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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
- quality of habitat,
- status of ‘indicator’ species,
- maintenance of species richness, and
- 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.
Maine's Coastal Program is part of the Department of Conservation, Bureau of Geology, Natural Areas, and Coastal Resources. Part of the Program's mission is to "sustain coastal resources and enhance the maritime economy by preserving Maine's sand beaches for storm protection, habitat conservation, and public recreation."
In 2006, the Coastal Program created a report called Protecting Maine's Beaches for the Future: A Proposal to Create an Integrated Beach Management Program. The report includes recommendations for wildlife and habitat management, although they are limited to management of the piping plover and least terns. The recommended management practices include:
- Beach Infrastructure and Maintenance: Movement and/or redistribution of sand, control of public access, beach cleaning, or use of any essential vehicles on the beach must not jeopardize nesting or feeding activities of endangered piping plovers or least terns. It is the responsibility of the town to ensure their activities do not threaten a listed species.
- Recreational Activities: If piping plovers or least terns are nesting on the beach, recreational activities that could interfere with nesting and brood rearing activity should be restricted to non-nesting areas through use of fencing and signs. Enforcement of restricted areas may become the responsibility of local governments.
- Animal Control: Dogs can be a significant source of disturbance and mortality for ground nesting species such as piping plovers and least terns. Ideally dogs should be leashed from April 1 through August 31 as specified in the USFWS Piping Plover Recovery Plan.
- Management - Symbolic Fencing and Enclosures: Piping plover nesting areas and least tern colonies should be fenced and signed beginning April 1. Fencing is intended to allow nesting to be initiated by territorial pairs, to prevent accidental crushing of nests and repeated flushing of incubating adults and to provide an area where chicks can rest and seek shelter when large numbers of people are on the beach. Only persons engaged in piping plover monitoring should enter the fenced areas. Fencing should be maintained on the beach until all chicks in the vicinity have fledged or territorial pairs are no longer present.
- Predator Control: Predation by crows, gulls, foxes, dogs and cats is a major source of nest failure for piping plovers. Therefore, piping plover nests should be enclosed in accordance with USFWS guidelines and authorizations issued by IF&W. Predator management may become necessary if predation of adult plovers, eggs, or chicks is severe. Predator management is the responsibility of IF&W.
- Monitoring: On nourished or town-managed beaches a coordinator should be employed to recruit and manage volunteers to conduct regular monitoring of nesting piping plovers and/or least terns to determine the success or failure of nesting. Regular monitoring should include: documentation of the number and location of nests, nest attempts, nest success, number of chicks fledged, and causes of egg or chick mortality if known. Other duties may include maintaining temporary fencing and signs and help erect nest enclosures. In the event that a crushed nest or dead adult or chick is found, both the USFWS and IF&W law enforcement personnel must be contacted immediately.
- Education and Outreach: Wherever the public has access to beaches with nesting endangered species, effective outreach should be conducted to educate beach users on how they can help protect piping plovers and least terns while they are at the beach. Interpretive signs, personal interactions with lifeguards or other town officials, information at the town hall for dog owners, etc. should be explored.
In May 2011, the state completed a Maine Coastal Plan Assessment and Strategy under Section 309 of the Coastal Zone Management Act. The assessment stated that the state had not created a habitat restoration plan for beaches and dunes. However, it did indicate that implementation of the recommendations from the Protecting Maine's Beaches for the Future report is a high priority. The major barrier to this implementation is lack of funding.
A new rule that was passed as emergency legislation and went into effect in June 2006 requires landowners to get a permit from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) if they want to build within 250 feet of shorebird nesting, feeding, or staging areas. These are areas defined as having a concentration of shorebirds that feed or congregate, particularly during migration. Designation of a vernal pool as a "significant wildlife habitat" would require landowners to avoid unduly disturbing areas within 250 feet of the high water mark of the vernal pool. Significant wildlife habitat includes vernal pools if those pools contain fairy shrimp or a certain number of egg masses of wood frogs, spotted salamanders, or certain endangered or threatened species. This rule, which expands the reach of the Natural Resources Protection Act, restricts development along 1,000 miles of Maine coastline.
