State of the Beach/State Reports/PA/Beach Ecology

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Pennsylvania Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access54
Water Quality54
Beach Erosion9-
Erosion Response-7
Beach Fill4-
Shoreline Structures5 2
Beach Ecology2-
Surfing Areas14
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.


In February 2011, the Assessment and Strategy of Pennsylvania's Coastal Resources Management Program was finalized. The report states:

The Lake Erie coastline consists of bluffs that range from 5 to 200 feet above lake

level. They are composed of unconsolidated sand, gravel, and clay glacial soils, with about 20% having shale bedrock exposure. The bluffs are unique ecosystems sensitive to natural erosion accelerated by human development and disturbance. Three biological diversity areas (BDAs) are identified along the shoreline in the Erie County Natural Heritage Inventory, including: the Lake Plain Shoreline BDA of exceptional significance in Girard and Springfield Townships. The area contains four special plant species that are classified as threatened, rare, endangered, and of concern in Pennsylvania. The Eight Mile Creek BDA is located in Harborcreek Township and is of high significance. Two endangered plant species are located within this area. Lastly, the North East Lake Bluff BDA is located within North East Township and is listed as Exceptional Significance containing two Pennsylvania threatened plant species. Recommendations for preservation of all three BDAs focus on protecting the bluff habitat from the influences of development.

The Great Lakes are a hub within the North American migration flyway. Millions of migrating birds accumulate in the coastal area waiting to cross the barrier of Lake Erie until they have developed sufficient fat stores and weather is prime. Presque Isle State Park has been named one of Pennsylvania's most diverse Important Bird Areas (IBAs) by the Audubon society. About 325 migratory and other species have been recorded on the Peninsula, including a number of endangered, threatened, and species of special concern. State Game Land #314, along the shore in western Erie County, is also an IBA. Migratory species populations have measurably declined across the country since monitoring began 40 years ago and are extremely sensitive resources in the Lake Erie Coastal Zone (LECZ). The most significant threat is this loss of vital stopover habitat, including contiguous forests, grasslands, scrub-shrub areas, and wetlands. Fragmentation of large habitat patches with abrupt transitions between adjacent areas has been found to be especially detrimental to species survival. Invasive plant and animal species propagated by human development also indirectly alter bird habitat quality. Moreover, zebra and quagga mussels concentrate harmful pollutants up the food chain, which may be linked to outbreaks of avian botulism. Human uses of pesticides and herbicides impact the reproduction and mortality of native and migratory birds. The emerging issue of wind turbines in the Lake

or along the shoreline also continues to pose a controversial impact on bird populations.

Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program

The Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) was established in 2002 to protect coastal and estuarine lands considered important for their ecological, conservation, recreational, historical or aesthetic values. The program provides state and local governments with matching funds to purchase significant coastal and estuarine lands, or conservation easements on such lands, from willing sellers. Lands or conservation easements acquired with CELCP funds are protected in perpetuity so that they may be enjoyed by future generations. The CELCP guidelines outline the criteria and process for states to nominate land conservation projects to a national competitive process. The program is coordinated at the state level through each state’s CELCP lead within the state’s lead coastal management agency.

Pennsylvania's approved CELCP Plan can be found here.


According to the DCNR, because it has so "many unique habitats, Presque Isle contains a greater number of the state's endangered, threatened and rare species than any other area of comparable size in Pennsylvania." The DCNR recognizes seven different ecological zones within Presque Isle State Park, each with a different plant and animal community. These zones are: Lake Erie; the bay and shoreline; sandy plain and new ponds; sand dunes and ridges; marshes and old ponds; thicket and sub-climax forest; and climax forest. Lake Erie, nearly which surrounds the park, is the first zone and is home to 80 species of fish and at least six species of crustaceans.

The remaining ecological zones, with their progression from shoreline to climax forest, are a classic illustration of the concept of ecological succession. Much of this progression is due to the changing nature of Presque Isle and its shifting shoreline and dunes. The shoreline, the second zone, is formed by wave action and is in equilibrium between erosion and deposition, with the initial plants stabilizing the sand of the new shoreline. The newly formed sandy plain and the ponds formed in it are the third zone. The ponds start as trapped pockets of lake water and can erode away or be filled by wind-blown sand or drifting dunes. The new ponds provide habitat for plants and animals: for example, the state park is home to 89 species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) and Lepidoptera, including 35 different butterflies, as well as 84 different sorts of spiders.

Sand dunes and ridges are the fourth zone, formed when beach sand transported by wind and waves becomes trapped by vegetation. Dunes grow and are stabilized by grasses, followed by other types of vegetation. This provides habitat for amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles. Old dunes can become more permanent ridges, which shelter ponds. These dunes, ridges, and ponds are often remnants of previous shorelines; at the Presque Isle State Park "Long Pond" just east of the marina, dunes and ridges mark the eastern shoreline from 1862.[1]

Other Coastal Ecosystems

Today only 2% to 5% of Pennsylvania’s tidal wetlands remain. Today’s trends are fairly steady and tidal acreage has changed little in the last two decades. Due to the uniqueness of the resource in Pennsylvania, many tidal plant species are considered rare or threatened by the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, this provides added regulatory protection for these resources. The majority of Great Lakes wetlands (lake-level wetlands) in the Lake Erie Coastal Zone are protected within Presque Isle State Park.

The presence of non-native invasive plants continues to impact the function of Pennsylvania’s Great Lakes wetlands, and offer a never ending challenge to Presque Isle State Park managers.

Environmental and economic threats associated with aquatic invasive species continue to be a high concern. The omnipresent threat from new introductions such as the asian carp continue. The complexities of the Lake Erie ecosystem make the full impact of existing introduced non-native species difficult to fully understand, and research in this area continues. The relationship between quagga mussels, cladophora algae, and botulism is one relationship of current interest and concern. Zebra and quagga mussels continue their slow spread through Pennsylvania. Non-native invasive wetland plants threaten the highly valued, relatively ecologically intact wetlands in the LECZ. Climate change may help exacerbate this threat, but the most immediate threat is continued land conversion and loss of forested buffers.

A draft Tidal Wetland Inventory GIS database was completed in 2009. Additional efforts to refine this database are ongoing. The database includes constructed and natural tidal wetland sites.

The Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project (GLEAM) evaluates multiple stressors affecting the Great Lakes ecosystem. GLEAM merges spatial data layers representing all major categories of stressors to the Great Lakes, ranging from climate change and land-based pollution to invasive species, into a single map of cumulative stress. The synthesis of this information into a single map enhances our ability to manage and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem. The final map can be used to assess stressor impacts at locations with significant human benefits and to evaluate conservation and restoration opportunities.

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

Gary Obleski
Coastal Resource Manager
Coastal Resources Program
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

Presque Isle State Park and Tom Ridge Environmental Center
301 Peninsula Drive, Suite 1
Erie, PA 16505-2042
Manager: Harry Z. Leslie


State of the Beach Report: Pennsylvania
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