State of the Beach/State Reports/NY/Beach Ecology

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New York Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access64
Water Quality54
Beach Erosion6-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill5-
Shoreline Structures5 4
Beach Ecology2-
Surfing Areas27
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.


Grooming: About 5% of New York's beaches are groomed on a regular basis.

Nourishment: New York regulates beach nourishment, and generally considers sand placement above the mean high water line to be ecologically appropriate for permitting purposes.

Bulldozing: New York generally does not allow bulldozing on the beach.[1]

Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Act

In August 2006, the state enacted the New York State Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Act to advance ecosystem-based management. This action resulted from a symposium on ocean and Great Lakes policy in New York organized by the Division of Coastal Resources after the release of the reports from the Pew Oceans Commission and U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. The Coastal Resources Division Director helped craft the legislation that created the Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Council and now serves as executive director of the Council. Five public dialogues were then conducted across the state to engage stakeholders and solicit their recommendations for actions by the Council. The Council will coordinate programs and activities that help to protect and restore New York’s coastal ecosystems. It will do this, in part, by promoting the understanding, protection, restoration, and enhancement of New York’s ocean and Great Lakes ecosystems while promoting sustainable and competitive economic development and job creation; integrating and coordinating ecosystem-based management with existing laws and programs; ensuring that community needs and aspirations are accommodated; developing guidelines for agency programs and activities that affect coastal ecosystems; encouraging scientific research and information sharing; and facilitating regional coordination and cooperation.

Three million dollars was initially allocated in August 2006 for the Council for administration of the Act (to be administered by the Coastal Resources Division), and a management framework will be defined by November 2008. The framework will, among other items, define executive and legislative actions necessary to integrate ecosystem-based management with existing programs; include a plan, schedule, and funding opportunities for implementation of executive actions; establish a research agenda that identifies priority issues in need of further research; recommend actions to preserve, restore, and protect submerged aquatic vegetation populations and meadows; and identify opportunities for regional ecosystem-based management with neighboring states and the federal government.

Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats

New York State Coastal Policy 7 states that significant coastal fish and wildlife habitats will be protected, preserved, and where practical, restored so as to maintain their viability as habitats. The NYSCMP plays a significant role in implementing this policy. The Office of Communities and Waterfronts (Office) has designated over 250 Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats (SCFWH) throughout the coastal areas of New York. To designate an SCFWH, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) evaluates the significance of an area to determine whether it serves one or more of four specified functions. Following a recommendation for designation from the DEC, the Office designates and maps the area. State agencies use the information provided for each designated habitat in the state and federal consistency review process. Designated SCFWHs played a large part in the successful state objection to the Millennium Pipeline federal consistency finding. In addition, communities that prepare local waterfront revitalization programs are required to protect designated significant habitats and are encouraged to use local land use controls for habitat protection.

In 1987 the Office designated SCFWHs along the north and south shores of Long Island for protection. During the period covered by NOAA's most recent evaluation, the Office completed a review of technical information and public comments to update the designated sites. Data and assessment language were updated, and eight new habitats and eight habitat boundary changes on the north shore have been officially incorporated as part of the NYSCMP with OCRM approval. On the south shore, 10 habitat boundary changes and two new habitat site designations are in the final stages of the program change process for incorporation.


The NYSCMP helps to protect and restore coastal resources, habitats, and their values through a variety of programs within the Division of Coastal Resources. Much of this work occurs as an integral part of local waterfront revitalization program development and implementation, and several examples are discussed in the section entitled “Coastal Dependent Uses and Community Development” in this finding's document.


Much of the following text is from the website of The Department of State, Office of Communities and Waterfronts

New York's coasts and waterways have a great variety of fish and wildlife habitats that are critical to the health of broader ecosystems on which we all depend. These habitats include salt and freshwater marshes, swamps, mud and sand flats, beaches, rocky shores, riverine wetlands and riparian corridors, stream, bay and harbor bottoms, submerged aquatic vegetation beds, dunes, grasslands and woodlands. Each provides support for critical life stages of fish and wildlife, including breeding, nursery, feeding, migration, and wintering. Maintaining ample, high quality habitat along the State's coasts and waterways is key to having abundant and diverse fish and wildlife resources.

As development pressure mounts, many habitats are degraded or lost. Preserving our valuable fish and wildlife resources is not only an essential element of environmental quality but also has important recreational, economic, and community benefits. Recreational or commercial fishing is a major economic activity in many waterfront communities. Hunting and wildlife observation along the shore provide enjoyment for many residents and visitors.

A habitat can be broadly defined as a geographic area inhabited or otherwise used by a particular species or collection of species. Animals may spend all or parts of their lives in a habitat; a particular species can be dependent on several different kinds of habitats. For example, a bird may feed in one habitat, but nest and raise young in a different habitat. The Atlantic striped bass lives much of its adult life offshore in the open water habitat of the Atlantic ocean, but breeds in the Hudson River.