In early 2007 the DEP, through legislation introduced by Rep. Theodore Koffman (D-Bar Harbor), House Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, proposed changes that would shrink the buffer zone around shorebird nesting, feeding, or staging areas from 250 feet to 75 feet. The 250-foot buffer would continue to apply to roosting areas only. The proposal also recommended, “Establish[ing] strict cutting standards in the roosting and feeding buffers in order to provide effective protection for the shorebirds. These cutting limitations will provide additional protection beyond local shoreland zoning.” DEP proposed as well that the changes be made retroactive to June 8, 2006, the effective date of the existing significant wildlife habitat rules, to address concerns of property owners and realtors who undertook property transactions during this period.
In June 2007, a compromise bill was agreed upon and signed by Gov. John Balducci. Under the compromise, the buffer zone near shorebird feeding areas will be reduced from 250 feet to 100 feet. Buffers near shorebird nesting or roosting areas will remain at 250 feet. Department of Environmental Protection officials stressed that neither the old nor the new setbacks created "no-build zones." DEP staff will work with landowners to minimize impacts on the birds if 100-foot or 250-foot setbacks are impossible on the property.
Maine has a few different programs that collect data on beach ecology. The Maine Natural Areas Program (MNAP) collects data on the composition, condition, and integrity of beach vegetation. Natural community and ecosystem types mapped include Coastal Dune – Marsh Ecosystem, Coastal Headland Ecosystem, Beach Strand, and Dune Grassland. Multiple rare plant species populations from these naturalcommunity types are also mapped.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has an active monitoring program that regularly collects data on piping plover, least tern, and roseate tern populations, and uses these data to designate essential wildlife habitats. Shorebird Roosting and Foraging Areas and Tidal Waterfowl and Wading Bird Habitat are also designated as significant wildlife habitats.
Maine has completed biodiversity inventories for all state-owned beaches. The state has also completed inventories for plant communities at various beaches over the last 15 years. These inventories are updated opportunistically.
Maine has also identified several “critical habitats” that include the sandy beach ecosystem. Maine identifies piping plover and least tern essential habitat and roseate tern essential habitat under Maine’s Threatened and Endangered Species Act. Under the Natural Resources Protection Act, Maine identifies significant wildlife habitat, including Shorebird Roosting and Feeding Areas. Maine also maps Dune Grasslands (State Rank S2, currently there are 10 occurrences), Pitch Pine Woodlands (State Rank S3, currently there are 26 occurrences) and Coastal Dune-Marsh Ecosystems (S3, currently there are 4 occurrences). In addition, Maine has identified Focus Areas of Ecological Significance, and those that fall in sandy beach systems include Wells and Ogunquit Marsh, Brave Boat Harbor and Gerrish Island, Scarborough Marsh, and the Kennebec Estuary.
Grooming: The Maine Geological Survey (MGS) regulates beach grooming practices, and requires a permit for moving over one cubic yard of sand. The MGS also advises local governments on grooming best management practices. Raking to remove trash and beach wrack is allowed with a permit. In addition, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W) and the Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands have put together a video on piping plovers that discusses effects of beach management practices such as grooming.
Nourishment: The Coastal Sand Dune Rules under the Natural Resources Protection Act require nourishment projects to consider the impacts on essential habitats and habitats of ecological significance.
Bulldozing: Beach Bulldozing is regulated. It is considered beach scraping and requires a permit. Beaches are not allowed to be bulldozed on a regular basis.
Coastal structures: The state does not allow construction of new seawalls, and replacement seawalls must be in-kind, in-place, unless an alternative design is found to be less damaging to coastal sand dunes. Any repaired or reconstructed buildings in the foredune are must be built on stilts to allow natural migration of the sand. In addition, if a wetland migrates into a building footprint for more than six months, the building must be removed.
The piping plover and the least tern, both classified as endangered, nest in the dune systems of beaches during the spring and summer. These small shorebirds feed on worms, crustaceans, and mollusks found on the beach. The construction of seawalls, jetties, and houses has reduced breeding habitat for these birds by more than 75 percent. Maine Audubon's Piping Plover and Least Tern Recovery Project has been working to protect these birds (Click here for the final report). As of 2010, the organization's efforts had resulted in slow growth of the piping plover population to 30 breeding pairs. However, because the number of birds is still so low, growth to a stable population size is expected to take many more years. The least tern population had increased to 211 pairs in 2010, and Maine Audubon hopes to see continued growth into the future.
