State of the Beach/State Reports/MD/Beach Ecology

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Maryland Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access88
Water Quality77
Beach Erosion8-
Erosion Response-6
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures8 4
Beach Ecology2-
Surfing Areas25
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.


Most of the state's ocean “beach” is in the Town of Ocean City or in Assateague State Park. In 2005, the Park published a Land Management Plan that created resource management goals for the next 10 to 15 years. The Plan includes a description of the current biological environment and identifies as one of its goals "To identify, conserve, restore, enhance and monitor natural processes, natural resources, sensitive areas and sensitive species."

Personal Water Craft cannot be used in shallow water where damage to Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) may occur.

The Website for Assateague National Seashore contains information on policies relating to invasive plant infestations, feral horse management, PWC regulations and Over Sand Vehicle Use.

Impacts of driving on the beach: Case studies from Assateague Island and Padre Island National Seashores was published in Ocean & Coastal Management in October 2012. The article's conclusions are:

  1. Driving on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore leads to a lower beach and dune elevation in areas where the accumulation of seaweed wrack contributes the development and seaward growth of the dunes. The beach wrack is removed directly by raking to allow for vehicle passage or through compaction and pulverization by vehicles.
  2. Driving on the beach at Assateague Island National Seashore following storms limits the ability of dune vegetation and ultimately the foredune to recover. Consistent with the results from Padre Island National Seashore, driving on the beach does not affect the volume of sediment within the beach-dune system, but it lowers the elevation of the dunes through a reduction in the elevation of the base elevation.
  3. The lower elevation of the beach and dune makes the driving section of both islands susceptible to scarping and overwash during storms, which in turn causes sediment to be transported landward of the dune through blowouts and washover. In other words, the lower crest elevations represent a long-term threat to island resiliency that requires greater consideration by management.

In Ocean City there is extensive grooming of the beach, as explained in this policy:

"Spring season brings on new activity. The winter's debris must be cleaned up so that the beach can be leveled. This is important because sanitizers need a smooth surface to operate. Over the winter months, Mother Nature has packed the sand hard and it must now be loosened. To accomplish this, the sand is raked and dragged. Ocean City uses Case tractors for beach work. For raking, a 14-foot rake is attached to the tractor; for dragging a very large oak beam is used to level the sand.
The beach is now prepared for the finishing touches. To achieve the smooth finish that you see in the summer, a special piece of equipment called a sanitizer is used. This is pulled behind the tractor and acts like a sifter. As it is pulled along the beach, it sifts down about 2-4 inches and separates the trash, which is then emptied into the back of the sanitizer. Four sanitizers are at work every night giving the beach that polished finish.
In the summer a surf rake is used to rake and dress the wet sand by the surf because the sanitizer can not be used there."

Critical Area Act

The Critical Area Act, passed in 1984, marked the first time that the State and local governments jointly addressed the impacts of land development on habitat and aquatic resources. The law identified the "Critical Area" as all land within 1,000 feet of the Mean High Water Line of tidal waters or the landward edge of tidal wetlands and all waters of and lands under the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The law created a statewide Critical Area Commission to oversee the development and implementation of local land use programs directed towards the Critical Area that met the following goals:

  • Minimize adverse impacts on water quality that result from pollutants that are discharged from structures or conveyances or that have run off from surrounding lands;
  • Conserve fish, wildlife, and plant habitat in the Critical Area; and
  • Establish land use policies for development in the Critical Area which accommodate growth and also address the fact that, even if pollution is controlled, the number, movement, and activities of persons in the Critical Area can create adverse environmental impacts.

Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program

NOAA’s Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) provides grants to eligible state agencies and local governments to acquire property or conservation easements from willing sellers within a state's coastal zone or coastal watershed boundary. Since 2008, Maryland has competed successfully at the national level for CELCP funding to protect important coastal and estuarine areas with significant conservation, recreation, ecological, historical, or aesthetic values that may be vulnerable to conversion.


The entire Assateague State Park has been identified as a sandy beach system with critical habitat for sensitive species.

Piping Plover (charadrius melodus)

Maryland has identified the piping plover as a ‘priority’ species to monitor as an indicator of beach health. Baseline information on abundance and distribution of the piping plover was collected in 2004.

