State of the Beach/State Reports/TX/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
- quality of habitat,
- status of ‘indicator’ species,
- maintenance of species richness, and
- 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.
Although Texas does monitor and regulate beach grooming practices, they have not established any statewide "wildlife friendly" grooming practices. “Sea turtle friendly” policies are being developed. Approximately 10% of the sandy beach coastline is groomed regularly.
The City of South Padre Island has a brochure on Beach Maintenance Procedures that appropriately recognizes the ecological and erosion protection functions of natural beaches. Here is a blog post by Surfrider activist Rob Nixon, explaining the beach raking policy on South Padre Island.
The City of Corpus Christi has a beach maintenance plan which is quite detailed, with sargassum benchmarks and what is to be done at each benchmark (certain sections were highlighted by Rob Nixon). The U.S. Corps of Engineers required Corpus Christi, as it is doing with Cameron County, to revise their beach management plan to address concerns over environmental impact.
The subject of sargassum removal (when, how much and how) has been a subject of debate along the Texas coast for many years. Here is a 2007 article from a Corpus Christi newspaper that discusses this issue.
The state indirectly has policies that consider the impacts of beach fill projects on beach ecology — most Gulf beach fill projects require a permit from the Corps of Engineers and the ecological impacts are evaluated during that process.
Although bulldozing the beach is not allowed, front-end loaders are allowed to clear beach access roads, which often result in the placement of large amounts of seaweed along the dune line.
Impacts of driving on the beach: Case studies from Assateague Island and Padre Island National Seashores was published in Ocean & Coastal Management in October 2012. The article's conclusions are:
- Driving on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore leads to a lower beach and dune elevation in areas where the accumulation of seaweed wrack contributes the development and seaward growth of the dunes. The beach wrack is removed directly by raking to allow for vehicle passage or through compaction and pulverization by vehicles.
- Driving on the beach at Assateague Island National Seashore following storms limits the ability of dune vegetation and ultimately the foredune to recover. Consistent with the results from Padre Island National Seashore, driving on the beach does not affect the volume of sediment within the beach-dune system, but it lowers the elevation of the dunes through a reduction in the elevation of the base elevation.
- The lower elevation of the beach and dune makes the driving section of both islands susceptible to scarping and overwash during storms, which in turn causes sediment to be transported landward of the dune through blowouts and washover. In other words, the lower crest elevations represent a long-term threat to island resiliency that requires greater consideration by management.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Coast Guard regulate the use of personal watercraft, in part to minimize impacts to wildlife that may utilize beach areas for foraging, nesting, or reproduction.
In April 2011 the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Trustees for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill announced that BP had agreed to provide $1 billion toward early restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico to address impacts to natural resources caused by the spill. The funds will be used to support projects such as the rebuilding of coastal marshes, replenishment of damaged beaches, conservation of sensitive ocean and coastal habitat, and restoration of barrier islands and wetlands that provide natural storms protection. Each Gulf state - Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas - will select and implement $100 million in projects; the Federal Resource Trustees, NOAA and Department of the Interior (DOI), will each select and implement $100 million in projects; and the remaining $300 million will be used for projects selected by NOAA and DOI from proposals submitted by the State Trustees. Additional information, including a link to the full agreement, is available online here.
Texas Coastal Program
The Texas Coastal Program, approved by NOAA in 1996, is comprised of a network of agencies under the jurisdiction of the Coastal Coordination Council. The Council is chaired by the Commissioner of the General Land Office and is composed of 12 members; seven agency heads, four citizen members from the coast and a representative of the Texas Sea Grant College Program as a non-voting member. The Texas General Land Office is the designated lead coastal management agency. The Coastal Coordination Act is the primary authority for the Texas Coastal Program.
Texas defines its coastal zone as the area seaward of the Texas coastal facility designation line, up to three marine leagues into the Gulf of Mexico.
