State of the Beach/State Reports/AL/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.
ADEM Admin. Code R. 335-8-2-.08 describes regulations for construction and other activities on Gulf beaches and dunes. These regulations include protection of beach and dune vegetation.
Policies and procedures vary with respect to dealing with collections of seaweed that wash up on the beach. Sometimes the material is left to naturally decay, sometimes it is hauled away, but more often it is buried at the high tide line, which helps stabilize the beach. This procedure is recommended by the state.
In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan wiped out an area called Florida Point, and sand from that area was deposited by the hurricane into Perdido Pass. Perdido Pass had been the subject of an earlier cooperative regional sediment management project, and by building on that expertise and planning, the Army Corps of Engineers was able to deposit the dredged materials from Perdido Pass following Hurricane Ivan to recreate bird nesting habitat. The project started in November and birds were nesting by late March. The Corps and Alabama Coastal Area Management Program (ACAMP) are also discussing plans for use of fine-grained sand material that is currently dredged from Mobile Bay and either dumped in upland sites or in an ocean dump site. The materials would be good for marsh restoration, so this use is being discussed.
The Gulf of Mexico Program (GMP), which is underwritten by the US EPA, is a consortium of organizations working together to restore, protect, and maintain the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem in ways consistent with the economic well-being of the region. In addition to the five US gulf coast states, members include: the Gulf of Mexico Business Coalition, the American Farm Bureau, the Gulf Restoration Network, the Conference of Southern County Association, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Gulf State Association of Conservation Districts, the Gulf of Mexico Citizens Advisory Committee and the following Federal Agencies: EPA, DOD, DOI, DOC, FDA, DOT and DOA. The program is a non-regulatory effort to foster good stewardship of the Gulf's resources and supports both local and regional efforts. Since its inception in 1998, the GMP has supported 575 projects valued at over $44 million across the Gulf.
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
The Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP) was established by Section 384 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to assist producing states and their coastal political subdivisions in mitigating the impacts from Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas production. The CIAP legislation appropriated $250 million per year for fiscal years 2007 through 2010 to be distributed among eligible producing States and the coastal political subdivisions. The State of Alabama is one of six states eligible to receive CIAP funding. Governor Bob Riley designated the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) as the lead agency for development and implementation of the CIAP. The State Lands Division provides primary day-to-day management of the program for the ADCNR and has coordinated closely with the coastal political subdivisions in development of a CIAP Plan. A CIAP Plan must first be approved by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) prior to receiving CIAP funding for any specific project identified in the Plan.
In Alabama, the CIAP eligible recipients are the State of Alabama (through the ADCNR), the Baldwin County Commission, and the Mobile County Commission. Funding will be utilized to implement projects outlined in the CIAP Plan. Approved projects must meet the following authorized uses, as established by Congress:
- Projects and activities for the conservation, protection, or restoration of coastal areas, including wetlands;
- Mitigation of damage to fish, wildlife, or natural resources;
- Planning assistance and the administrative costs of complying with CIAP;
- Implementation of a federally approved marine, coastal, or comprehensive conservation management plan; and
- Mitigation of the impact of OCS activities through funding of onshore infrastructure projects and public service needs.
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.
Other Federal Programs
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to designate portions of island and mainland coastal beaches in six states along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico as critical habitat for the Northwest Atlantic (NWA) population of loggerhead sea turtles. In total, 90 nesting sites in coastal counties located in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi were identified for possible designation as critical habitat for the NWA population of loggerhead sea turtles. These sites incorporate about 740 shoreline miles: about 48 percent of an estimated 1,531 miles of coastal beach shoreline, and consist of nesting sites with or immediately adjacent to locations with the highest nesting densities (approximately 84 percent of the documented nesting) within these six states.
In July 2014 NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the proposed rule was final, designating critical habitat for the turtle out of some 700 miles of beaches and nearly 300,000 miles of ocean along the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico. Details and maps.
The Alabama Sea Turtles website has substantial information on Green, Kemp's Ridley, and Loggerhead Sea Turtles. From May through October each year dozens of sea turtles lay their eggs on Alabama beaches, producing thousands of hatchlings. The "Share the Beach" volunteer program monitors nesting activity and educates the public about Alabama's sea turtles.
