State of the Beach/State Reports/PR/Beach Ecology

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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

  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 PRCZM website has a growing amount of information on coastal ecosystems, including information on marine spatial planning, marine protected areas and coral reefs.

One of Puerto Rico Coastal Management Program's (PRCMP) resource management tools is designation of Special Planning Areas (SPAs). The SPA Interagency Committee, composed of representatives from the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), Planning Board (PB), Environmental Quality Board, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), manages SPA designations. DNER serves as the Committee’s technical secretariat. The Committee’s primary goal is to address problems that may affect coastal and marine resource areas that are subject to management decisions by a variety of federal and commonwealth agencies. The SPA planning process has expanded negotiations and consensus building sessions between agencies. The Committee also has included other interested parties, such as local governments, nongovernmental organizations, and community groups in coordination efforts.

PRCMP developed draft management plans for Guanica Southwest SPA, Bajura-Isabela SPA, Vieques SPA, and Pandura-Guardarraya SPA. The plans are updated on a case-by-case basis and submitted to PB for review, public hearings and subsequent adoption as part of the Island-wide Land Use Plan. Additionally, as of June 2005, PRCMP was working to complete the draft management plan for Isabela Dunes SPA.

During OCRM's review period from 2001 to 2005, PB adopted management plans for Pinones SPA, Tortuguero Lagoon SPA, and Parguera Southwest SPA. PB also officially adopted the All Mangroves SPA. Unfortunately, PB has yet to approve the Jobos Bay SPA management plan; the development of the plan, under PRCMP’s leadership, was cited as an accomplishment in the 2002 evaluation findings.

Designating Natural Reserves is the first step in protecting areas of high ecological value. PRDNER recommends areas for designation and the PRPB has the formal designation authority. The PRPB has designated a total of twenty-four Natural Reserves since 1978. PRCMP strongly supports the designation of coastal areas with high ecological value as natural reserves. During the most recent OCRM review period, PB designated six coastal areas as natural reserves: Punta Guaniquilla, Belvedere, Cano Martin Pena, Cienaga Cucharillas, Tres Palmas, and Cano Boquilla. Additionally, PB adopted an amendment expanding the boundaries of the Bosque Estatal de Boqueron Natural Reserve.

Once PB formally designates a natural reserve, PRCMP and relevant partners are responsible for developing and implementing its management plan. The management plan defines policy that regulates the uses of and activities in a natural reserve. During the evaluation period, PRCMP and its partners drafted a management plan for the Seven Seas Natural Reserve. As of June 2005, PRCMP was working to complete a draft management plan for the Cano Tiburones Natural Reserve. DNER noted that it will contract with a private firm to develop the management plans for Canal Luis Pena Natural Reserve, Arrecifes de la Cordillera Natural Reserve and Islas de Mona y Monito Natural Reserve. DNER is a member of the Canal Luis Pena Natural Reserve Management Plan Committee, Cordillera Natural Reserve Management Plan Committee, and Islas de Mona y Monito Management Plan Interagency Committee.

In November 2003, PRCMP held a natural reserve management plan workshop for DNER technical staff. The purpose of the workshop was to establish a management plan template that could be adopted throughout DNER. Such a template would provide everyone working on the development of a natural reserve management plan with consistent guidance and a standard model.

There is a concern with a number of natural reserves that either have an outdated management plan or no management plan at all. An OCRM review previously noted: “As a result [of having either an outdated or no management plan], it is unclear which activities are permissible or not permissible at many of the designated natural reserves. The lack of updated management plans for many of the natural reserves impedes effective management and wise use of these areas."

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.

In March 2010, Puerto Rico completed its draft CELCP Plan, which awaits approval from NOAA before it can be finalized. As explained in the draft plan:

The preparation of an approved state CELCP Plan is the initial action that must take place. These state plans identify priority conservation needs and provide clear guidance for the process of nominating local coastal land conservation projects to the national competition. The Puerto Rico CELCP Plan is being developed by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (PRDNER). A Puerto Rico CELCP Advisory Group...has also been created to provide public input and direction during the preparation of the State plan...The development of the Puerto Rico CELCP plan will provide a framework for identifying coastal and estuarine land conservation priorities, and will define the State’s process for preparing, evaluating and ranking qualified proposals that will be forwarded to the annual national funding competition administered by NOAA.


Sea Turtles

A substantial amount of information on sea turtles can be found on the website of Surfrider Foundation's Rincon Chapter.

Another great source for sea turtle information can be found here:

There are at least two types of sea turtles found in Puerto Rico, including Hawksbill and Leatherback.

The Hawksbill Sea Turtle

The Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) (Spanish Name: Carey de Concha) is a threatened species and is protected under the following listings:

  • CITES: Appendix I Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
  • ESA: Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act
  • IUCN: Critically Endangered International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

Life History

Females come to shore for nesting and lay 4-5 clutches at two-week intervals, each containing approximately 150 eggs. Eggs incubate during 50-70 days in the warm sands and usually hatch at night. Hatchlings crawl to the sea and the pelagic phase occurs in floating Sargassum mats converging in the Atlantic Ocean (pelagic open water, deep ocean habitat).

At approximately 20-25 cm (SCL) young juveniles (estimated at 1-3 Yr. old) establish in shallow coastal (neritic) habitats. Growth to adult size is presumed to occur along islands and mainland coasts, where they feed until continuing with their mating or nesting migrations. Adult nesting females estimated to be 10 -20 years old may be 65 cm (SCL) or larger.