Under the Texas Coastal Management Program, coastal preserves are any lands owned by the state that are designated and used as parks, recreation areas, scientific areas, wildlife management areas, wildlife refuges, or historic sites and that are designated by the TPWD as being coastal in character. Under the Texas Coastal Preserve Program, the GLO leases coastal lands to the TPWD which manages them as preserves. The Coastal Preserve Program is designed to protect unique coastal areas and fragile biological communities, including important colonial bird nesting sites.
Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program
The Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP), a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program, provides grants to eligible state agencies and local governments to acquire 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.ram==
These properties must be within the 18 coastal counties. In Texas, local governments apply for this funding through the Texas General Land Office. The maximum amount that may be requested for the federal share of each project is $3 million. Texas may select and submit up to three projects for this national competition.
The Texas CELCP Plan was approved by NOAA in August 2010 and is available here.
The Gulf of Mexico Alliance is a partnership of the states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, with the goal of significantly increasing regional collaboration to enhance the ecological and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico. The five U.S. Gulf States have identified six priority issues that are regionally significant and can be effectively addressed through increased collaboration at local, state, and federal levels:
- Water Quality;
- Habitat Conservation and Restoration;
- Ecosystem Integration and Assessment;
- Nutrients & Nutrient Impacts;
- Coastal Community Resilience; and
- Environmental Education
Texas does not have a program in place for collecting data related to beach ecology. Neither have they identified priority species to monitor as indicators of beach health. Texas has not completed any biodiversity inventories for sandy beaches. No monitoring of contaminants of beach sediments has been conducted through NOAA's National Status and Trends Program.
Texas has identified certain critical habitats that overlap or fall within sandy beach systems. Some of these areas have been designated by oil spill response resource agencies.
Natural Resources Inventory Program
In 1993, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 1049, mandating a greater role for the state's natural resource trustee agencies in monitoring the condition of natural resources along the Texas coast. These trustee agencies include the Texas General Land Office (GLO), Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The legislation authorized the Texas Coastal Natural Resource Inventory (NRI), a program administered jointly by the trustee agencies to compile chemical, physical, biological, commercial, and public use data pertaining to coastal resources. The data are intended to provide a baseline for use in assessing the impacts of oil and hazardous waste spills in the bays or Gulf of Mexico. The NRI was a one-time effort to pull together existing information and current data although the framework now exists to which revisions could be made should funding be secured.
Data Categories include:
Biological and Conservation Data
The Texas Biological and Conservation Database (BCD) compiles information about the occurrence of rare, unusual, and threatened animal and plant species and communities in Texas. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) compiled occurrence and natural feature records within coastal counties from the BCD. This information is provided as an INFO data table containing the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) quad in which each record occurs. This information is intended to assist response officials by avoiding harm to species that may occur in a given USGS quad area. These data do not provide a definite statement as to the presence or absence of specific species or natural communities within any given area, nor can these data be substituted for on-site evaluation by qualified biologists.
The GRANK, SRANK, USESA and SPROT fields give the global and state rarity and federal and state protective status (if any) for each resource. Abbreviations used are: G=Global; S=State; 1=Critically imperiled, extremely rare, 5 or fewer occurrences; 2=Imperiled, very rare, 6-20 occurrences; 3=Rare and local thoughout range, 21-100 occurrences; 4=Apparently secure; 5=Secure; A=Accidental; Q or U or ?=Questionable or uncertain rank; T=Subspecies or variety rank; L=Listed; P=Proposed; E=Endangered; T=Threatened; C1=Candidate, data are being gathered; C2=Candidate, more data needed; 3C=Former candidate, rejected; NA=Not Applicable.
Five of the world's seven sea turtle species are found in the Gulf of Mexico: leatherback, hawksbill, green, loggerhead and Kemp's ridley. These magnificent marine animals, once abundant in the oceans, have declined during the last century. Human development on turtle nesting beaches, harvesting of the eggs, slaughtering for food and consumer products, and incidental capturing by the fishing industry are to blame for dwindling turtle populations. Each of the five sea turtle species of the Gulf is now classified as either threatened or endangered and could become extinct unless steps are taken to protect and enhance its populations. Over at least the past 60 years, some sea turtles have nested on South Texas beaches. From late-March through July, National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey employees and volunteers search the beaches of Padre Island for nesting sea turtles and their eggs.
