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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
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.
Washington tends to look at beaches as an integral part of the nearshore system which is centered on the intertidal zone, and extends both landward and seaward. On the landward side the nearshore extends a variable distance into dune fields, marshes, low banks, and bluffs — in general, the "riparian zone." On the waterward side the nearshore extends a variable distance over subtidal zones. Beaches, or the intertidal area, are rarely addressed in isolation as that would have no utility in science or management, and would be detrimental to the goals of science and management programs.
For example: the sand supply for Washington's southwest coast ocean beaches comes from the Columbia River basin. On the other hand, the sediment supply which maintains Puget Sound beaches comes principally from the slow, chronic erosion of the Puget Sound banks and bluffs, and rather little from the watersheds.
As another example, to a large degree, the ecologic integrity of Puget Sound beaches as habitat for spawning Surf Smelt or Pacific Herring is dependent on shade from over-hanging trees and large brush rooted above the beach in banks and bluffs. In places these over-hanging trees cantilever over the beach tens of feet, their shade moderating beach temperatures and evaporation of pore water in the upper intertidal.
Beach fill rarely occurs in Washington, therefore the state has no specific beach fill policies other than the general coastal management policies in the Shoreline Management Act. Because of this, there are no specific policies directed at beach ecological health considerations for beach fill projects. Instead the state relies on the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), Washington's state version of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which requires environmental assessment, and possibly a full environmental impact statement (EIS) when necessary. Similarly, beach grooming is not practiced (and is essentially unknown) in Washington, so there are no beach ecology policies for this practice.
Washington's Shoreline Management Act (SMA) recognizes the importance of protecting and preserving the ecological function of shorelines and natural resources but also recognizes the value of shorelines for human use. Therefore, under the SMA, local governments must develop Shoreline Master Plans (SMPs) to balance land use and preservation within 200 feet of the shore. The local Shoreline Master Plans must be consistent with statewide guidance and be updated regularly. The state's amended Shoreline Master Program Guidelines Rule, which was adopted in December 2003, requires Shoreline Master Plans to ensure "no net loss" of the shoreline's ecological function. The Shoreline Master Plans must also include a system for classifying the shoreline into six specific environmental designations (Natural, Rural Conservancy, Aquatic, High-Intensity, Urban Conservancy, and Shoreline Residential) and a map of the shoreline showing the boundaries for each designation. Environmental designations are based on the level and type of development present, the significance of shoreline resources in the area, the suitability of the area for development (e.g. Is it prone to erosion?), and whether or not it is located within a designated growth management area (an area where development is encouraged).
The type of environmental designation then dictates how much and what type of development and land use(s) are allowed, including what type of shoreline stabilization structures (if any) are allowed. For example, the statewide Shoreline Management Plan Guidance states that "natural" areas are relatively pristine stretches of shoreline with little shoreline modification or hardening. Some low-intensity, single-family residential development, agricultural and forestry activities using sustainable practices can be permitted. However, no structural shoreline stabilization or significant removal of riparian vegetation is allowed. "Rural conservancy" areas are slightly more developed than "natural" areas, however, new land uses should not substantially degrade the shoreline or its ecological function. Structural shoreline stabilization techniques are only allowed if there is a demonstrated need to protect existing development and "softer" stabilization approaches are not feasible.
Local governments use these state guidelines to develop more specific standards for shoreline development within their Shoreline Master Plans. For example, Bainbridge Island's 1996 Special Area Management Plan, which incorporates their shoreline plan, prohibits revetments and bulkheads in natural and aquatic conservancy areas. The Plan also stipulates that hardened shorelines are only permitted within the other designations after non-structural stabilization techniques are proven ineffective. In addition, for rural conservancy and shoreline residential areas, revetments and bulkheads are only allowed if another bulkhead exists within 100 feet of the proposed structure. If there are no existing bulkheads in the area, a new bulkhead is not permitted.
Visit the website for Washington's Shoreline Master Programs for more information about this program.
In December 2009, the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) published guidance on “no net loss” of shoreline ecological functions for local governments updating their Shoreline Master Programs (SMP). A new chapter in the SMP Handbook explains the no net loss principle. It also provides examples of practices local governments can employ to achieve no net loss and includes steps they can take to demonstrate no net loss through their SMP planning process, during project review and permitting, and over time. Ecology has publicized the availability of this new resource through its quarterly coordination meetings for local governments updating SMPs, through emails, and on its website.
