State of the Beach/State Reports/NJ/Beach Ecology

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New Jersey Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access84
Water Quality78
Beach Erosion8-
Erosion Response-4
Beach Fill8-
Shoreline Structures8 2
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.


The Coastal Management Program website contains the following text:

Coastal land provides crucial habitat for a wealth of wildlife, including migrating birds, commercially valuable fish and shellfish, and sporting and recreational species. Yet our coastline is under threat from human activities. Hasty, uncoordinated development along the New Jersey shore has already had an impact on this fragile ecosystem. Regulation is necessary to prevent pollution, destruction of vital wildlife habitat, increases in rainwater runoff, and destruction of the natural beauty that attracts visitors.

New Jersey protects coastal waters and the land adjacent to them under a variety of laws, including the Waterfront Development Law (N.J.S.A. 12:5-3), the Coastal Area Facility Review Act (N.J.S.A. 13:19), and the Wetlands Act of 1970 (N.J.S.A. 13:9A). The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) applies the New Jersey Coastal Permit Program Rules, N.J.A.C. 7:7, and the Coastal Zone Management Rules, N.J.A.C. 7:7E, to determine what may or may not be built under these three laws.

The New Jersey Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides information and recommendations regarding Seabeach Amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus), a threatened plant species that occurs on coastal beaches from New York to South Carolina. The species historically occurred in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Seabeach amaranth occurs in Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May Counties. See Federally Listed Species Occurrences by Municipality and County [PDF].

Beach grooming using large tractors is allowed on some beaches, as evidenced by this video of a "beach rake" in action at Ocean City, New Jersey.

Hunting and fishing regulations, as well as wildlife management area regulations can be found at

Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program

The Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) was established “for the purpose of protecting important coastal and estuarine areas that have significant conservation, recreation, ecological, historical or aesthetic values, or that are threatened by conversion from their natural or recreational state to other uses.” CELCP gives priority to lands that can be effectively managed and protected and that have significant ecological value. Each coastal state that submits grant applications under CELCP must develop a NOAA-approved CELCP Plan.

The Coastal Management Office (CMO) assumed the lead for coordinating and developing New Jersey’s CELCP Plan. The CMO meets with both government and non-profit partners to identify land acquisition priorities and to coordinate funding and match opportunities. CMO has primarily been working with DEP’s Green Acres Program, but also has engaged the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve (JCNERR), the Delaware Bay Estuary Program and NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Program and various land trusts. The Green Acres Program is a state agency responsible for creating “a system of interconnected open spaces that contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the state’s natural environment and historic, scenic, and recreational resources for public use and enjoyment.” In addition to having a mission similar to that of CELCP, the Green Acres Program has a statewide, prioritized, land acquisition plan in place, as well as the capacity necessary to administer an acquisition program—aspects that make them a good partner for the New Jersey Coastal Management Program in this endeavor.


A Volunteer plants North American beach grass

Cape American beach grass is an important part of beach ecology at many New Jersey beaches. Beach grass not only provides habitat, it also helps stabilize beach dunes and therefore lessens beach erosion.

An article in The Press of Atlantic City by Richard Degener on March 22, 2005 illustrates the importance of considering beach ecology before implementing beach dredge and fill projects. Below are excerpts from that article:

Piping plovers have been called the most endangered bird on the New Jersey shore. They may also be the most expensive. In Stone Harbor, New Jersey, a tentative settlement in a case where the borough was forced to remove dredge spoils from the beach is expected to bring the bill to $3 million. The $3 million got the spoils off piping plover habitat that produced four nests last year.

That would actually be $750,000 per plover nest, but whose counting dollars at this point? Plovers set up nine nests on the area where the dredge spoils were removed, but only four of the nests produced young. The bad news: Only one plover fledged. That means it was a $3 million bird.

Piping Plover

To put it in perspective, piping plovers are only deemed to be worth $22,000 each when they are killed by an oil spill. But another perspective worth considering is that the case was not just about piping plovers, although they got all the publicity. The area also includes large colonies of least terns and black skimmers, which are both endangered species in New Jersey.

