State of the Beach/State Reports/DE/Beach Ecology

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Delaware Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access77
Water Quality89
Beach Erosion7-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill7-
Shoreline Structures6 3
Beach Ecology6-
Surfing Areas45
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


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.


Delaware has several policies related to beach ecology. The Beach Preservation Act was passed in 1972 with the goal to enhance, preserve, and protect beaches. The Act authorized the state to penalize any act that are destructive to beaches, and it set up a Beach Preservation Fund to cover costs of protecting the state's beaches.

Delaware’s Coastal Management Program was implemented in 1979 to regulate development along the shoreline. Under this program, a system of standards, guidelines, and controls to manage coastal land and water uses was developed to ensure a rational decision-making process in relation to coastal development. The program protects the beaches through reviews of federal and state projects to ensure consistency with coastal policies, special area management planning, assistance to state and local governments for local land use planning, and other special projects. This program receives financial assistance from the federal government.

The Coastal Zone Act was enacted in 1971 to control industrial development in the coastal zone for the purpose of protecting the environment and maintaining the coast as an area primarily for recreation. This act prohibits heavy industry and bulk product transfer facilities from locating in coastal areas.

The Subaqueous Lands Act regulates the use of subaqueous lands, which includes nontidalstreams, lakes, ponds, and tidal waters seaward of the mean high water line. As itrelates to beach projects, this Act requires permits to deposit material on or removematerial from submerged lands, and to construct, modify, repair, or reconstruct anystructure on submerged lands.

The Management Plan for The Delaware Bay Beaches was completed in 2010 and includes consideration of the biological resources of the beach.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) also produced the document Striking a Balance: A Guide to Coastal Dynamics and Beach Management in Delaware, which describes in detail the ecology of Delaware's beaches, as well as the state's monitoring and research projects to better understand the effects of management practices on beach ecology.

Grooming: Beach grooming in Delaware is done by hand through the Coastal Cleanup and Adopt-A-Beach programs.

Nourishment: Delaware has permit requirements for beach nourishment projects that may affect to beach ecology, including requirements for sediment composition, grain size, and slope, and restrictions on the time of year.

Bulldozing: Delaware bulldozes sand during beach nourishment projects, and has permit requirements for beach construction, subaqueous lands, and Wetlands.

DNREC has a Delaware's Coastal Dunes brochure. Additional information on dunes can be found on DNREC's Dune Protection and Improvement Web page and the Barrier Island/Sand Cycle Web page.

Every spring since 1990, many dedicated volunteers have stabilized Delaware's sand dunes by planting more than 5 million stems of Cape American beachgrass along ocean and bay beaches. The project is organized by DNREC. Cape American beach grass is planted once a year in areas that are in need. In 2011, beachgrass was planted at Broadkill Beach, Cape Henlopen, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island.

Signs asking people to stay off the dunes have been posted at Cape Henlopen State Park and will be placed at other areas around the state. Delaware's chapter of the Surfrider Foundation agreed to help put up signs at popular surfing areas. Officials with DNREC say improvements in the dunes and beach areas at Herring Point show what can happen when people are careful to protect those areas.

The Division of Parks and Recreation issues a surf fishing vehicle permit which allows four wheel vehicles to travel on designated state park ocean beaches for the purpose of surf fishing.


Delaware has identified “priority speices” to monitor as indicators of beach ecological health. These species include: the horseshoe crab, red knot, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, sandpiper, piping plover, and diamondback terrapins. Baseline information has been collected through long-term survey and monitoring programs for several species, including shorebirds since 1986 and horseshoe crabs since 1999. The most recent surveys were completed in 2011, as most of these surveys are conducted annually. Recent survey results are available for Shorebirds. The state also does an annual assessment of dune vegetation to determine which beaches need new planting. This information can be used to better understand ecological health, although it is not collected for that purpose. In addition to species monitoring, the state monitored contaminants of beach sediments in Delaware Bay and the surrounding areas in 1998 as part of NOAA’s National Status and Trends program.

Delaware completed a biodiversity index for sandy beaches in 2006. This inventory of beach species can be found in the Delaware Wildlife Action Plan.

A collection of reports, databases, and data layers prepared by consultants for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative offers a birds-eye view of sandy beach and tidal inlet habitats within the U.S. Atlantic Coast breeding range of the endangered piping plover based on imagery from Google Earth, Google Maps, state agencies, municipalities, and private organizations. By comparing the location, status, and condition of potential plover breeding grounds from Maine to North Carolina during three distinct time periods -- before Hurricane Sandy, immediately after the storm, and three years after post-storm recovery efforts -- these inventories provide a habitat baseline that can help resource managers plan for future change.

Horseshoe Crabs

Female Horseshoe Crab

Delaware Bay provides habitat for the world's largest population of spawning horseshoe crabs. Each spring, thousands of horseshoe crabs lay their eggs on the beaches of the mid-Atlantic. The eggs represent the next generation of horseshoe crabs, and also provide a food source for migratory shorebirds which stop to feed during their migration between Central America and the Arctic.

In 1990, Delaware Sea Grant organized the first census of breeding horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay. Now, every spring on several peak spawning days, volunteers donate their time to count crabs on key beaches in Delaware and New Jersey. There are now annual spawning survey reports for the years 1990 through 2011.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, along with its sister agency in Delaware, pushed hard in November 2005 for a two-year moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs by commercial fishermen along the mid-Atlantic coast at the annual meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Although the Commission did not approve a moratorium, a moratorium did take effect in Delaware in late 2006 (see below). Several studies point to a rapidly declining horseshoe crab population. Tied to these studies is at least one prediction of the near extinction of a shorebird that migrates through New Jersey and feeds on horseshoe crab eggs to fuel its journey: the red knot.