Ecology is currently developing a list of potential indicators of no net loss that local governments can measure to assess the effectiveness of the no net loss policy. These indicators may include the acreage of riparian vegetation, length of shoreline armoring, etc. Ecology expects to release the final list during the first quarter of 2010. Local governments will track several indicators over time and report on their progress on achieving no net loss as part of their SMP review cycle, which is required every seven years.
In June 2011, Washington's Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) released the report State of the Washington Coast: Ecology, Management, and Research Priorities. The report describes the ecosystems of the outer coast, including sandy beaches, from Cape Flattery to the Columbia River. It discusses both the natural physical and human pressures on sandy beaches, such as oil spills, harvest and human disturbance, and habitat loss, and the effects of these stressors on beach ecology. The report then goes on to describe the current management of beach ecology, such as snowy plover protection, intertidal monitoring in Olympic National Park, and studies on coastal erosion and their relation to beach ecology. Finally, the report outlines the state's plan to develop ecosystem-based maangement strategies, including indicators to measure ecosystem health:
"Despite a general agreement about the need for an ecosystem‐based approach across public and private sectors and across state and regional agencies, Washington’s outer coast lacks a governance structure for setting indicators and thresholds for ecosystem health or for setting policy objectives to assess status and work towards meeting management goals at an ecosystem scale. Some work to document the current condition of coastal resources has been done, focusing on the north outer coast. The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary assessed the threats to sanctuary resources in its 2008 Condition Report according to the system‐wide monitoring protocol of the National Marine Sanctuary System, which relies on surveys of experts but does not integrate local or regional stakeholders in identifying appropriate indicators or setting the thresholds for desired ecosystem states (Office of National Marine Sanctuaries 2008). Without indicators and thresholds, a data‐driven, quantitative analysis of the status of coastal ecosystems – and adaptive management to move the ecosystem towards a more desirable state – would have no reference points to understand the current condition or the consequences of management actions.
Integrated ecosystem assessment comprises several steps: scoping, indicator development, risk analysis, management strategy evaluation, and monitoring and evaluation (Levin et al. 2009). Stakeholder involvement, such as that engendered by the Sea Grant workshops (Risien et al. 2009), demonstrates considerable interest by the community and potential for success in the first step, scoping, which identifies societal objectives and threats relating to the ecosystem. Next, indicators must be developed to assess the status and trends in the state of the ecosystem. Tallis et al. (2010) emphasized the need to establish thresholds for each ecosystem indicator, likely requiring modeling and simulation to establish a “health” level for the indicator. The next step, risk analysis, often uses ecosystem modeling to quantify the status of ecosystem indicators. Management strategy evaluation can then be used to help identify policies and methods to meet ecosystem objectives. Following the adaptive management model, ongoing monitoring and evaluation is needed to determine which strategies are working and what changes are needed."
WDFW monitors and manages the state's population of snowy plovers, which is listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act and Endangered by the state. WDFW has reports on snowy plover recovery efforts since 2006. More information here.
Washington has a program in place for collecting data related to beach ecology. The Nearshore Habitat Program at the state Department of Natural Resources is the lead agency for this inter-agency program in Washington State. Presently, the program is focused on the Puget Sound inland marine waters and beaches:
In addition, the newly adopted state regulations for local government adoption of updated shoreline master programs requires thorough shoreline inventories be completed as a basis for planning. These inventories by the coastal cities and counties will be completed on a staggered schedule from 2005 through 2014. These shoreline inventories will be compiled by the state Department of Ecology.
Ecology does not believe that monitoring so-called priority species is necessarily a useful or appropriate approach to characterizing nearshore or beach ecology. They believe that except in unusual circumstances, it is too often simplistic and yields misleading interpretations. They monitor assemblages of species (or communities). They believe that measures such as species richness, inter-annual variation in biota, and other integrated metrics are necessary to characterizing nearshore and beach ecology. Where they do monitor a species, such as Eelgrass, they do so because it is the dominant species in a habitat type.
Ecology uses the term 'priority species' as a collective term for endangered, threatened, or otherwise at-risk species. The Nearshore Habitat Program element which specifically addresses monitoring is the ShoreZone Inventory:
Detailed information is available at the SCALE: Spatial Classification and Landscape Extrapolation of Intertidal Biotic Communities in Central and South Puget Sound website.
The species monitored as a part of the species richness and inter-annual variation studies are numerous; please refer to the Web page here for both a listing and spatial distribution data.
An area of monitoring related to beach ecology is the evaluation of contaminants in beach sediments.