Alabama Beach Mouse
The Alabama Beach Mouse was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1986. The Alabama beach mouse is one of several subspecies of old field mice living only in coastal sand dune areas. These small, light-colored mice burrow and nest in dunes and are primarily active at night. They eat various plant seeds and insects. They prefer sand-covered slopes with patches of sea oats, beach grass, other grasses, and herbs. Interior sand dune ridges provide vital habitat for survival during flooding. Beach mice are an important part of the coastal dune ecosystem, and thriving beach mouse populations indicate a healthy dune system. The mice themselves contribute by collecting and distributing seeds. Uneaten seeds grow into plants that help to stabilize dunes. Beach mice are also an important part of the food chain, providing a food source for dune predators such as snakes and owls. The Draft Assessment and Strategy (October 2010) notes "loss of habitat for endangered beach mouse (Alabama beach mouse and Perdido beach mouse)."
Other Coastal Ecosystems
An ambitious effort to create 100 miles of oyster reefs and 1,000 acres of marsh in Mobile Bay began in January 2011. The initial effort plans to place 23,000 bags of oyster shells just off the bayfront shoreline of Helen Wood Park, creating the first quarter mile of the planned 100 miles of reefs. 100-1000 Restore Coastal Alabama is a public/private partnership for restoration of Alabama's Gulf Coast. This project physically constructs oyster reefs and promotes the development of marsh and seagrass habitat, primarily through natural recruitment, but with supplemental planting as well.
A recent study was conducted by the Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (ADCNR), State Lands Division, Natural Heritage Section (NHS) and funded by Section 306 to monitor marsh birds in the coastal area because past research has shown that these birds are considered an indicator species of wetland health (Eddleman et al. 1988). Researchers from the NHS contributed to this effort by establishing a methodology to survey, and then actually surveying, marsh birds during the breeding season along the coastal marshes, barrier islands, and within the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. The data obtained from the survey resulted in 1,265 georeferenced database records of the targeted species and an additional 2,379 ancillary records were developed, accounting for a combined total of 3,644 records currently housed in the NHS database. The goal of the ACAMP in funding such studies is to contribute to better management of coastal resources. The NHS met this goal by using its findings to contribute to a number of projects and presentations that would promote a better understanding of the current distribution, status, and ecology of coastal marsh bird populations in Alabama and beyond. These projects and presentations are listed below:
- Alabama Breeding Bird Atlas
- US Fish & Wildlife Service King Rail Conservation Plan (2008), where the NHS project not only identified the current distribution of King Rails along coastal Alabama, but also established a baseline that can now be comparable with future King Rail surveys.
- National Marsh Bird Monitoring Program, which has a database that serves as a repository for all marsh bird data to be used for ongoing national and regional monitoring efforts.
Submerged Aquatic Vegetation
There are over 20 species of submerged aquatic plants from the northern extent of the Mobile Tensaw Delta to the southern portions of Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound. The ACAMP strategy is to continue to map areas of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAVs) in order to better establish the causes of fluctuations in SAV coverage. Pending funding, the ACAMP will work with partners to map SAVs on a three-to-five year cycle and use the results to further understand the long- and short-termed trends in SAV coverage. The next cycle begins in 2011-2012.
The ACAMP is funding an analysis of historic SAV through a sub-award with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL). This study will use SAV coverage and species composition information from mapping efforts in 1980-81, 1987, 1994, 2002 and 2008-09 and compare it to historical precipitation, river flow and tropical storm event data in order to determine if a statistical relationship exists between these data. To date, the DISL has begun gathering and processing GIS data in order to perform a statistical analysis of SAV coverage in the Alabama coastal area. Final results from this study will be compiled in a report and will be submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific publication for consideration.
National Coastal Assessment
Alabama estuaries cover an area of 610 square miles, including Mobile Bay, the fourth largest estuary on the North American continent. Mobile Bay drains a watershed of approximately 43,662 square miles, receiving an average of 460,000 gallons per second of freshwater.