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has more information on Shorebirds and Shorebird habitats.
Beginning with Habitat is a habitat-based landscape approach to assessing wildlife and plant conservation needs and opportunities. Beginning with Habitat has undertaken a process to compile and analyze nearshore habitat information to identify coastal focus areas where there are confluences of important nearshore coastal resources. This process has included the development of new Geographic Information System (GIS) data layers along with the compilation of existing GIS data layers.
The Wells Bay Regional Beach Management Plan (February 2002) included the following findings:
- The Wells Bay region represents 10 miles of the 23 miles (roughly 43%) of sand beaches located in southern Maine, including three barrier beach/salt marsh systems.
- Wells Bay is currently a productive and important feeding and nesting habitat for piping plovers and least terns. Both of these species are classified as endangered under Maine’s Endangered Species Act. In 2000, 20 plover pairs nested (representing nearly 38% of Maine’s total plover population) on Wells Bay beaches, with 40 fledglings. 122 pairs of least terns nested in Wells Bay during 2000, with 79 fledglings, accounting for most of the birds in the state. The US Fish and Wildlife Service listings include threatened status for piping plovers.
- Soft-shell clam landings in Wells Bay totaled 56,850 pounds in 1997, 19,669 pounds in 1998, and 3,876 pounds in 1999.
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.
Ferry Beach Ecology School (FBES) is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to providing ecological education to 3rd-8th grade classes. Their interdisciplinary ecology curriculum focuses on teaching hands-on lessons in basic ecology by using the outdoors as a classroom -- where learning occurs through exploration, scientific investigation, discovery, and sensory awareness. FBES ecosystems include ocean, dunes and beaches, forests, rocky tidepools, and salt marshes. During the Spring and Fall terms, FBES offers 4 and 5 day residential programs as well as day programs and outreach programs to public and private schools.
The following websites contain more information related to beach ecology in Maine:
- Fact sheets for all Maine natural community types: http://www.maine.gov/doc/nrimc/mnap/features/commsheets.htm
- Fact sheets for all Maine rare plant species: http://www.maine.gov/doc/nrimc/mnap/features/plantlist.htm
- All Maine Focus Areas: http://www.maine.gov/doc/nrimc/mnap/focusarea/factsheets.htm
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.
Other Coastal Ecosystems
A report Managing Maine’s Nearshore Coastal Resources was issued in January 2007. The introduction to this report reads:
Maine’s nearshore, coastal waters are under increasing pressure from a variety of influences. The potential exists for both increased user conflicts and for further environmental degradation. At the same time, there are signs and symptoms that Maine’s current methods of nearshore management need improvement. Without embarking on enhancements to nearshore management, the health of the marine environment, the livelihoods and recreation that depend on it and the essence of Maine’s character may be at risk.
The Maine Legislature directed the Land and Water Resources Council (“LWRC”) to undertake a two-year study (through PL 2003 c. 660, Part B (LD 1857) “to explore and document potential new and innovative concepts for the management of Maine’s embayments.” A report was as part of that work.
The report's recommendations were:
- Move towards regional management of nearshore waters – The State will encourage and support regional initiatives to address locally-relevant issues by providing information, staff assistance and/or funding and by encouraging interlocal agreements. The State will also provide eligibility criteria to ensure that state investment is directed to initiatives that are contributing to the state’s coastal priorities.
- Increase the amount, availability and accessibility of nearshore data and information – The State will create and implement a long-term coastal marine science plan to identify and acquire needed data, and to enhance information exchange and marine geographic information systems in Maine.
- Improve the state’s framework for nearshore management – The State will implement interagency coastal strategic planning, and will institute several coordination mechanisms to improve interagency cooperation and communication. Periodic summaries, evaluations, and modifications will ensure continued progress towards a regional, ecosystem-based coastal management system.
- Increase the amount and diversity of funding sources – In order to support the implementation of the recommendations under each of these goals, the State will maintain current levels of funding for existing state priorities while securing additional sources of support for enhanced programming.
