Most people think of beaches simply as territories for playing volleyball or getting a good tan — not many view them as ecosystems. Through the nonprofit organization Beach Ecology Coalition along with projects in her biology classes, Professor of Biology Karen Martin works to spread the message that beaches aren’t just sandy playgrounds.
“Most people are so used to thinking about things like kelp forests and tide pools as ecosystems with valuable and beautiful places, and they’re not really used to thinking of beaches that way,” Martin said. “Beaches really are quite unique and quite wonderful and full of life, not just humans.”
In January 2004, Martin helped start the Beach Ecology Coalition, which meets twice a year and is comprised of members from San Diego to Santa Barbara, according to Martin.
“We want to balance the human recreation with the wildlife functions of the beaches,” Martin said. “We try and share information about new science that is happening, new kinds of studies that are showing what’s happening with the beaches and what’s happening with plants and animals on the beaches.”
Over the past decade, only 20 or 30 of Martin’s students have gotten involved with the BEC. However, Martin still makes sure the students in her marine biology course (BIOL 450) get a taste of the beach life that is only an arm’s length away.
“There’s a Marine Protected Area (MPA) here in Malibu that was just established a couple years ago,” Martin said. “I have students going out and helping with the monitoring of human activity in these areas. Last semester my marine biology class had that as their service project, and they got a lot of data.”
According to senior Keb Doak, the marine biology class participated in four or five service projects with Heal the Bay — an organization dedicated to protecting marine ecosystems — and monitored human use of different MPAs at nearby beaches, including Point Dume, Zuma Beach, Latigo and El Matador.
“Each report consisted of around four miles of beach walking and marking down human use of different MPAs,” Doak wrote in an email. “By monitoring how humans use the beaches, we can start seeing ways to change the negative human impact on beach ecology. Don’t get me wrong, not all human use of the beach is negative, but some practices can have negative effects.”
Negative effects on beach health include things from garbage to PCH. Doak wrote that littering causes the need for beach raking, destroying certain habitats in the process. Beach armoring, on the other hand, decreases the sizes of beaches through infrastructure (buildings, jungle gyms, freeways, etc.).
“Beach health is one of the key ways that humans can get involved in saving our oceans,” Doak wrote. “We have completely turned our beaches into a place focused on human entertainment and coastal living. We forget that sandy and rocky beaches are some of the most biodiverse areas giving habitat to an incredible amount of species.”
Martin recently received a grant for a new project in which her marine biology students will work with members of the community to study the animals and plants on the beaches.
“I think that more people know about the beaches the more they enjoy them and the more they want to preserve them for the next generations,” Martin said. “Just like anything else, the more you know about it, the more you appreciate it.”
Both Koan and Martin believe the average person can have an influence on the health of beaches.
“With healthy beaches we see healthier intertidal zones, which leads to healthier open ocean areas,” Koan wrote. “The beach is more than just a place to tan or go swimming, but [is also] a place to experience one of the greatest ecosystems comprised of complex biological interactions. Doing a beach cleanup/MPA walk, educating others on beach health or simply just being more cautious of your personal waste on the beach can have profound impacts.”
Martin suggests trying to recognize and encourage the growth of native plants on beaches, along with respecting the sea lions and birds. In the meantime, Martin said she hopes people will take the time to recognize the wildlife on a beach.
“There’s a lot of life out there if you really start looking for it,” Martin said. “You’d be surprised.”
Follow Julia Naman on Twitter: @Julia_Naman