The U.S. EPA's National Coastal Assessment (NCA) is a multi-year partnership with EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD), EPA's Regional office, all coastal states, and selected territories. Alabama entered the program in 2000 and sampled through 2004. Samples were collected to determine water quality, sediment quality, and biota at fifty sampling locations, each to be revisited on a yearly basis. The NCA program is based on EPA's Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP), using a compatible probabilistic program and a common set of environmental indicators to survey each state's estuaries and assess their condition. These estimates can then be aggregated to assess conditions at EPA's regional, biogeographical, and national levels. Download the report.
NOAA's 2008 evaluation of the Alabama Coastal Area Management Program (ACAMP) noted:
- The ACAMP has been supportive of research involving aspects of coastal habitat. Wetland and submerged aquatic vegetation protection has been a priority of ACAMP even before this evaluation period. Both the current and previous Section 309 assessments and strategies identified wetlands as a high priority. Staff of ACAMP participates in the Mobile Bay NEP Coastal Habitat Coordinating Team. The coastal program and the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (NEP) are mapping uplands and wetlands in the coastal counties, and the NEP maintains the database. Such mapping and data can provide the justification and scientific underpinning for management decisions about habitat loss, change, and trends. Funds were also provided to the City of Gulf Shores to develop a local wetlands ordinance.
- The Division of State Lands Natural Heritage Program completed an inventory and evaluation of the flora and fauna of Lillian Swamp, phase II of the rallid (bird family of rails, gallinules, and coots) survey along Alabama coastal marshes, and phase II of the survey of pitcher plant bogs. The Natural Heritage Program functions as a central depository for historic and current biological distribution records of species that occur within Alabama. The depository enhances conservation by supporting planning and operations of academic research, federal and state agencies, as well as developmental planning interests.
- The University of Alabama received funding to conduct a project assessing the historical salinity variation in Choccolatta and Mobile Bays. This is being done by analysis of mollusk shells obtained from core samples. The Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) has been a significant partner with the ACAMP (and Weeks Bay NERR within the Coastal Section) as well. During this evaluation period, researchers at DISL received ACAMP funds to research the trophic dynamics of created and natural salt marshes in coastal Alabama. The studies concentrate on the interactions between a predatory species (the blue crab) and an herbivorous marsh periwinkle, which grazes on Spartina. A newer restored marsh and two older sites were studied to provide insight into marsh function.
- The ACAMP is commended for its commitment to provide some funding for various coastal habitat and water quality (see section below) research projects, recognizing that such studies and projects can provide the scientific basis and justification for making coastal resource management decisions. It has recognized that a strong partnership with the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s Coastal Training Program is one vehicle for provide this information and data to coastal managers and decision-makers. The coastal program should seek ways to “translate” the research information and data into a format and information that managers and decision-makers with little science background can use and should seek additional venues to provide this information.
Land-preservation groups and the property owner have joined forces to promote state acquisition of one of the last pieces of undeveloped Gulf shoreline left in Alabama -- the 112-acre Gulf Highlands property on the Fort Morgan Peninsula. The Alabama Coastal Heritage Trust, Weeks Bay Foundation, Mobile Bay Audubon Society and Gulf Highlands, LLC, which owns the parcel that includes 2,700 feet of beach frontage, asked in a letter sent in September 2013 that the Alabama conservation department use a portion of its share of BP criminal penalty monies through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to fund the purchase. More info.
Weeks Bay Reserve encompasses more than 6,000 acres of tidal and forested wetlands within the greater Mobile Bay estuarine system along the northern Gulf of Mexico. Weeks Bay is a small estuary fringed with a variety of wetland habitats receiving freshwater from the Fish and Magnolia Rivers. Located along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay between the major metropolitan areas of Mobile, AL and Pensacola, FL, the Reserve's land (1,645 acres) and water (4,880 acres) habitats support numerous rare and endangered species including the brown pelican, eastern indigo snake and the Alabama red-bellied turtle. Significant efforts have been made to restore a regionally significant habitat at the Reserve. Fire dependent pitcher plant bogs contain a myriad of rare species and are easily accessible on the Reserve's self-guiding nature trails.
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.
Chief, Coastal Section
State Lands Division, ADCNR
Program Chief, Coastal Programs Office
Department of Environmental Management
- Eddleman, W.R., Knopf, F.L., Meanley, B., Reid, F.A., and Zembal, R. 1988. Conservation of north american rallids. Wilson Bull. 100 (3): 458-475.
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