There is a substantial amount of information regarding the ecology of coastal barrier islands on the websites for Assateague Island National Seashore and the Vital Signs Monitoring Program of the National Park Service's Northeast Coastal and Barrier Network.

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

The American Horseshoe Crab is a unique and valuable marine invertebrate. It provides both ecological and economic benefits to Maryland and other coastal states of the mid-Atlantic region. Since the 1990's, concern over the exploitation of this important species has been expressed by government agencies, conservation organizations, and fisheries interests.

Currently, various groups throughout the region use horseshoe crabs. Watermen harvest the crabs as bait to catch several commercial fish species including eel (Anguilla rostrada ) and whelk (Busycon spp.). The biomedical industry uses a protein in the crab's blood to test the safety of other medical products. In addition to these economic benefits, horseshoe crabs play an important role the coastal ecology in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Spawning horseshoe crab populations occupy an important ecological niche in estuarine and coastal habitats along the Mid-Atlantic coast. Adult horseshoe crabs are food for sea turtles, sharks, and terrestrial species such as raccoons and foxes. Their eggs are a vital food source for hemispheric shorebirds. Hemispheric shorebirds feed on the superabundance of horseshoe crab eggs deposited in the sand on mid-Atlantic beaches each spring. Rich in fat and protein, horseshoe crab eggs enable these shorebirds to continue their northern migration to Arctic breeding grounds. The concentrations of shorebirds that come to feed on the eggs of the horseshoe crab are also important to the ecotourism industry in the Delaware Bay. The shorebirds attract recreational birders from all over the world, bringing important tourist dollars to the region.

Maryland and other states are tasked with managing and conserving this valuable resource. Specific conservation efforts are underway to better understand and manage horseshoe crabs throughout the region. The ultimate goals of these efforts are maintaining the stability of the region's horseshoe crab population, its role in the coastal marine ecology (i.e., shorebird connection) and its availability for use by different stakeholders over the long-term.

Horseshoe crab inventory information through 2009 is available in this document from Maryland DNR.

Maryland DNR is seeking your help in identifying shoreline used as horseshoe crab spawning habitat in our State of Maryland. While fishing, if you notice horseshoe crabs spawning upon the shoreline, please document the location (GPS coordinates if possible). If you would like to participate, please contact Bennie Williams at (410) 260-8272 or

Currently, Maryland DNR is not seeking volunteers to conduct a horseshoe crab survey within the Chesapeake Bay. For anyone interested in finding out about their previous horseshoe crab spawning surveys contact survey coordinator Bennie Williams (410-260-8272, or Steve Doctor (410-643-4601, in the Fisheries Service.

However, the Maryland Coastal Bay Program in cooperation with Maryland DNR does conduct annual horseshoe crab spawning surveys in the coastal bays of Worcester County, MD. If you are interested in participating in this spring/summer survey, contact Carol Cain ( at the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

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.


Chesapeake Bay's clams once filled an important niche in the ecosystem - removing silt and nutrients, providing food for cownose rays and blue crabs. But the populations of larger clams have largely crashed. A September 2010 report quotes scientists saying it's not clear what's behind the decline. It may be a combination of factors, including water quality, possibly overfishing, and disease. Also see this 2009 article.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

The Maryland Coastal Bays Ecosystem Health Assessment 2004 is available online.

The Bay Program tracks the progress of restoration and protection efforts in the Chesapeake here.

An EcoValue website compiles economic valuation information for ecosystem resources into a geographic information system (GIS), focusing primarily on resources on Maryland.

Maryland has a fact sheet on Submerged Aquatic Vegetation 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.

Maryland Coastal Bays Aquatic Sensitive Areas Initiative

Local, state, federal, and university scientists have identified sensitive aquatic resources for the coastal bays. The Department of Natural Resources and Maryland Coastal Bays Program are asking the community to help identify the conflicts in the coastal bays and identify appropriate management and education measures to reduce the risk of impacts to sensitive areas. Community members from all walks of life are encouraged to provide comments and help devise solutions. Learn more about the Maryland Coastal Bays Aquatic Sensitive Areas initiative.


Governor Martin O’Malley created BayStat by Executive Order in February, 2007 – a new statewide tool designed to assess, coordinate, and target Maryland’s Bay restoration programs, and to inform citizens on progress. Each month Governor O’Malley meets with his BayStat team -- the Secretaries of the Maryland Departments of Agriculture, Environment, Natural Resources and Planning, scientists from the University of Maryland and other key staff -- to make sure the Bay restoration work is on track. These sessions provide a regular opportunity for the team to assess progress, evaluate what’s working and what’s not, and adapt its efforts accordingly.