Upper Texas coast beaches also provide sea turtle nesting habitat. Record numbers have been recorded each year for the past five years, with over 200 documented nests on the upper Texas coast (north of the Colorado River) in 2008.
Unfortunately, the National Park Service under President Bush gave the green light to "an aggressive drilling campaign" that could involve drilling 20 or more natural gas wells on Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. And it did so without formally consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as required by the Endangered Species Act. In 2002, BNP Petroleum of Texas began drilling its first well in the park, the longest undeveloped barrier beach in the world. Park Service approval for a third drilling permit is likely soon, despite the use of the island by the Kemp's ridley sea turtle every spring for nesting. Each drilling operation involves plowing an access road through the dunes, allowing hundreds of trips by tractor-trailer trucks up and down the beach, bulldozing a square-mile site or more for each well pad, and installing a 100-foot-tall rig, according to Fred Richardson, a Texas volunteer with the Sierra Club who has monitored the issue. The drilling puts in jeopardy 25 years of work by the Park Service to bring back the Kemp's ridley sea turtle in the U.S. They are the smallest and most critically endangered type of sea turtle in the world, with only about 3,000 to 5,000 adults remaining. Padre Island is also the only U.S. location where all five protected species of sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico have nested. The main risk to turtles is the heavy trucks on the beach. The trucks could crush nests or pack down the sand so that hatchlings are unable to emerge from nests. Even the vibrations from rumbling trucks can increase the likelihood of embryonic damage or mortality, according to the species' official "Sea Turtle Recovery Plan."
Here's a little more detail about the history of Kemp's ridley sea turtles in Texas:
Due to concerns about a plummeting number of nesting Kemp's ridley sea turtles at Rancho Nuevo in southern Tamaulipas, Mexico (as much as 42,000 were observed nesting in a single day in 1947, but by 1970 there were only 2,500 and by 1977 1,200), a program to try to "imprint" hatchlings on a Texas beach was devised and implemented. Between 1978 and 1988, biologists collected 2,000 eggs per year from Mexico and placed them in coolers filled with Padre Island sand to incubate at Padre Island National Seashore. After they hatched, the biologists just let them splash in the surf before scooping them up to be reared at a National Marine Fisheries Service lab in Galveston in a program called Head Start. Once the turtles reached dinner plate size, they were released into the Gulf, with the hopes that some would return to Padre Island to nest. Between 1980 and 1995, more than 1,000 Kemp's ridleys stranded--injured or dead--along the Texas coast, far more than the handful that nested. But in 1996 a head-started turtle retuned to Texas. Since then, 14 Padre-imprinted head-start ridleys have made 29 nests in Texas. Several thousand additional hatchlings from Rancho Nuevo nests were head-started and released in Texas from 1989 through 2000, with the assumption that they would return to their native beach in Mexico. At least 17 have returned to nest in Texas. Now the hatchlings are released on the beach and allowed to scurry into the ocean rather that being raised in a lab. In 2005 there were 51 Kemp's ridley nests along the Texas coast, and in 2006 100 nests were counted. A record 128 Kemp's ridley sea turtle nests were counted during summer 2007 on Texas beaches. The majority were found in the Corpus Christi area, including 81 on North Padre Island and four on Mustang Island. Wildlife officials released 10,594 Kemp's ridleys hatchlings along the Texas coast during 2007.
On Padre Island, the land to the north of the ship channel dividing the island is the federally protected Padre Island National Seashore, a wilderness area. South of the ship channel, at the northern end of South Padre Island, the land until recently was owned by the Nature Conservancy and is a haven for sea turtles, piping plovers and brown pelicans. Willacy County expressed the desire to buy land on the island to construct a place to load and unload a ferry from Port Mansfield. The Nature Conservancy and other environmentalists were concerned that opening up public access to the island would threaten wildlife. In June 2007 the Nature Conservancy donated its 1,500-acre South Padre Island Preserve to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for inclusion in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has some information about leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill, green, and kemp's ridley sea turtles.
Additional information about beach ecology is available from the Gulf of Mexico Foundation.
