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People and shorebirds flock to beaches

March 29, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Let’s face it, people love to spend time on sandy beaches.  We love the combination of sun, sand, and water.  In the United States, travel and tourism is the nation’s largest industry, employer and foreign revenue earner, and beaches are the leading tourist destination.  Each year 180 million Americans make 2 billion visits to beaches – more than twice as many as to all national and state parklands combined.  The revenue generated by these visits is greater than the combined export value of agricultural grains, aircraft, computers, and telecommunications equipment.  The revenue supports one in every ten jobs in the country and represents the economic foundation of many coastal communities.    

Several species of migratory shorebirds depend on beaches for a portion of their annual cycle.  For some, beaches along the Atlantic Coast represent terminal refueling sites where shorebirds must forage to build up the energy reserves needed to make their final flight to arctic breeding grounds.  Many of these species are sensitive to human disturbance.  Human activities may force them from beaches to less profitable foraging areas, may alter their foraging behavior or foraging times and ultimately reduce food intake and energy storage.  For some species, human and shorebird use of beaches is not compatible.  Our love and use of the beach effectively renders extensive swaths of the coastline off-limits to some shorebird species.

Beaches along the south Atlantic Coast of North America are critical to both the regional economy and to migratory shorebirds.  How to accommodate these two important user groups is one of the great conservation challenges faced by coastal land managers.  During the springs of 2011 and 2012, CCB conducted aerial surveys of the entire coast of North Carolina to evaluate the interrelationship between human use of beaches, beach ownership, and shorebird distribution during the spring staging period.  A paper focusing on the federally threatened red knot titled “The influence of land ownership on the density of people and staging red knot on the coast of North Carolina” is being published in the journal Wader Study.  North Carolina is particularly well suited for this investigation because in recent decades the outer coast has reached “terminal build out,” where more than 98% of the coastline is either privately owned and developed or owned by government agencies focused on natural resources.  There is virtually no remaining opportunity for conservation acquisition. 

Land ownership had a dramatic influence of the distribution of both red knots and people.  Average knot density was more than four-fold higher on government compared to privately-owned lands.  Conversely, human density along the shoreline was more than ten-fold higher on private lands compared to government lands.  Along the coast of North Carolina, private lands include resort hotels that support extreme human densities and residential developments that support permanent residents or vacation rentals.  More than 80% of knots surveyed occurred on shoreline segments that supported less than five people per kilometer of shoreline.  These conditions were most frequently found on government lands with active beach closures.  Migrant red knots appear to benefit from beach closures imposed to protect nesting piping plovers and sea turtles.

For coastal landscapes that have reached terminal build out, some of the best opportunities for red knot conservation revolves around managing human behavior and access to critical sites on government-owned lands.  This may include seasonal closures of the most critical sites, limiting the number of access points to less critical sites and providing education system-wide to change human behavior during critical times of the year.  A great challenge will be to strike an appropriate balance between access that may be important for local economies and restrictions that are essential to shorebird conservation.   

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