The Web page that contains the complete report (including appendices) is: http://www.state.me.us/dmr/baystudy/finalrpt/index.htm
Marine Habitat Mapping
Increasing concern over the status of fish habitat has prompted efforts to identify areas of critical importance to depleted species. At the same time, ecologists are attempting to improve their understanding of habitat requirements for other organisms in the marine community and to break new ground with new management programs based on ecosystems, as opposed to traditional single species management approaches. Only by answering fundamental habitat questions can we begin to understand how vulnerable or resilient the marine community is to human activities. Studies of several bays in Maine in recent years present an excellent opportunity to look at marine habitat protection in nearshore ecosystems.
To date, relatively little effort had been made to document the habitat relationships of early-life stage fishes in Maine's nearshore environments. In a step to support better ecosystem management approaches, the Maine Coastal Program provided the Maine Department of Marine Resources with funds to develop a method to identify associations between juvenile fishes and the habitat they use. The study integrated the use of traditional methods (e.g. fish sampling through trawl surveys) and more technologically advanced research tools (e.g. acoustic seabed classification systems, and geographic information systems.) The study generated new information about Maine's nearshore habitats in Penobscot Bay, Saco Bay, and in the Sheepscot River and allowed DMR to refine and improve its use of new technology.
Research, monitoring, and surveys conducted by the Maine Department of Marine Resources can be found here.
The Gulf of Maine Habitat Classification Workshop: Mapping for Decision Making was held in September 2008 to facilitate communication on seafloor mapping and classification and to determine the need for information about marine habitats. See the workshop proceedings.
In a much larger project administered by the Island Institute, the Maine Coastal Program partnered with numerous other organizations in the Penobscot Bay Marine Resources Collaborative, a five-year effort to collect and integrate oceanographic, ecological, and fisheries data and to apply the data to Bay management. Other organizations involved in the project include: Maine Office of GIS (MEGIS), Maine Department of Marine Resources, Maine State Planning Office/ME NOAA/NESDIS, U.S. Geological Survey, University of Maine, Bigelow Laboratory, and Maine Maritime Academy. The project achieved the following results:
- demonstrated the use of remote sensing in coastal management
- developed a model to predict recruitment of lobsters in the Bay
- developed a publicly accessible database about the physical and biological characteristics of Penobscot Bay
- demonstrated a multidisciplinary approach to resolution of marine resource management issues
- provided the impetus for the creation of the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System
- assisted state agencies in developing capacity to use new technology
According to aerial photography taken by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in 2013, seagrass covers just 44 percent of the area it covered in 2001. And the upper reaches of Casco Bay, including Brunswick, show a nearly complete loss of the underwater vegetation. A group of scientists is trying to change that, starting with a small test plot in the shallow waters off Simpson's Point. Hilary Neckles, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is leading a team that includes representatives from DEP, The Nature Conservancy of Maine, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to identify the best ways to restore eelgrass beds. eelgrass meadows are a safe haven for many juvenile fish, including alewife and striped bass. Eelgrass provides structure for many species of invertebrates and algae, which young fish then prey on in the shelter of the grass's blades. In turn, larger, more commercially important deep-water fish like cod and bluefish, as well as birds like blue herons and terns, feed on the smaller species. Eelgrass is one of the most productive plants on the planet. It forms the base of many different food webs, it's a rich source of invertebrates, and it baffles waves and currents, and its roots bind sediments.
The strongest working hypothesis for why so much eelgrass has disappeared is because the spike in invasive European green crabs; as the crabs dig into bay sediment in search of food, they uproot the eelgrass. A recent paper by Neckles, set to be published in Northeastern Naturalist, linked green crab disturbance to eelgrass loss by using control groups of eelgrass in and outside of crab exclosures. Half of the test sites at Simpson's Point will be equipped with green crab traps, which will be emptied once a week by a local harvester. Observing what happens in Brunswick will contribute data on the green crab-eelgrass relationship and inform best practices for eelgrass restoration in the future. More info.
Maine Coastal Program Director
State Planning Office
Acting Bureau Director
Department of Environmental Protection, Land and Water Quality
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Gray: 358 Shaker Rd., Gray, ME 04039
phone: (207) 657-2345
Sidney: 270 Lyons Rd., Sidney, ME 04330
phone: (207) 547-5318
Beginning With Habitat Program Coordinator
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Department of Conservation
Maine Geological Survey
Department of Conservation
Maine Natural Areas Program
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