Yes we do love to be beside the seaside. Wild it can be, but for holiday purposes those of us who are relatively well-heeled prefer it to be domesticated, and so we import urban comforts and infrastructure, profoundly altering the nature of the coast.

Developing coastal lands into holiday and residential centres has far reaching consequences. The sad paradox is that by loving nature and wanting to be in it we can damage it, and in the process irretrievably lose what attracted us in the first place.

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A recent visit to a coastal area of the Western Cape, South Africa, made me think about the ongoing suburbanisation and taming of the seaside

Seaside infrastructural development severely modifies natural habitats, and the consequent increase in the numbers of people places huge pressures on the environment. In addition to the proliferation of buildings, roads and traffic, pressures include an ever growing demand for water, and the burden of disposing of household waste and sewage.

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Coastal development – an environmental balancing act

A 2014 Australian report (Victorian Coastal Council) on population growth in coastal areas gets to the nub of the dilemma:  “Our passion for the coast creates ongoing and increasing pressures on the very aesthetic, cultural and environmental values we love”.

The report sums up consequences of rapid development in coastal areas:  “Coastal growth can lead to biodiversity and habitat loss, water degradation in coastal waters, wetlands, lakes and rivers, coastal habitat loss, damage to wetlands, the introduction of pest plants and animals, coastal erosion, destruction of coastal ecosystems, loss of cultural heritage, conversion of productive agricultural land and impacts on scenic coastal landscapes, views and vistas”. 

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The report also notes social consequences: “Socially, it can lead to pressures on the particular values and character of coastal areas and settlements – the very reason people choose to move to or visit a place. This pressure is particularly intense in coastal areas experiencing rapid growth and gentrification. It can also lead to community instability associated with a high turnover of residents. In settlements that experience high levels of tourism and high ratios of second home owners to permanent residents, these impacts can be more pronounced”.

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Tourists may regard small fishing vessels as picturesque, but families in communities that survive largely through small-scale fishing are generally marginalised in the gentrification processes of seaside resort development. (My spouse took this photo – pushing the zoom lens to its limit produced an unexpected painterly effect.)

Further to the expansion of infrastructure, recreational activities at the beach also impact on wildlife, vegetation and waterways. Disturbance, displacement and trampling all do their damage. Perhaps we can consciously try to minimise such intrusions.

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Leave only footprints 

Many shorebirds nest on the ground. For instance, the White-fronted Plover nests in a scrape it makes in the ground above the high-water mark. During the day, nesting adult birds need to protect eggs and chicks from the heat of the sun, and should parent birds be frightened off their nests the heat from the sun can kill the eggs or chicks within a very short space of time.

Data collected by Shorebird Research working through the Nature’s Valley Trust (NVT) in beach areas in the Garden Route on the southern coast showed that plovers will leave their nests when approached at a distance of about 30 metres and will only return to the nest when the threat is at least 30 metres away, so if a visitor lingers in the vicinity, the bird will not return to its nest. On a hot summer day an egg can overheat in five minutes.

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A White-fronted Plover on a popular beach. The number of White-fronted Plovers in the Western Cape has dropped dramatically over recent decades, more so in open-access areas popular with beach visitors. Across its range the population of these plovers has dropped by 40-60% over the last 30 years

Information gathered on White-fronted Plovers during the research process at Nature’s Valley led to the #Share our Shores campaign, which spreads awareness of threats to shorebirds. Signs erected at beaches indicate the proximity of nests and where dogs can be walked off leash, on a leash only, or where dogs are not allowed at all. Visitors are advised to walk near the waterline and avoid the dunes. Such simple measures can protect nests.

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At the beach dogs should be kept close to the water line and under control to reduce disturbance to shorebirds, including birds nesting on the beach above the high water mark and in the dunes

The public awareness campaign and dog-walking regulations at Nature’s Valley have made a positive impact on the breeding success of the White-fronted Plovers. Researchers compared data from the 2017/2018 breeding seasons to data from previous seasons. The data showed an increase in breeding success from 10.6% (2015/2016) to 14.3% (2017/2018) on one beach, and 8.6% (2014/2015) to 30.5% (2017/2018) on another. (For more information on this project, including a video, see here)

The peak breeding season for many shorebirds is in summer, which coincides with the peak holiday season. Recreational activities at beaches often disturb breeding birds. Beach driving by off-road vehicles poses a particular threat as in addition to frightening parents away from nests, vehicles churn up the sand, run over nests and kill fledglings hiding in the tracks. Fortunately beach driving has been banned in many regions.

The ban on beach driving is thought to have contributed to an increase in the breeding success of the African Black Oystercatcher, a species that occurs only in southern Africa. Another contributing factor to their improved breeding success is the end of guano collecting (in the 1980s) on offshore islands where about 30% of African Black Oystercatchers are found.

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The status of the African Black Oystercatcher has recently been recorded as ‘least concern’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, whereas previously it was classified as ‘near threatened’

Another factor in the increase in the population of these oystercatchers is the spread of the invasive non-indigenous mussel Mytilus galloprovincialis, which has increased the level of food available to these birds.

Despite threats to African Black Oystercatchers, which include coastal development and natural predation, a relatively good-news story is that the population of these slow-breeding shorebirds has increased by 30% since the 1980s, indicating that conservation interventions, such as banning beach driving, can have a positive effect.


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Another shorebird, the Whimbrel is a non-breeding migrant to southern Africa, with most birds here migrating from eastern Russia and Siberia where breeding takes place. Although numbers are declining, the decline is not as rapid as for some other migrating shorebirds

Generally the plight of shorebirds is not encouraging. A recent article in the New York Times, titled ‘Shorebirds, the world’s greatest travellers face extinction’ speaks of the decline in shorebirds worldwide as a conservation crisis. The main factors in the dramatic decline in recent decades are climate change, coastal development, the destruction of wetlands, and hunting. For fascinating accounts of the incredible migrations of shorebirds, and distressing information about the threats that they face you can read the article here. Just as these birds depend for their survival on “the shorelines of oceans, estuaries, rivers, lakes, lagoons and marshes”, so do we.  It is argued in the article that the decline of shorebirds points to “a systemic crisis that demands our attention, for our own good”.

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Coastal development also impacts on natural coastal vegetation and on the wildlife it harbours. Coastal biodiversity is under ongoing threat

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Waterways are vulnerable to pollution. Infrastructural development can threaten the health and even the existence of wetlands and waterways

Posing questions is much easier than finding answers. In the face of the bigger questions, perhaps it is self-indulgent to think that small actions by individuals can add up to anything meaningful?

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Who should be entitled to a sea view?

Sources: Fitzpatrick, John W. & Senner, Nathan R. 2018. Shorebirds, the world’s greatest travellers face extinction. New York Times, April 27.; IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2017. Haematopus moquini (African Black Oystercatcher, African Oystercatcher); Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. 2015. Biennial Report 2013-2014.;  Nature’s Valley Trust (NVT). Shorebird Research Anthropogenic disturbance on shore breeding birds.; Victorian Coastal Council. State of Victoria. 2014. Population and Growth: Victoria has experienced unprecedented population growth along the coast

Posted by Carol

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