State environmental Secretary John Hughes imposed a two-year ban on the harvest of all horseshoe crabs that was scheduled to take effect on December 11, 2006. The decision exceeds the requirements of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission but brought Delaware in line with New Jersey's harvest ban.

The DCMP and the Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve (DNERR) coordinate to conduct special targeted projects that address current high-priority concerns or issues affecting the state's coastal resources. These projects include:

  • Investigating ways to improve Delaware Bay beach replenishment projects to maximize their potential for the restoration of critical horseshoe crab and shorebird habitat.
  • Developing science-based environmental indicators for the coastal zone to assess the ecological health of Delaware's coast and provide guidance for coastal zone industrial permitting.

An interesting technical paper that discusses the issue of designing beach fill projects to maximize their potential for the restoration of critical horseshoe crab and shorebird habitat is Beach Nourishment on Delaware Bay Beaches to Restore Habitat for Horseshoe Crab Spawning and Shorebird Foraging, December 2002. A related article is Shorebirds' Fate Hinges on Horseshoe Crabs by Laura Tangley of the National Wildlife Federation (2013).

Shortly after the corps' contractor begins pumping sand onto Broadkill Beach, horseshoe crabs will be coming to Delaware Bay beaches to spawn. The contractor will move adult crabs outside of the project area to prevent deaths. (Source: Cape Gazette)

In April 2015 an article Scientists: Benefits of replenishment outweigh losses appeared in the Cape Gazette. The article discusses a pending beach fill project at Broadkill Beach which was scheduled to pump nearly 2 million cubic yards of sand on the beach as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Philadelphia District's $310 million Delaware River Main Channel Deepening Project, which will dredge more than 102 miles of channel to increase the depth from 40 feet to 45 feet. One of the issues discussed in the article is the effects of the beach fill on beach life, including horseshoe crabs, sea turtles and Sabellaria vulgaris, also known as the sandbuilder worm or reefworm, which creates elaborate reef-like sand structures along Delaware Bay beaches, including Broadkill Beach.

Delaware Shorebird Project: This project is part of a 5-year monitoring program that is intended to be the first phase of a long-term shorebird monitoring program for Delaware that will eventually be conducted through a trained corps of volunteers with some professional support from a partnership of numerous state and federal agency staff.

Information on beach grass planting and dune restoration is available here.

The Green Eggs & Sand curriculum is a joint initiative of teachers, scientists, natural resource agencies, aquatic education specialists, and other horseshoe crab resource stakeholders from Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

At least 33 species of waterfowl, 19 species of raptors, 160 species of songbirds, and 45 species of mammals inhabit the state. Delaware's waters are home to at least 284 species of freshwater and saltwater fish. Estuarine and coastal wetlands provide habitat for marine and terrestrial life, trap sediment, filter pollutants, recharge groundwater, and prevent erosion.

Sandbuilder worms, or reefworms, are a common species, but these sand reef formations - found at Broadkill Beach and other Delaware Bay beaches - are unique to the Delaware Bay. (Photo: Deny Howeth/Cape Gazette)

Delaware recently launched a new “Thank You Delaware Bay” campaign to showcase the beauty and amenities of the bay and encourage actions to help protect its health and resources. The campaign uses an action-oriented slogan—The Delaware Bay Takes Care of Us. Let’s Return the Favor—in print advertisements, posters and public service announcements to promote bay stewardship and direct people to the new Thank You Delaware Bay Website—the center of the outreach campaign. The Website serves as a comprehensive “portal” for Delaware Bay information and encourages citizens to take action. The site highlights the many benefits the bay provides: jobs; food; medicine; flood protection; wildlife; recreation; and beautiful views. The website enables visitors to “Experience the Bay” by exploring the bay — its wildlife refuges, nature centers, museums, cultural sites and more. The site also provides links to many bay amenities such as hunting, fishing, boating, hiking and bird watching opportunities.

The site encourages citizens to “Get Involved”. Visitors can take a pledge to commit to actions at home, work, school and in their communities to protect the bay. Links to organizations committed to safeguarding and protecting the bay are listed, and visitors are challenged to join an organization, volunteer on a bay program, and report pollution impacts and threats to animals and marine life. The Website also serves as the place to “Be Heard” by including a page where citizens can learn more about policy work and pending legislation at the local, state and federal level that have implications for the Bay. State and federal government links are included to encourage public input and comment.

The Delaware Coastal Management Program (DCMP) partnered with the Delaware Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Delaware Nature Conservancy and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary to carry out the “Thank You Delaware Bay” campaign, inspired by California’s “Thank You Ocean” campaign. For additional information, contact Kim Cole at

Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve

The Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve (DNEER) is a cooperative program between the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Division of Soil and Water Conservation, Delaware Coastal Programs and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal of the program is to establish, protect, and manage natural estuarine habitats for research and education. The DNERR consists of two main components, the Blackbird Creek Reserve and St. Jones Reserve. These sites include both brackish and freshwater estuaries, and represent the diverse estuarine ecosystems found throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

The St. Jones Reserve is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and during otherwise scheduled public events. A calendar of current events can be found at:

The Seaside Nature Center at Cape Henlopen State Park offers environmental education programs and recreational activities year-round, and is a good place to stop for park information. Marine aquariums and displays there let visitors meet ocean creatures face to face. An auditorium for audio-visual programs and gift shop complete the attractions at this popular facility.

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.

More Information

The following websites provide more statewide or local information on beach ecology in Delaware:

Contact Info

Sarah Cooksey
Delaware Coastal Programs

Bonnie Arvay
Environmental Scientist III
Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control

Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve
818 Kitts Hummock Road
Dover, DE 19901
(302) 739-3436
Kimberly Cole, Manager

State of the Beach Report: Delaware
Delaware Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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