In Puget Sound, sand lance and surf smelt lay their eggs high in the intertidal zone of sandy beaches. As adults, these fish form a main part of the diet of salmon, rockfish, seals, and seabirds. The sand lance and surf smelt got a boost in 2012 when dams on the Elwha River were demolished. Since the dam removals, geologists have estimated that more than 3.3 million cubic yards of sediment, trapped behind the former Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam for decades, has been deposited at the mouth of the river. Surf smelt have now begun spawning on beaches near the Elwha River mouth, and eastern Freshwater Bay beaches nearby. Biologists believe that the next fish to return to the nearshore Elwha will be the sand lance.
Monitoring for contaminants in beach sediments has been conducted at:
The Puget Sound Nearshore Partnership is a large-scale initiative that affords a unique opportunity to tackle some of the foremost habitat restoration needs in Washington State's Puget Sound basin. Nearshore Project goals are to identify significant ecosystem problems, evaluate potential solutions, and restore and preserve critical nearshore habitat. They represent a partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), state, local, and federal government organizations, tribes, industries, and environmental organizations. Check out the many informative and useful technical reports produced by the Partnership, including:
In 2005, the City of Burien and the Corps of Engineers restored over one thousand feet of shoreline by removing the seawall and historic fill, nourishing the beach with sand and gravel, and planting vegetation. This improved numerous ecological functions, including the connection between the upland forest and the beach, the gradual delivery of sediment to the beach through erosion, and the potential for forage fish to spawn on the upper beach.
Washington has a Saltwater Algae Program and a Freshwater Algae Control Program. The Saltwater Algae Program focuses on sea lettuce (several species of the genus Ulva). Sea lettuce can grow rapidly and accumulate in thick piles driven by winds and currents. Sea lettuce tends to occur in shallow bays and inlets when the long hours of bright sunlight of the summer combine with a lack of wind and an influx of nutrients from a variety of sources. All types of seaweeds, including sea lettuce, are essential components of the Puget Sound ecosystem. They provide food for several species of sea birds, fish, and other marine animals, as well as shelter for several fish species. However at times, the decay of sea lettuce accumulations can release very unpleasant odors. Residents living near these beaches would like to be able to manage the accumulated sea lettuce and reduce the impact on their enjoyment of the shoreline. The Freshwater Algae Control Program focuses on providing local governments with the tools they need to manage algae problems. The program targets blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria) because these algae pose a health risk to humans, pets, and livestock.
Aquatic Habitat Guidelines (AHG) Program Description
In 1999, the governor's Salmon Recovery Office commissioned the Departments of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Ecology, and Transportation (WSDOT) to develop technical assistance guidance for those who want to protect and restore salmonid habitat. The scope of the program has recently broadened and now includes the promotion, protection, and restoration of fully functioning marine, freshwater, and riparian habitat through comprehensive and effective management of activities affecting Washington's aquatic and riparian ecosystems. Participation in the project has also expanded with the addition of the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation (IAC), the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to the list of contributing agencies.
The Aquatic Reserves Program is part of Department of Natural Resources (DNR) efforts to promote preservation, restoration, and enhancement of state-owned aquatic lands—sites that benefit the health of native aquatic habitat and species in the state. DNR is to establish state Aquatic Reserves to protect important native ecosystems on state-owned aquatic lands throughout the state. These are to be aquatic lands of special educational or scientific interest, or lands of special environmental importance. By examining past successes in site-based conservation, DNR helps ensure that aquatic reserve status is applied when it is the most appropriate management tool.
Baseline information on abundance and distribution has been collected. A Summary of Results of Spatial Patterns of Intertidal Biological Communities in Central and South Sound has been published. The most recent (April 2001) full report is The Intertidal Biota of Puget Sound Gravel Beaches. Community monitoring at the various sites is carried out on a rotating schedule. Many sites were sampled as recently as 2001, some not since 1997. Some sites have been sampled only once, some as many as three times. See the SCALE Sampling Locations Web page.
In 1997, the Washington State Department of Ecology Marine Sediment Monitoring Team entered into a Cooperative Agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Status and Trends (NS&T) Program, to jointly examine measures of bioeffects associated with toxicants in Puget Sound sediments. This three-year monitoring effort consisted of focused studies throughout Puget Sound (1997 - north sound, 1998 - central sound, 1999 - south sound), with 100 stations being sampled annually using a stratified random sampling approach. Many of these studies span the intertidal into the subtidal.
