State of the Beach/State Reports/GA/Beach Ecology

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Georgia Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access67
Water Quality66
Beach Erosion4-
Erosion Response-4
Beach Fill4-
Shoreline Structures4 6
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas35
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.


Beach Driving Permits and Rules (391-2-2) help protect dunes, beaches, and their associated habitat. The purpose of these Rules is to implement the authority of the Board of Natural Resources to promulgate rules and regulations to establish criteria under which the Shore Protection Committee may issue authorizations to drive motor vehicles on Georgia dynamic dune fields and beaches consistent with the purposes of the Shore Protection Act.

The Shore Protection Act O.C.G.A. 12-5-230, et seq.

  • Protects sand dunes, beaches, sandbars, and shoals
  • Limits construction activity to temporary structures by permit only
  • Prohibits motorized vehicles on dunes and beaches without a beach driving permit
  • Prohibits docks, marinas, boat ramps, or storage facilities in dunes
  • Establishes Shore Protection Committee

Georgia has defined "beach" in the Shore Protection Act (O.C.G.A. 12-5-230, et seq.) as "a zone of unconsolidated material that extends landward from the ordinary low-water mark to the line of permanent vegetation." Management consideration of public beaches and other public areas within the purview of the Georgia Coastal Management Program provides a planning framework for shorefront access and protection.

Federal Programs

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to designate portions of island and mainland coastal beaches in six states along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico as critical habitat for the Northwest Atlantic (NWA) population of loggerhead sea turtles. In total, 90 nesting sites in coastal counties located in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi were identified for possible designation as critical habitat for the NWA population of loggerhead sea turtles. These sites incorporate about 740 shoreline miles: about 48 percent of an estimated 1,531 miles of coastal beach shoreline, and consist of nesting sites with or immediately adjacent to locations with the highest nesting densities (approximately 84 percent of the documented nesting) within these six states.

In July 2014 NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the proposed rule was final, designating critical habitat for the turtle out of some 700 miles of beaches and nearly 300,000 miles of ocean along the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico. Details and maps.


The eight main groups of barrier islands in Georgia and their associated dune, live oak, pine forest, and marsh communities support an abundance of wildlife. Loggerhead, green, and leatherback sea turtles use Georgia beaches for nesting habitat. Ospreys, brown pelicans, egrets, shorebirds, and many species of sea gulls are a common sight in this area.

Information about things you might see on a typical Georgia beach can be found in the Beach Combing Guide.

Georgia DNR's Website has a Know the Connection section which has links to a wealth of information on coastal resources, animals, plants and habitats.

Cumberland Island is 17.5 miles long and totals 36,415 acres of which 16,850 are marsh, mud flats, and tidal creeks. It is well known for its sea turtles, wild turkeys, wild horses, armadillos, abundant shore birds, dune fields, maritime forests, salt marshes, and historic structures.

Baby Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Although the number of sea turtles in Georgia and elsewhere in the souteast seems to be declining, the popularity is growing for guided, late-night turtle walks, where beachgoers can watch a 300-pound turtle dig a hole, drop 100 eggs and drag herself back to the ocean. One organization offering turtle walks in Georgia is the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island.

Tybee Island Beach Ecology Trips are led by marine scientist/biologist, Dr. Joe Richardson. Tybee Island beach is a great location for finding and studying a wide variety of marine life typical of the southeastern US coastline. With its wide sandy beach front, proximity to inlets, rock jetties with tide pools, large intertidal zone, and generally low wave energy, Tybee provides a location and setting that allows much to be seen and done during a beach visit. Many visitors, students and educators are surprised to learn that there is so much to see and find on Tybee.

Environmental groups in Georgia fought for land conservation on a fragile spit of coastal property and won a land use easement for 80 acres of protected coastal land. Through a settlement agreement with Sea Island Company, brokered by environmental attorneys at GreenLaw, representing Altamaha Riverkeeper, Center for a Sustainable Coast and the Georgia chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, eight houses will be built on the island's Cloister Reserve development but 90% of the area will be preserved as undeveloped in perpetuity. In addition to establishing a conservation easement over the remaining 90% of the remaining land, the settlement agreement requires environmental monitoring of the coastal geography, including a study of the changing coastline and sand supply patterns in this region of Georgia. The Sea Island Company is required to pay $250,000 to support such work. This will provide the environmental community enhanced knowledge and insight into the dynamic coastal marsh system, and how to better protect it for generations to come. The settlement allows for independent monitoring of all construction and land disturbing activities related to the development of the Cloister Reserve to insure compliance with legal protections of the marsh, beach, and dunes under the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, the Shore Protection Act, and local county laws. More.

The Coastal Resources Division website provides a description and discussion of Georgia’s beaches.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

In February 2007 the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) adopted amendments to the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act Rules to impose marshlands buffer, stormwater management, and impervious cover standards to protect this vital area of the State from non-point source pollution. The rule took effect in late March 2007 and established regulations that apply to the upland component of a project requiring a Coastal Marshlands Protection Act permit. The rules apply primarily to commercial, community, and public projects such as marinas, community docks, fishing piers, boat ramps, and bridges that require a Coastal Marshlands Protection Act permit. The rules do not apply to private residential docks not requiring a Coastal Marshlands Protection Act permit, or marshfront property that does not have a project requiring a Coastal Marshlands Protection Act permit. The rule establishes a 50-foot marshlands buffer applicable to the upland component of the project, defines how to measure that buffer, and requires that the buffer remain in an undisturbed, naturally vegetated condition. Exceptions are provided for temporary construction and maintenance, permanent structures essential for the function or permanent access to the marsh component of the project, landscaping to enhance stormwater management, and pedestrian access for passive recreation.

The Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve occupies just over one-third of Sapelo Island, the fourth largest Georgia barrier island and one of the most pristine. The reserve’s 6,110 acres contain the Duplin River and its estuary, and several upland tracts. The Reserve comprises 2,110 acres of upland maritime forest and hammock land and 4,000 acres of tidal salt marsh. The upland maritime forest of the reserve is composed of a mix of native hardwoods and about 90% of the reserve's marshland is covered by smooth cordgrass. The most conspicuous animals of the salt marsh are the graceful egrets and herons, fiddler crabs, and raccoons; however, many other less visible creatures live within the reserve, including mollusks. Endangered and threatened species of Sapelo Island include the Southern bald eagle, peregrine falcons, ospreys, brown pelicans, woodstorks, Wilson's plovers, American Alligators, loggerhead sea turtles, northern right whales, and manatees. Not only is the island rich in natural history, but also in human history dating back 4,000 years.

The Coastal Resources Division website provides a description and discussion of Georgia’s salt marshes and wetlands.

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

Brad Gane
Assistant Director for Ecological Services
Coastal Resources Division
Department of Natural Resources
(912) 264-7218

Phil Flournoy
Operations Program Manager

State of the Beach Report: Georgia
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