Eelgrass Bed

During the summer of 2005, Chesapeake Bay suffered a massive die-off of eelgrass, which is by far the most important underwater vegetation in lower parts of the Bay. Without it, huge areas would be barren of any underwater vegetation, which provides crucial habitat for a host of other species such as juvenile blue crabs. Scientists blamed the die-off on unusually warm conditions that persisted in the Bay during the summer of 2005.


Oyster Reef

The Chesapeake once teemed with oysters. Tens of thousands of acres of oyster bottom lined the Bay. Oysters have always been an important part of the diet of those who lived on the Atlantic coast and are an important species to the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem. Today it is estimated that the Bay’s oyster population is at less than 1% of its historical level. In the late 1800s and early 1900s unregulated over-harvesting lead to the initial decline in the oyster population. Then in the 1980s the oyster diseases MSX and Dermo caused another drastic decline in the population. Harvests which exceeded 15 million bushels in the late 1800s and sustained an average of 2 to 3 million bushels through much of the mid-20th century, dropped to 26,495 bushels in 2004. In 1960, the State of Maryland started an oyster repletion program in response to declining harvests. Today, along with many other groups the Maryland DNR works to restore the native oyster for both its ecological and economic importance.
More info

Tanks on a concrete pier on the Choptank River are part of an $11 million state oyster hatchery expansion, which may be pivotal in restoring oysters to the Chesapeake Bay. Up to 2 billion baby oysters, or spat, are expected to be produced annually on the new pier when the facility is in full swing. That's as much spat as the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership jointly produced over the past 10 years. The spat are essential to the state's plan for saving the Chesapeake Bay oyster. The plan, which was expected to go into effect Sept. 6, 2010 substantially increases the percentage of protected oyster habitats, or sanctuaries, and allows for leasing of the bay's bottom for private oyster farming. Some researchers think re-establishing oysters in Chesapeake Bay could help to remove nitrogen pollution from the Bay's waters.

Despite the efforts at oyster restoration noted above, a study released in 2011 stated that the oyster population in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay had fallen so low that the only way to save it was to halt fishing entirely. The study by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science recommended that drastic step, its author said, because nearly 100 percent of the oyster population has been lost since its peak in the early 1800s and more than 90 percent has been lost since 1980. The declines were based on the oyster population in 2009.

An article published in the New York Times in 2013 touted oyster shell recycling into coastal waters as a way to combat ocean acidification.

Blue Crabs

Blue Crab

With a decline in the Chesapeake Bay's underwater grasses noted in 2006, scientists became worried about the fate of the blue crab. Bill Goldsborough, director of the fisheries program for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was quoted as saying there might be a "significant decrease" in the overall bay-wide catch in 2007 as a result of a 25 percent drop in bay grasses, or submerged aquatic vegetation, in 2006. Juvenile and soft crabs use the grasses to hide from predators like rockfish and sandbar sharks. The bay grasses decrease in 2006 was due to a dry spring followed by a heavy rainfall in June, according to a survey released in March 2007 by the Chesapeake Bay Program. The dry weather raised salinity levels and the subsequent rainfall muddied up the bay, reducing sunlight.

In September 2008 the federal government declared a "commercial fishery failure" for the Chesapeake Bay's blue crabs. Blue crab numbers have fallen by more than 70 percent since the 1990s and the value of the bay's crab harvest (hard- and soft-shelled crabs) has declined 41 percent since the late 1990s.

There was good news on the blue crab front in April 2010 when Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley announced that the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population had increased substantially for the second straight year. The results of the most recent winter dredge survey show a dramatic 60% increase in Maryland’s crab population. The survey indicates that 2008 management measures put into place through a historic collaboration with Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission are continuing to pay dividends with the crab population at its highest level since 1997.

Contact Info

Tom Parham
Director, Tidewater Ecosystem Assessment Division
Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Catherine Wazniak
Biologist, Coastal Habitat Assess.
Department of Natural Resources

Horseshoe Crab Spawning Survey
Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Tom O'Connell
(410) 974-2241

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