Grooming beaches to rid them of the tons of trash that careless humans leave behind is a necessary evil — but one that compromises the habitat for sand fleas who subsist on kelp, which also feeds flies, which feed shorebirds like plovers and killdeer, and so on and so on. By making beaches too clean, we’re destroying miles upon miles of natural seaside habitat, which compromises an entire ecosystem.
Lest all this cleanliness spell gloom and species doom, there is hope. As Brendan Borrell reports at Hakai Magazine, as part of a beach “rewilding” project in Santa Monica, groomers have been fenced out of a stadium soccer-field sized section. The patch was then seeded with natural plant species such as beach evening primrose and sand verbena to promote the formation of dune hummocks. The good news? The first western snowy plover LA has seen in 70 years has already taken up residence. Here’s to you, l’il birb.
Jenifer Dugan, a biologist with the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has found that beach hoppers, 14-legged “garbage” cleaners that thrive on wrack, have been disappearing from the coastline. “What habitat is disturbed as much as those beaches in Santa Monica?” she asks. “No agricultural practice disturbs the fields twice a day.”
On ungroomed beaches and other areas with little human impact, beach hoppers’ population can reach 100,000 individuals for every meter of beach. And on each meter of beach, they’ll devour 20 kilograms of wrack each month. “The kelp gets vaporized!” says Dugan, who has watched it happen. But when the beach hoppers, isopods, and other invertebrates that subsist on the wrack disappear, shorebirds also go hungry. That’s why barren beaches in California lose birds like killdeer and the endangered western snowy plover. Grooming can also destroy the eggs of the grunion, an unusual fish that lays its eggs in the sand at high tide.
In December 2016, the Bay Foundation, in partnership with the City of Santa Monica, erected a wooden sand fence on this section of the beach—a little larger than a stadium-sized soccer field—to keep the groomers out and encourage the formation of dune hummocks. Next, the organization seeded the sand with native plants, including primrose and sand verbena. These plants had been largely extirpated from the Los Angeles region until this project began. Remarkably, within four months of planting those seeds and putting up the fences, Los Angeles County also got its first western snowy plover nest in more than 70 years.
Over the next several years, Johnston says, these dunes could grow to be up to a meter high, providing protection from coastal storms, and they will keep pace as sea level rises in the face of climate change. Importantly, the restoration area is open to beachgoers—one side has no fence. “One of the goals was to see if a project that was a real benefit to the ecosystem and to wildlife could also benefit people,” she says. Visitors can throw their blankets on the dunes and relax in a more natural environment than near the pier amid the thrumming crowds. Interpretative signs teach them about the local flora and fauna.