A new method for monitoring urban beach ecosystems

Focus Areas Current Projects > A new method for monitoring urban beach
Karen Martin, Pepperdine University
Jenny Dugan, University of California Santa Barbara

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Project Description:

USC Sea Grant has funded a project to develop and test an ecological monitoring approach suitable for use by citizen scientists on urban beaches in California. The goal is to see if citizen scientists, after proper training, can collect high quality, repeatable, valid, time-series data on ecosystem components of urban beaches over appropriate time scales, and across geographically diverse sites that allow scientists and managers to improve the understanding and evaluation of the condition of sandy beach ecosystems in southern California.

Along Southern California’s coastline, urban beaches are important open spaces cherished by a diverse population. The urban beach is an iconic cultural asset, a signature coastal setting for human recreation, and the source of billions of dollars in economic revenue (Pendleton et al., 2001). Sandy beaches worldwide are vital to coastal economies, and visited by a global public including residents and tourists of all backgrounds and all ages (Klein et al., 2004). For the public, urban beaches are the most frequently visited marine ecosystem; there are over 150 million visits to California beaches annually worth billions of dollars (Pendleton and Kildow, 2006).

Traditionally managed as recreational areas and monitored to protect human health and safety, urban sandy beaches are also important natural coastal ecosystems that make up nearly 80% of the open coastline of Southern California (Smith et al 1976), and are vital to the survival of many animal and plant species (Straughan, 1982; James, 2000, Dugan et al 2003). Yet, most visitors are unaware of the critical role of beaches in plant and animal life cycles, and the unique biodiversity they support.

Additionally, little data exists to evaluate natural variation in sandy beach ecosystems. The lack of information on ecological conditions and functions of urban beaches in Southern California impedes planning for conservation of these important coastal ecosystems to insure resilience. More data on the ecological condition of beaches in Southern California are urgently needed to address current and future pressures on these narrow fringing coastal ecosystems. Enhancing broader recognition of beaches as important and sensitive coastal ecosystems is crucial to conserving the biodiversity and wildlife that depend on them and the vital ecological functions beaches provide.

This project will develop and test an ecological monitoring approach suitable for use by citizen scientists on urban beaches in California. This will generate new knowledge and critically needed information on the ecological condition of sandy beaches, and will provide the potential for comparison of ecosystems status and trends among beaches and over time, allowing improved evaluation of effects of environmental impacts and restoration projects on this important coastal ecosystem.

2016 Project Updates:

The project has shown that it is possible to develop and implement a protocol for sandy beach monitoring by trained volunteer citizen scientists. A field guide was produced, a project web site for outreach was developed and posted online (www.AllAshore.org) including a web portal for data acquisition and database management, and a large number of financial and non-financial partners have been made to continue the project and expand the scope of the monitoring in the future. 

Preliminary data analysis indicates the species richness, abundance, and biomass of the intertidal community are significantly lower on urban compared to natural beaches. The composition of the intertidal community also differs significantly, with extensive loss of endemic beach taxa and only a small subset of what appear to be resilient species remaining on urban beaches. 

Data collected to date is being prepared for scientific publication and suggests that urbanization profoundly impacts biodiversity and function of sandy beach ecosystems. 

A mobile app is under construction for field identification of common beach animals, plants, and ecosystem features:

For more information on this project, contact Phyllis Grifman, Associate Director

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  • USC Sea Grant
  • 3454 Trousdale Pkwy, CAS 200
  • Los Angeles, CA 90089-0373
  • (213) 740 - 1961
  • seagrant@usc.edu