Most Caribbean beaches are naturally dynamic. To protect municipal and commercial investments, such as major roadways and beachfront hotels, from cycles of erosion and accretion, beach stabilization typically involves the use of breakwaters, jetties, impermeable groynes and/or seawalls. However, these structures are expensive and can be less effective in the long term than certain alternatives, such as the use of construction setbacks. Moreover, because they interfere with the natural longshore transport of sediment, the armoring of one beach segment often results in the “starvation” and eventual loss of other beaches down-current.
According to COSALC experts in the Caribbean Sea, “One of the dominant characteristics of beaches is their constant changes in form, shape and sometimes the very material of which they are composed. The best way to conserve beaches is to allow them the space to move – in a seaward direction when sand is building up (accretion) and in a landward direction during erosion phases. The prudent use of coastal development setbacks or establishing a safe distance between buildings and the active beach zone can ensure that space is provided for a beach to move naturally, both during normal events and infrequent hurricanes, thereby ensuring the beach is conserved for all to enjoy and that coastal infrastructure remains intact.”
Coastal armoring structures can hinder sea turtle reproduction by limiting access to suitable nest sites because egg-laden females cannot reach favorable habitat above the high-tide mark due to barricades and sea walls. On some beaches, stabilizing structures have inhibited all sea turtle nesting activity. The disruption of the sand distribution cycle also impacts other sea-life; for example, armoring alters coastal currents, influencing algae density and distribution.
National planning legislation should adopt a strong stance regarding setbacks for beachfront development and require mixed species vegetated buffer zones between built facilities and sandy beach platforms. Setbacks not only help to protect coastal properties from storm damage, but lessen the likelihood that local residents will be excluded from the beach, increase the probability that artificial lighting will not shine directly on the beach, and benefit endangered sea turtles.
Want to Know More?
UNESCO-CSI, Coastal Erosion (including publications on coastal development and setback guidelines for Caribbean nations, as well as strategies and “wise practices” for coping with beach erosion)
UNESCO-CSI, Coping with Beach Erosion (determine your “Vulnerability Index”, see Chapter 2 and Appendix I)
NOAA, Shoreline Management (Alternatives to Hardening the Shore)
Western Carolina University, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (including reports and documents on coastal hazards, beach nourishment, beach preservation, and beach stabilization)
Surfrider Foundation, Shoreline Structures (including an overview of the issue, environmental impacts and policy responses)
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