State of the Beach/State Reports/CA/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.


No information on policies relating to beach ecology was found, other than certain local restrictions on habitat-damaging activities such as vehicle use on the beach and beach grooming (see below).

The California Coastal Commission does take beach ecology into consideration in issuing permits for coastal projects. The following text appeared in a recent staff report:

"A variety of biological resources are present on sandy beaches. Intertidal sand is habitat to a variety of invertebrates such as amphipods, isopods, and polychaete worms. Beach wrack on the upper beach provides habitat for more invertebrates such as beach hoppers, flies and their larvae. All these species are significant food resources for shore birds." [...] "Removal of organic beach wrack from the beach should be minimized, or avoided if possible. Inorganic trash may be removed. Any beach wrack picked up during trash removal should be separated from the trash and returned to the area from which it was removed."

"These activities have the potential to affect marine resources and/or environmentally sensitive habitat area. For example, these two (2) outlets sites are subject to grunion spawning. To minimize any potential impacts maintenance work may cause the applicant has submitted a “Grunion Protection Plan for Necessary Maintenance During the Grunion Spawning Season of March through September” document dated September 7, 2006. Some measures found in the plan include: 1) At the beginning of spawning season, trained personnel will assess the potential of the beach to support grunion spawning at each outlet..."

The Coastal Commission is also working with other stakeholders such as local beach managers and scientists to develop more ecologically sound sandy beach management practices. They have formed a beach grooming work group to explore alternative beach grooming practices, including no grooming, hand grooming, seasonal grooming, zonal or rotational grooming, and threshold grooming (when the volume of wrack gets too large to leave alone).[1]

Grooming: The Coastal Commission encourages counties and cities to incorporate ecologically friendly beach grooming practices into their Local Coastal Plans.

Bulldozing: California regulates beach bulldozing. The Coastal Commission considers bulldozing as a form of development and therefore requires a permit for the practice.

Nourishment: The Coastal Commission grants permits for nourishment projects and evaluates EIRs and biological reports when considering whether or not to grant a permit. However, the state has not yet developed formal criteria for evaluating these permits.

The Department of Parks and Recreation does not allow dogs or kites on some State Beaches in an effort to protect breeding populations of the snowy plover. They also run Plover Watch, a volunteer monitoring program for plover populations. More information. More State Parks information on Least Terns and Snowy Plovers and a report.

Nesting areas for birds such as the Snowy Plover and the Least Tern have been permanently or seasonally fenced off at several beach locations to keep out predators and the public. These locations include some beach areas at Vandenberg Air Force Base and at Huntington State Beach. There was good news for snowy plovers in an article published in the Los Angeles Times in May 2017. From the article:

The latest counts show the plover population is rebounding and attempting to recolonize historic breeding grounds. Last year, biologists spotted about 1,800 plovers along the California coastline. Environmentalists were surprised and delighted when Los Angeles Audubon members recently discovered the birds hunkered down in four nests on the sands of Santa Monica State Beach, Malibu Lagoon State Beach and Dockweiler State Beach.

The Beach Ecology Coalition is a 501(c)3 public benefit educational non-profit organization dedicated to healthy beaches. Their Mission Statement is "To enhance ecosystem conservation and beach management to balance natural resource protection and recreational use." The Beach Ecology Coalition has developed Best Management Protocols for beach grooming to protect grunion, beach driving, fire ring safety and plant management.

California Sea Grant Extension Program has developed an Explore Sandy Beach Ecosystems of Southern California website which is a great resource that allows you to:

"...learn about plants that build dunes, fish that run onto land, and crabs that move incredible distances migrating with the tide. Discover the dynamic process of sand movement and the impacts of beach grooming, coastal armoring, and nourishment on beaches and beach ecosystems. Understand challenges and success stories related to climate change impacts on beaches. Lastly, consider what you can do by reading the best practices information for beach goers, managers and city/county planners."

Although not confined just to beach ecology, Ecological Principles Guide from the Center for Ocean Solutions provides information to improve the effectiveness of coastal and ocean decision-making. It demonstrates how agency staff and applicants alike can apply four science-based guidelines — called ecosystem principles - to existing decision-making processes. These principles were developed by a team of leading scientists to help management practitioners incorporate the best available scientific information about how to maintain and restore healthy ecosystems. The Guide also includes a thorough analysis of the scientific basis behind the ecosystem principles, as well as a series of case studies that demonstrate how the principles can be practically applied to day-to-day agency decision-making. The Guide is designed for use by agency staff charged with analyzing regulatory and permitting decisions that affect ocean and coastal resources.


California's Department of Fish and Wildlife and California State Water Resources Control Board have a long-term mussel watch program to monitor toxin levels in mussels.[2]

Researchers at the University of California have completed biodiversity inventories for many beaches throughout the state.[2]

The BEACH (Beach Ecology Association for Coastal Habitat) Ecology Coalition is an educational non-profit public benefit 501(c)3 organization. Their mission statement is:

"To enhance ecosystem conservation and beach management to balance natural resource protection and recreational use."

For more information, please contact them.