Throughout the State's coastal area 250 Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats (SCFWH, see below) have been designated by the New York State Department of State Division of Coastal Resources. Under the SCFWH program, a site is considered significant if it serves one or more of the following functions:

  • is essential to the survival of a large portion of a particular fish or wildlife population;
  • supports populations of species which are endangered, threatened or of special concern;
  • supports populations having significant commercial, recreational, or educational value; or
  • exemplifies a habitat type which is not commonly found in the State or in a coastal region.

The significance of a habitat increases to the extent it could not be replaced if destroyed.

For each designated site a habitat map and narrative are created. The narrative constitutes a record of the basis for the significant coastal fish and wildlife habitat's designation and provides specific information regarding the fish and wildlife resources that depend on this area. General information is also provided to assist in evaluating impacts of proposed activities on characteristics of the habitat which are essential to the habitat's values. This information is used in conjunction with the habitat impairment test found in the impact assessment section to determine whether the proposed activities are consistent with the significant habitats policy. For example, here are narratives for Cupsogue County Park, Jones Beach East, and Westhampton Beach and Dunes.

New York State agencies use the information provided for each designated habitat in the State and federal consistency review process. In addition, communities that prepare Local Waterfront Revitalization Programs are required to protect designated significant habitats and are encouraged to use local land use controls for habitat protection.

The state has designated 250 Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats sites in four general areas:

  • Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River
  • Hudson River
  • New York City
  • Long Island Sound and Long Island

For each designated SCFWH site, a habitat map and narrative are created that provide site-specific information, including a description of the habitat, its fish and wildlife values, and an impact assessment. The boundaries for each designated site are mapped in the Coastal Atlas.

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

Also see Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, Inc. whose mission statement is "To promote and foster understanding and stewardship of coastal ecosystems through research and education."

The piping plover is listed as endangered in New York. The Department of Environmental Conservation has a piping plover fact sheet that describes the population in New York and the management efforts to protect it.

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.

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

The coastal management program has been instrumental in preparation, adoption, and ongoing implementation of the state-designated Long Island South Shore Estuary Reserve’s (SSER) comprehensive management plan. The New York State Legislature passed the Long Island South Shore Estuary Reserve Act in 1993. The Act created the South Shore Estuary Reserve – Long Island's South Shore bays and the adjacent upland areas draining to them – and called for the Reserve's protection and prudent management. The Act also created the South Shore Estuary Resource Council, which was charged with development of a comprehensive management plan, named the Secretary of State to chair the Council, and charged the Department of State with providing technical support to the Council. The Division of Coastal Resources worked to develop the management plan, which was adopted in 2001 by the Council. The comprehensive management plan establishes major goals of improving and maintaining water quality; protecting and restoring living resources; improving scientific knowledge of the estuary ecosystem; sustaining the estuary-related economy; and increasing educational outreach and stewardship. During the time period covered by this evaluation, the NYSCMP reassessed the state of the management plan and prepared an implementation status report, which identifies stakeholder and partnership accomplishments from 2003-2005 in the context of the outcomes and implementations of the Reserve’s comprehensive management plan. Successful steps have been taken, but the status report also identifies next steps to take to continue successful implementation. To address several resource-related priorities and goals, the coastal program (in cooperation with others) created benthic habitat maps for Great South Bay within the SSER and developed a GIS-based tool to prioritize open space within the SSER.

The Long Island South Shore Estuary Reserve encompasses one of the New York State’s unique estuaries and its 326 square mile watershed in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Home to 1.5 million people, the estuary is the anchor of the region’s tourism, seafood, and recreation industries, attracting millions of visitors each year to enjoy its beauty and bounty. The State Legislature found it to be in the public interest to protect and manage the South Shore Estuary system as a single integrated estuary to ensure its long-term health as the foundation of the local economy and a natural and cultural treasure.

The Reserve extends from the Nassau County/New York City line eastward about 75 miles, to the Village of Southampton in Suffolk County. From south to north, the Reserve extends from the mean high tide line on the ocean side of the barrier island to the inland limits of the drainage areas. Formed by barrier islands along the Atlantic Ocean, the estuary’s shallow, interconnected bays and tidal tributaries provide highly productive habitats and support the largest concentration of water-dependent businesses in the State. Commercial and recreational fishing and shellfishing depend on the health of the estuary’s fish and shellfish species which, in turn, depend on clean water.

The South Shore Estuary Reserve Council adopted the Long Island South Shore Estuary Reserve Comprehensive Management Plan on April 12, 2001, marking a major milestone for Reserve communities, water-dependent businesses, and residents. The plan provides a blueprint for the long-term health of the Reserve’s bays and tributaries, its tidal wetlands and wildlife, and its tourism and economy. The plan called for more than 75 actions to be implemented over the next five years at an estimated cost of $98 million.

Several systematic inventories have been undertaken by the State and federal government:

Contact Info

Fred Anders
Coastal Preservation Specialist
NYS DOS Division of Coastal Resources

Barry Pendergrass
Coastal Resources Specialist
NYS DOS Division of Coastal Resources

Jeffrey Zappieri
Chief, Regulatory Review, Coastal Management Program
NYS Dept. of State


  1. 2011 coastal zone manager beach ecology survey

State of the Beach Report: New York
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