While some of these turtles are threatened by poaching and entanglement in drift nets, a major threat to the Hawksbill sea turtle is the destruction of large amounts of nesting habitat by tourist/residential projects, such as those proposed in Rincón. Furthermore, these developments pose an additional risk as their lights attract hatchlings away from the beach where they become stranded from the marine environment and left to die.

The Leatherback Sea Turtle

Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) and their nests have also been identified at Maria's Beach and at Tres Palmas.[1]

Leatherback turtles have been listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since June 2, 1970.

Life History

The Leatherback Sea Turtle acquired its name from its leathery textured skin. Unlike most sea turtles, the Leatherback does not have scales. It is distinguished by a black or dark-brown carapace containing a few white or yellow blotches. This carapace also has seven ridges that run longitudinally from the head to the tail. Because of the great size of this animal, the neck and limbs are enormous. The two front flippers are powerful enough to travel great distances. The Leatherback, unlike other sea turtles, does not have claws on its flippers. This sea turtle is noted for being the largest of all sea turtles ever discovered. The smallest Leatherback can weight a minimum of 640 pounds and a maximum of 1,300 pounds. The largest Leatherback ever recorded was almost 3 meters (10 feet) long from his nose across the curve of the shell to his tail. However, this is not true for all Leatherbacks; the average is 61 inches.

The Leatherback prefers to stay close to the continental shelf, for nesting purposes. Sandy beaches are ideal nesting spots for the Leatherbacks. The sand must be deep enough for the female to produce a suitable nest. Because of the Leatherback's size, deep water and rough seas are important to aid in locomotion.

The decrease in the Leatherback's population is mainly due to human's destruction. For example: pollution, plastic being mistaken for food, commercial shrimping and fishing trawlers, and drift nets. Another concern is the artificial light found at the popular nesting beaches of the Leatherback Sea Turtle. This light tends to lead the hatchlings toward the light and away from the sea. This leaves the young turtles vulnerable to humans.[1]

For more information on Leatherback turtles, see: and

Other Coastal Ecosystems

The Puerto Rico Sea Grant College Program is devoted to the conservation and sustainable use of coastal and marine resources in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean region. Their mission is two-fold: to conduct excellent scientific research in the areas of water quality, fisheries and mariculture, seafood safety, marine recreation and coastal tourism, coastal hazards and coastal communities economic development; and to apply their scientific knowledge to solve a variety of problems communities of users in Puerto Rico face every day.

Coral Reefs

In December 2010 USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Director of the Caribbean Area Edwin Almodovar announced NRCS and its partners would fund seven projects to protect near shore coral reef ecosystems in the Guánica Bay/Rio Loco Watershed in Southwest Puerto Rico. Included in the seven projects was this one:

  • Guánica Estuary and Coral Reef Education, Caribbean Maritime Education Center, Inc., $25,000. The center will promote educational activities and opportunities for positive interactions within the Guánica watershed. The educational activities are designed to increase awareness about the plight of the Guánica estuary, coral reefs, manatees and other sea life. The center also will maintain a library of proper erosion and sediment control materials.

The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force identified the need for more focused action at the local level to reduce key threats to coral reefs and called for each of the states and territories with significant coral reef resources to develop local action strategies.

Puerto Rico has an estimated 15,709 acres of coral reef communities, not including Mona Island and the Tourmaline Reefs.

Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

The Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (JBNERR) comprises approximately 2,800 acres of coastal wetland and subtidal habitats. Three coastal habitats of particular ecological and economic significance are found within the reserve’s boundaries: (1) mangrove forests, (2) seagrass beds, and (3) coral reefs. These habitats form one of the most complex, diverse, and productive coastal associations in the world, and therefore represent a valuable opportunity for environmental research and education. The reserve’s rich natural resources and its designation as a National Estuarine Research Reserve make it an ideal site to pilot research, education, and resource management initiatives that may be transferable to other coastal areas throughout the commonwealth.

The Jobos Bay Reserve is the second largest estuarine area in Puerto Rico. It encompasses a chain of 15 tear shaped mangrove islets known as Cayos Caribe and the Mar Negro area in western Jobos Bay. The reserve is home to the endangered brown pelican, peregrine falcon, hawksbill sea turtle, and West Indian manatee. It is commercially important for marine recreation, commercial and recreational fishing, and ecotourism.[2]

The Coastal Training Program (CTP) is a key element of the NERRS’ education program. CTP is designed to: (1) improve coastal stewardship at local and regional levels by increasing the application of science-based knowledge and skills by coastal decision-makers; and (2) increase dialogue and collaboration among decision-makers.

Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve

A 316-acre nodule of land on Puerto Rico’s extreme northeast tip, the Las Cabezas de San Juan Reserva Natural ‘El Faro’ protects a threatened bioluminescent bay, rare flora and fauna, lush rainforest, various trails and boardwalks, and an important scientific research center. Despite its diminutive size, the reserve shelters seven – yes seven – different ecological systems, including beaches, lagoons, dry forest, coral reefs and mangroves. Animal species that forage here include big iguanas, fiddler crabs, myriad insects and all kinds of birds. Such condensed biodiversity is typical of Puerto Rico’s compact island status and ‘Las Cabezas’ is highlighted as an integral part of the commonwealth’s vital – but dangerously threatened – Northeast Ecological Corridor.

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

Ernesto Diaz Velasquez
Coastal Zone Management Program

Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
Call Box B
Aguirre, PR 00704
Phone: (787) 853-4617


  1. 1.0 1.1 Hall, K.V. 1994. "Marine turtle nesting in western puerto rico" final report for the cooperative agreement between the u.s. fish and wildlife service and the sea grand college program, university of puerto rico mayaguez campus. Coop. Agreement NO. 1448-0004-93-929.

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