Nation’s coastal waters are in good, fair, and poor condition for key indicators of water quality, ecological health, and recreation? ƒ
  • What is the relative importance of key stressors such as nutrients and contaminated sediments?

National Coastal Assessment Strategy

The Environmental Protection Agency has developed a Cooperative Agreement with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) to work collaboratively in the Western States’ Coastal EMAP component of the NCA.

Since Alaska has more shoreline than all other coastal states combined, the state has been separated into five coastal regions. ADEC was scheduled to conduct a pilot study on the south central Alaska estuarine region to assess the physical, biological, and chemical condition of coastal resources using a standardized suite of environmental indicators during the summer of 2002. This project involves partnerships with National Marine Fisheries Service (Seattle, WA), U.S. EPA (Corvallis and Newport, OR), Alaska Department of Fish & Game, University of Alaska–Fairbanks, Washington Department of Ecology, Cook Inlet Keeper, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council and other interested parties to establish a monitoring baseline in Alaska. Field sampling was expected to start in early July and run through late August/early September depending upon weather.

The base sampling effort was to be supplemented by placement of additional sites within Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet to allow the overall condition of these water bodies to be statistically assessed. Currently the sampling allocation is for 31 sites in Prince William Sound, 30 sites in Cook Inlet, and 14 sites along the remainder of southern central coast of the Alaska Peninsula.

NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center, in partnership with NatureServe and others are developing the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.

Contact Info

Randy Bates
Director, Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division
Former Director, Alaska Coastal Management Program

Gerry Guay
Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP) Manager
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
(907) 269-3070

Kachemak Bay Research Reserve
95 Sterling Highway, Suite 2
Homer, AK 99603
General E-mail:
Phone: (907) 235-NERR (6377) or (907) 235-4799
Fax: (907) 235-4794

Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS)
P.O. Box 2225
Homer, AK 99603
Phone: (907) 235-6667

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