"The MSMT has conducted the sediment component of the Puget Sound Ambient Monitoring Program (PSAMP) since 1989. On this site you will find a description of our historical (1989-1995), NOAA partnership (1997-1999), long term/temporal (1989 - present), and current spatial/temporal (2002-future) sediment monitoring programs; a description of our Sediment Quality Triad Index; personnel contacts (below on this page); links to monitoring reports; and our downloadable ACCESS data files."
Priority Habitats and Species Program
Washington has identified certain 'critical habitats' that overlap or fall within sandy beach systems. The Priority Habitats and Species Program at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is the lead agency for this matter in Washington. In a practical sense, "critical habitats" are identified in Washington State in two ways. First, they are identified as outright habitats in a broad sense. Secondly, they are identified in association with the needs of priority species (e.g. threatened, endangered, or otherwise at-risk species) for specific types of habitat (nesting, feeding, etc.)
Of the priority habitats, the ones which are found on the coast include:
Priority Habitat: A habitat type with unique or significant value to many species. An area identified and mapped as priority habitat has one or more of the following attributes:
A priority habitat may be described by a unique vegetation type or by a dominant plant species that is of primary importance to fish and wildlife (e.g., oak woodlands, eelgrass meadows). A priority habitat may also be described by a successional stage (e.g., old growth and mature forests). Alternatively, a priority habitat may consist of a specific habitat element (e.g., consolidated marine/estuarine shorelines, talus slopes, caves, snags) of key value to fish and wildlife.
Priority Species: Fish and wildlife species requiring protective measures and/or management guidelines to ensure their perpetuation.
Washington Status: Identifies State Listed or Candidate species (Species of Concern) and species classified as game, food fish, or shellfish. For the latest Species of Concern List, call (360) 902-2515.
Priority Area: Species are often considered a priority only within known limiting habitats (e.g., breeding areas) or within areas that support a relatively high number of individuals (e.g., regular large concentrations). These important areas are identified in the PHS List under the heading Priority Area. For example, great blue herons are often found feeding along shorelines, but they are considered a priority only in areas used for breeding (see criterion 2). If limiting habitats are not known, or if a species is so rare that any occurrence is important in land-use decisions, then the priority area is described as any occurrence.
Priority areas are described with the following terms:
Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is "reserved" for research and education about Puget Sound. Padilla Bay is an estuary at the saltwater edge of the large delta of the Skagit River. It is about eight miles long and three miles across. In 1980, this bay was selected to be included in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.
Because the bay is filled with sediment from the Skagit River, the bottom is very shallow, flat, and muddy. It is so shallow that almost the whole bay is intertidal. This means that it is flooded at high tide. When the tide goes out the whole bay empties out, exposing miles and miles of mud flats. This condition allows unusually large eelgrass meadows to grow. There are nearly 8,000 acres of eelgrass in Padilla Bay. Click to see a habitat map simple version (16KB) or more detailed version (2.5MB).
Eelgrass is valuable because it is habitat for wildlife and commercially harvested animals. Eelgrass is used as a nursery by salmon, crab, perch, and herring. Eelgrass is also home for millions of worms, shrimp, clams, and other invertebrates that are food for great blue herons, eagles, otters, seals, as well as humans. This is why Padilla Bay was selected to be a National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Click here to learn more about estuary plants and animals. Please be patient, this is a large file (1.2MB) and may take a long time to download.
The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve houses a robust ecosystem and one of the largest herring spawning grounds in Puget Sound. Currently, DNR is going through the final steps to incorporate a management plan for this area in order to implement stewardship. Unbelievably, this is where SSA Marine wants to put in a new terminal that Peabody Energy could utilize to export 24 million tons of coal per year. This project would fill in 141 acres of wetlands and impact 11 threatened and endangered species.
In a project described on NOAA's Digital Coast website, researchers are using lidar data to identify low-lying habitat vulnerable to Atlantic cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) colonization. Lidar works by measuring the properties of scattered light to glean information on distant targets. The data, when combined with mathematical models and aerial photography, enable project partners to determine which areas are most likely to host Spartina. This information will help resource managers target Spartina-control efforts.
The Pacific Coast Ecosystem Information System (PCEIS) is a georeferenced database of the native and non-indigenous marine/estuarine species and coastal landscape characteristics for the Pacific Coast. PCEIS will be released as a stand-alone Access database. Version 1, which was scheduled to be completed in FY06, is intended to synthesize the distributions of the estuarine benthic invertebrates and fishes in Oregon, Washington, and California. The current beta version contains over 6000 species.
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 Version 4.0 (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.
Coastal Monitoring and Analysis Program
Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program
Washington Department of Ecology
Supervisor, Coastal and Shorelands Section
Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program
Washington Department of Ecology
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