Oceans and Coasts

Five Signs of Health and Hope Along Our Coasts

How You Can Help

Learn five ways you can lend a hand in maintaining healthy beaches for future generations of beachgoers. Download The Nature Conservancy's beach wallet card (pdf).

"A healthy beach is not anchored in one place. Biodiversity will flourish when you allow movement of a beach."

-Marci Bortman, director of conservation programs for the Long Island Chapter

By Madeline Breen

The enormous and iconic Serendipity House in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina held fast to its oceanfront address for over 20 years. Made famous by the romantic movie Nights in Rodanthe (starring Richard Gere), the weathered three-story home was built directly on the beach, perched on stilts dangerously close to the shoreline.

After a powerful nor’easter blew through Hatteras this past winter, however, Serendipity finally met its fate. Instead of looking out at the ocean, the house was now standing in the ocean, with waves swirling beneath it, threatening to wash it out to sea.

As the owners debated what to do about the unstable landmark (demolish it? move it?), media outlets and locals posed a-now obvious question: Was Serendipity built too close to the water’s edge?

If you ask a Nature Conservancy scientist, the answer is a resounding yes. Simply put, a healthy beach is a beach that moves — one that is wild and has room to wander. Coastal development hinders these dynamic ecosystems from migrating freely.  

Lack of development is just one sign of a healthy beach. So before you stock up on sunscreen and load the family into the minivan for your summer beach trip, check out the Conservancy’s top five signs for identifying healthy beaches.

1) Shells and Wildlife

Take a stroll along the shoreline Florida's scenic Topsail Hill Preserve State Park after a storm and what do you see? A healthy beach will reveal a sparkling assortment of seashells that have washed up after the rough waves have settled. From surf clams to ghost crabs, the treasures that surface after a storm reveal the diversity of life hidden in the water.

“My favorite thing to see while beachcombing is the little sandpipers that scamper up and down the line where the waves hit the beach as they search for their daily snack,” says Lynne Hale, global marine director for the Conservancy.

The line of marine debris left over after high tide is a source of food and an important breeding ground for shorebirds, including the endangered piping plover.

2) Natural Sand Dunes

Sand dunes are a coastal community’s lifeguards. These sandy mounds — and their low-growing plants (not to be confused with weeds!) — protect the beaches in front of them and the land behind them.

Running parallel to the shoreline, dunes provide a buffer for our roads and protect infrastructure from floods. They also provide nesting habitat and a sand reserve, which comes in handy after sand shifts as a result of a storm or hurricane.

“There must be enough room behind the beach for the dunes to move landward in the face of storms and sea-level rise,” says Barbara Vickery, director of conservation programs in Maine.

Travel to the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Oregon and you'll find European dunegrass that has been planted and consequently stabilized dunes that were historically much more mobile.

Dick Vander Schaff, coast and marine director in Oregon adds, "the stabilized dunes have sadly been an important factor in the decline of natural dune species like the western snowy plover, a small bird that nests on the beaches that is now a federally listed threatened species."

3) Good Water Quality

If your family has ever encountered a disappointing “No Swimming” sign while vacationing at your favorite beach, ocean pollution is most likely the culprit. In fact, during 2008 alone, visitors experienced 20,341 closings and advisories at U.S. beaches, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The cause? After a heavy rainfall, stormwater can overwhelm sewage systems. That yucky runoff also picks up fertilizer and trash as it flows into the streams and rivers that ultimately spill into our oceans.

NRDC and the Environmental Protection Agency investigate water quality along U.S. coastlines and share that information with the public. Check out NRCD’s site before heading to the beach, and always practice these tips for safe swimming: Select beaches that are regularly tested (you’d be surprised how many aren’t), keep your head above water and avoid swimming the day after a heavy rainfall.

4) No Garbage

It is discouraging to see a beautiful beach littered with plastic bags, soda cans and cigarette butts, but that’s the reality of many recreational beaches. Not only is trash an eyesore, but it also kills marine animals when they ingest it or become entangled.

Littering on the beach is just one part of the problem; people are also dumping trash directly into our waters. In many cases, ships are still illegally dumping into our oceans.

Beaches are the canary in the coal mine, letting us know something is going wrong off-shore,” remarks Barry Truitt, chief conservation scientist for the Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve. “People throw trash overboard on ships and guess what? A lot of it washes up on the beach.”

5) Barrier Islands and Areas Behind Beaches

Tidal mudflats, shallow bays, ponds, lagoons, salt marshes and upland forests all help guard our beaches in the face of severe storms. Appropriately named barrier islands, these narrow strips of land found along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf coast run parallel to the mainland coast and provide a first line of defense for our beaches when a storm hits. In addition to shielding the coast, many barrier islands, including the 14 that comprise the Virginia Coast Reserve, shelter a variety of songbirds and raptors that find food in quiet bays and salt marshes.

“My greatest concern for our coasts goes beyond beaches and encompasses, more holistically, the entire barrier beach and wetlands complex. They are all linked, and necessarily so,” says Tom Chase, director of conservation strategies for Martha's Vineyard.

Everything is connected, and it's important to remember to protect the entire dynamic ecosystem to maintain hope and health along our coasts.