More than 30 years ago, scientists surveyed 60 beaches throughout Southern California to create the area’s most comprehensive catalog of coastal species. In 2009, another group of researchers began revisiting that data to determine how much those beaches had changed. A team from the University of California Santa Barbara analyzed coastal life and sand samples taken from some of the same sites — from Morro Bay, in San Luis Obispo County, to Ocean Beach, in San Diego County — to understand the ever-changing nature of beaches. They studied what’s in the sand, changes in beach width and the movement of coastal species. The scientists were trying to demonstrate that beaches are more than just playgrounds for vacationers and athletes. They’re also a diverse ecosystem. “People don’t appreciate that they’re full of life,” said Jenny Dugan, one of the lead researchers on the project, funded by California Sea Grant. The current study was titled Beaches as Threatened Ecosystems: An Evaluation of Status and Trends in the Ecology of California’s Sandy Beaches. Also see Beach crustaceans going locally extinct. The study was published in May 2017 in Ecology and Evolution and the results are summarized in this article at Although the study found impacts to intertidal animals as beach widths were squeezed between rising seas and either natural bluffs or coastal armoring, it also found that beach ecology was impacted by local actions such as beach driving and beach grooming. Beaches that didn't allow these practices had increased biodiversity.

Does Beach Grooming Harm Grunion Eggs?
Dr. Karen Martin of Pepperdine University has done a substantial amount of work studying the grunion and the potential effects of coastal development and beach grooming on the grunion's reproductive cycle. The grunion, a slender silvery fish that looks a lot like a large sardine, is one of only a few species of fish to reproduce on land. Not only does it brave air to spawn, but it does so with an uncanny, clockwork adherence to the rhythm of the tides. The phenomenal delicacy, or precision, of the grunion life-cycle has prompted some to question whether beach grooming could harm grunion eggs, and hence impact grunion populations.

The City of San Diego grooms its beaches, usually in the wee hours of the morning, to remove trash left by beachgoers and tangled heaps of kelp washed ashore by the tides. During the grunion's spawning season, the city curtails its grooming practices, avoiding sandy stretches regularly saturated by the tides. It is in these areas that grunion lay their eggs. The concern is that heavy metal rakes, which are pulled by tractors, may uncover eggs, damage them, or compact the sand above them. In all these scenarios, loss of egg viability could reduce grunion numbers. See also for information on grunion and to view trailers for the short documentary "Surf, Sand and Silversides: The California Grunion".

About 45 percent of Southern California's sandy beaches, approximately 100 miles' worth, are routinely groomed in a manner that harms the ecosystem, according to marine ecologist Jenifer Dugan of the University of California Santa Barbara. See Ecological Impacts of Beach Grooming on Exposed Sandy Beaches. Also see Sea Grant California's Kelp Wrack: Hopping With Life series of research summaries.

Sand crabs have been investigated as a possible indicator of ecological health of beaches. Specifically, their response to oil spills or the release of other pollutants may serve as an indicator of beach health.[3]

Educational Sign about beach wrack in Santa Barbara, CA. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Dori

In Santa Barbara, thousands of pounds of seaweed wash up on the beach every year. Over 70% of this is consumed by animals that live on the beach, including crabs, amphipods, and beetles. These animals, in turn, provide an abundant food source for shorebirds such as plovers and sanderlings that utilize the beach for foraging. This information provides an indication that removal of seaweed from the beach may disrupt an important link in the food web.[4]

See also Beach is Alive.

Some information related to beach ecology can be found on the websites of aquariums and other ocean-based education and research institutions:

Other Coastal Ecosystems

The Pacific Coast Ecosystem Information System (PCEIS) is a georeferenced database of the native and nonindigenous marine/estuarine species and coastal landscape characteristics for the Pacific Coast. PCEIS will be released as a stand-alone Access database. Version 1, which was scheduled to be completed in FY06, is intended to synthesize the distributions of the estuarine benthic invertebrates and fishes in Oregon, Washington, and California. The current beta version contains over 6000 species.

The Southern Steelhead Resources Project has conducted a quantitative analysis to establish the highest priority watersheds for steelhead restoration along the California coast south of the Golden Gate Bridge, and identifies the key stream reaches and restoration projects in each of these watersheds. The results are published in a report to guide decision making by agencies, local jurisdictions, watershed groups, funders, and others toward a set of short-term restoration activities intended to conserve the greatest amount of existing steelhead habitat in the most efficient manner south of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The State of the State’s Wetlands report (October, 2010) summarizes the importance of wetlands, what we know about them, and efforts undertaken to implement the California Wetlands Conservation Policy (Executive Order W-59-93). The report identifies the progress made by many state agencies, public and private partnerships, and the federal government to protect, restore, and monitor California’s diverse wetland resources. Conclusions are based on information readily available from representative programs located throughout the State; it was not feasible to describe all programs given the scope and budget for this effort. The report also highlights future challenges and provides recommended steps to help achieve the goals of the Wetlands Conservation Policy. The policy calls for the implementation of 33 specific actions, ranging from performing wetland inventories, to developing mitigation banking policies, to creating regional wetland restoration and planning efforts. The policy’s primary purpose is to ensure no overall net loss and achieve a long-term gain in the quantity, quality, and permanence of wetlands acreage and values throughout California.

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.


Karen Martin
Pepperdine University
(310) 506-4808

Jenny Dugan
UC Santa Barbara
(805) 893-2675

Elizabeth Fuchs
Coastal Program Manager
California Coastal Commission

Jonna Engel
California Coastal Commission


  1. "Moving Toward More Ecologically Sound Beach Management in California." 2008. Coastal Management News. July 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2011 Coastal zone manager beach ecology surfrider survey
  3. Barron, M.G., Podrabsky, T., Ogle, R.S., Dugan, J.E., et al. 1999. Sensitivity of the sand crab Emerita analoga to a weathered oil. Bull. Environmental Contamination & Toxicology 62: 469-475
  4. Dugan. J., Personal Communication. August 15, 2003.

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