There are also about 1,000 common terns on the beach. This is a "species of concern," which is a step below being listed as threatened. A threatened species is the step below being listed as endangered.

The case began when Stone Harbor deposited backbay dredge spoils on Stone Harbor Point, and the federal government, worried about impacts on plovers, filed suit giving the borough a March 31, 2003, deadline to remove the materials. Stone Harbor agreed in court to remove 80,000 cubic yards of material. Some of the spoils were moved to a nearby backbay location, Sedge Island, but former Lower Township Mayor Larry Starner became irate upon hearing in December 2003 that 20,000 cubic yards were to be trucked to Garden State's yard in the township's Rio Grande section. Starner was worried the spoils could pollute the groundwater, though they had tested below contaminant thresholds.

Before long the lawsuits were flying. Lower Township passed a dredge-spoils ordinance that was struck down by a judge in June 2004 in a case that made it clear the state controls dredge spoils.

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 and the Red Knot

Female Horseshoe Crab

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, one was imposed in late 2006 in Delaware. 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.

An article by Kirk Moore in the Daily Journal on June 12, 2006 pointed out that New Jersey had implemented a two-year ban on taking crabs for fishing bait. The article also discussed the dispute between biologists and fishermen on this issue. Biologists say that a new pattern of red knot distribution that has about 4,000 of the birds feeding at Stone Harbor on the Atlantic Coast is evidence that the redknot is running out of their traditional food source of horseshoe crabs on Delaware Bay. Estimated survival rates of the migrating red knot have dipped from 75-80 percent to between 55 and 65 percent. Fishermen contend that their former allowed quota of 150,000 crabs per year is a sustainable harvest.

As a result of the Red Knot Status Assessment in Fall 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the red knot as a candidate for federal listing and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended listing the red knot as endangered in April 2007. The DEP is taking a multifaceted approach to protecting this species and its habitat through shore protection initiatives and restoration of beaches to increase available spawning habitat.

Hurricane Sandy caused massive damage to coastal property and infrastructure in New Jersey, New York and surrounding states in late October 2012. In addition, the storm removed habitat for the red knot and horseshoe crabs when it blew and washed away sand from critical breeding areas in Delaware Bay. In response, $415,000 was donated to the American Littoral Society from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $515,000 was donated to the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey from the New Jersey Recovery Fund, administered by the Community Foundation of New Jersey. The money will be used to restore a 2.5-mile stretch of beach between Moores Beach and Pierces Point, both in Cape May County. It will cover two phases of work - first the beach sand restoration, and later in 2013 the removal of rubble from former bulkheads and other ruined structures on some bay beaches. More information on that can be found here and in a related article Shorebirds' Fate Hinges on Horseshoe Crabs by Laura Tangley of the National Wildlife Federation (2013).

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.

Education Programs and Information Resources

A PBS documentary "Crash: A Tale of Two Species" on the interconnection between red knots and horseshoe crabs aired on February 10, 2008. New Jersey DEP has proposed continuing a moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs until both the crab and the shorebird populations show signs of recovery. For more information on the red knot and the horseshoe crab, click 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.

A good primer on Barrier Beach Ecology for grades 5 to 12 has been developed by the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, New Jersey.

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

An important marine animal in New Jersey is the blue crab. The New Jersey Department of Fish Wildlife has information on the blue crab here.

As of November 30, 2003, the Office of Natural Resource Restoration (ONRR) had acquired and performed restoration on approximately 1,910 acres of aquifer recharge area, wetlands, and valuable wildlife habitat and set them aside as public open space. By acquiring open space, the State's ground water resources are being improved and preserved for the future.

Contact Info

Dorina Frizzera
NJ Coastal Management Office staff

Tom Micai
Program Manager
NJ Coastal Management Office

N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife
P.O. Box 400
Trenton, NJ 08625-0400
Walk-in at 501 E. State St., 3rd Floor
This site has a great collection of links and educational resources!

New Jersey Geological Survey
29 Arctic Parkway
P.O. Box 427
Trenton, NJ 08625

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