State of the Beach/State Reports/NH/Beach Ecology

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New Hampshire Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access86
Water Quality89
Beach Erosion3-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill2-
Shoreline Structures8 3
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.


New Hampshire's Coastal Program has several goals, including:

  • To foster community stewardship and awareness of coastal resources
  • To protect and restore coastal natural resources.

The town of Seabrook approved a Beach Management Plan in February 2013. The document is necessary for the town of Seabrook to perform day-to-day beach maintenance activities without requiring a wetlands permit from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. State and federal agencies monitor nesting plovers that inhabit the Seabrook dunes each spring, protecting the endangered species from potential enemies in both human and animal forms. Signs are posted to keep people away from those areas, and fences are erected to further protect the nesting areas.


Information on beach, dune, and island restoration, as well as piping plover protection can be found here. Here's a publication from New Hampshire Fish and Game on piping plover protection.

Horseshoe crabs have been crawling up from the ocean to lay their eggs on beaches along the Atlantic Coast for the past 445 million years.

The Division of Forests and Lands also has information describing the natural communities on New Hampshire's coastal sand dune system.

The NH Coastal Program Website has a fact sheet related to beach ecology: What is a Sand Dune?

NH Fish & Game Department's Wildlife Journal has published an article on marine debris. To read the article click on the following link: Marine Debris: A Visible Threat to Our Waterways and Shorelines Sept/Oct. 2002

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.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

Several topics relating to Salt Marsh Ecology and Monitoring are explored in the following documents:

New Hampshire has 18 miles of open-ocean coastline on the Gulf of Maine, and over 230 miles of sensitive tidal shoreline. The State's estuaries include a collection of bays, tidal rivers, and salt marsh systems. The two largest, most distinct estuaries in the New Hampshire Coastal Program (NHCP) are the Great Bay Estuary and the Hampton-Seabrook Estuary. The Great Bay Estuary covers over 17 square miles, and includes 150 miles of tidal shoreline. It is located more than five miles inland from the ocean, up the Piscataqua River.

The University of New Hampshire and the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership has produced the State of the Estuaries 2013 report that explains the status and trends of environmental conditions in the estuaries. There are 14 indicators that aid in understanding the health and condition in the estuaries. They provide a diverse picture of a number of key factors, integral to a healthy and productive system. The indicators include dissolved inorganic nitrogen concentrations, microalgae, dissolved oxygen levels, eelgrass, oyster populations, and bacterial contamination. Data indicate a long-term decline in eelgrass since 1996 that is not related to wasting disease. Due to variability even recent gains of new eelgrass still indicate an overall declining trend.

Gemma Gemma

The estuaries are nursery areas for commercially important fish and shellfish including lobsters, winter flounder, cod, pollock, eels, and hake. New Hampshire's estuarine waters support 95 species of phytoplankton, 169 species of seaweeds, and numerous beds of eelgrass. Eelgrass is particularly important as a filter for suspended sediment and dissolved nutrients, and for its roles in the life cycles of scallops, crabs, finfish, and waterfowl. The estuaries also sustain runs of shad, alewives, and lampreys, which travel from the ocean through the estuaries to reproduce in the freshwater tributaries. The estuaries host runs of smelt to their spawning grounds at the heads-of-tide. Two-thirds of New Hampshire's commercially harvested fish, including herring and smelt, rely on the estuaries at some point in their life cycle. The small bivalve Gemma gemma is the most abundant mollusk in the Great Bay estuarine system, and the estuary contains large oyster beds, which are harvested recreationally. Oysters in the Great Bay have declined in recent years. From 1991 to 1996 oyster density reductions in three beds of recreational importance ranged from 42 percent to 69 percent. In particular, oyster beds in the Oyster and Bellamy rivers have declined in acreage. The total harvest of oysters had declined from 5,000 bushels to 1,000 bushels of oysters between 1991 and 1997, due largely to predation, limited substrate suitable for larval attachment, disease, and a variety of management issues.


New Hampshire's estuaries and associated uplands also provide significant breeding, feeding, and overwintering habitat for many species of birds, from bald eagles and nesting osprey to marsh wrens. Thirteen state-listed threatened or endangered birds occur in the watershed. In 2000, the Audubon Society of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department charted their second best breeding season for Ospreys in New Hampshire on record, with a total of 40 young Ospreys fledged from 24 active nests. Productive nests were distributed across the state, with four around Great Bay. Common terns have nested on Nannie Island and the Footman Islands, as well as on several islands in Little Bay. The Wilcox Point shoreline is critical to the wintering of the American bald eagle. It supports the largest winter population of bald eagles in New England and is one of the best documented wintering sites for these birds in the region. The State's coastal watershed also provides important stopover habitat for migratory birds and bats using the Atlantic flyway. The Great Bay and Hampton-Seabrook estuaries provide important migration and wintering habitat for 20 species of waterfowl, 27 species of shorebirds, and 13 species of wading birds, including the following endangered species: Northern harriers, Sedge wrens, and Henslow's sparrows. The Seacoast is New Hampshire's primary waterfowl wintering area, with Great Bay supporting about 75 percent of the overwintering population.[1]

The NH Coastal Program Website contains links to several fact sheets related to coastal ecology. Among these are:

The Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment is one of many organizations working toward a coordinated, regional program to monitor marine and estuarine habitats in the Gulf of Maine.

The Gulf of Maine Council's Habitat Monitoring Subcommittee and its partners have developed standard methods for regional salt marsh monitoring that offer the potential for a cohesive, comprehensive view of salt marsh conditions. Adoption of these standards by existing monitoring programs around the Gulf of Maine could provide the basis for an extensive regional monitoring network.

As part of this effort, the Subcommittee released Salt Marshes of the Gulf of Maine: Long-term monitoring to assess human impacts and ecological condition in September 2005. Partners in publication development and production were Laudholm Trust, University of New Hampshire, and U.S. Geological Survey. Click here for the interactive mapping tool.

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.

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

Jen Drociak
Restoration Specialist
New Hampshire Coastal Program
Department of Environmental Services
(603) 559-0028


  1. Environmental Assessment, Amendment to the New Hampshire Coastal Program, Expansion of the New Hampshire Coastal Management Program Boundary, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. October 2003.

State of the Beach Report: New Hampshire
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