The following article discusses the increasing pressures on sand dune habitats:
Researchers from Texas A&M University created a model to better understand the impacts of development and coastal erosion on plant communities, including plants that grow in the ever-shrinking strip of habitat between land and the ocean. In most circumstances, as coastlines erode, plant communities are displaced away from the ocean, unless blocked by a barrier, such as a cliff. In areas like Galveston Island, natural cliffs are not the issue, but development and non-native lawns block the plants' migration.
The research found that the combination of human-created barriers and sea level rise trapped plants in a small zone, altering the plant population as well as the dune structure. Larger, sturdier plants -- late-succession species -- are the most important to preserve, yet these are the most likely species to be lost. These plants are critical in the formation of dunes, binding sediments, and reducing erosion, both in the long term and during events such as hurricanes. They also provide critical habitat for endangered animals such as the Kemp's ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii).
According to the scientists, in a low sea-rise scenario, plant communities fully developed over five years, but in cases of moderate and high sea level rise, plant communities were too stressed to grow in many areas, leading to smaller dunes and an eventual breakdown of dune formation. In the higher water scenarios, the plant populations no longer provided windblocks, elevated dune structures, or added to the sand and soil fertility.
On Galveston Island, "the loss of such species is already occurring, where sea oats (Uniola paniculata) have disappeared due to a combination of human-induced disturbance and climate change," say the researchers.
All this means faster erosion and less protection for the people, animals, and buildings on Galveston Island.
Other Coastal Ecosystems
Texas Coastal Preserves
Under the Coastal Management Program, coastal preserves are any lands owned by the state that are designated and used as parks, recreation areas, scientific areas, wildlife management areas, wildlife refuges, or historic sites and that are designated by the TPWD as being coastal in character. Under the Texas Coastal Preserve Program, the GLO leases coastal lands to the TPWD which manages them as preserves. The Coastal Preserve Program is designed to protect unique coastal areas and fragile biological communities, including important colonial bird nesting sites. Coastal preserves are also Gulf Ecological Management Sites (GEMS). See the TPWD GEMS Website for descriptions of each GEM site, including the Coastal Preserves. Currently, there are four coastal preserves: Christmas Bay, Welder Flats, South Bay, and Armand Bayou.
The Mission-Aransas Reserve is part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) and is a large contiguous complex of wetland, terrestrial, and marine environments named for the two river systems that flow into it. Located on the Texas Coastal Bend 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, the Reserve's 185,708 acres is representative of Western Gulf estuaries. Its extensive public and private lands include coastal prairie, oak motte, riparian freshwater, and salt marsh habitats. The Reserve includes the private Fennessey Ranch with its more than 2,000 acres of uplands and 9 miles of river frontage. The Reserve's water areas consist of three large, open and shallow bays that support extensive tidal flats, seagrass beds, mangroves, and oyster reefs. The largest wetland habitat (24,400 acres) on the north side of the reserve is part of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and is the winter home to the critically endangered Whooping Crane.
Species catch data were collected by the Coastal Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). The sampling was conducted by four methods: bag seine, beach seine (upper Texas coast only), gill net, and trawl. The data files represent locations of catchment with a unique ID that can be used to query the files containing environmental data about each location and sample data including records of the number, size, weight and other attributes of fish and invertebrate species caught.
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.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
4200 Smith School Road
Austin, TX 78744
Toll Free: (800) 792-1112
Austin: (512) 389-4800
Texas General Land Office
Phone: (512) 463-5100
Gulf of Mexico Foundation
PMB 51 - 5403 Everhart
Corpus Christi, TX 78411-4895
(361) 882-1262 fax
- Tammy Brooks, Program Specialist, TCMP. Surfrider State of the Beach survey response. December 2003.
- Sierra Club press release
- National Park Service biologist Darrell Echols, Endangered Species Bulletin, Jan/Feb 2002.
- National Park Service
- National Park Service
- "Squeezing Out Dune Plants: Coastal Erosion, Global Sea-Level Rise, and the Loss of Sand Dune Plant Habitats." Science Daily. September 23, 2005.
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